Advice to Graduate Advisors

Preamble:   People need constructive feedback to improve their art. While being the most qualified, grad students are unable to give feedback on the quality of mentorship due to reliance on advisors for letters of recommendation and financial support. This is unfortunate because a lot of time, money, resources, and grad students are lost simply because communication is closed. Still, I am going to brave the storm. This is my experience and those of my fellow grads, not just in my lab but in labs across the US (I have friends with advanced degrees everywhere). I framed it as a personal letter because I really want it to reach into advisors.


To My Advisor, 

As a leader, a mentor, a guide, as someone who is going to change my life, there are some things I need you to consider, some things I need you to do and be aware of.

 Do you ever find yourself thinking: What’s going on in my lab? Where are my lazy idiot students? Where’s that data? Why aren’t they graduated yet? Why’s my lab a mess? These are just symptoms, here are the real problems.

 The dysfunctional lab

Is your lab a mess, running out of stuff constantly, reagents are missing, equipment broken…etc? Ask your grads, “who is in charge of X?”. They will answer, I don’t know. Clear authority/duties, directly named by you, are necessary to make sure lab runs smoothly. Who gathers the lab needs list? Who keeps the computers in working order? Just like in a house, some things will just eventually need cleaning/organizing (not someone’s specific mess). Who is responsible for this? If you take this as your own authority, then don’t be angry that the lab is a mess and you have to say something – that is what you are asking for! If you do give a person authority for a task, make it official by saying it at a lab meeting AND have a means to support their authority for instances of non-compliance. I know specific people who REFUSE to clean, or do anything that doesn’t directly help them, and who ignore the requests from other students. The selfishness, lack of accountability, and lack of rewards for those who take the time for others, creates a hostile/back-biting atmosphere which fosters neglect and sabotage (this happens!).

Also, have clear expectations. There’s no reason to result to passive-aggressive sticky notes or emails if things are bothering you. If you find yourself getting annoyed at something a student/students are/aren’t doing: 1. let them know what you expect from them. 2. make sure there isn’t anything hindering them from doing this by asking them. For example, you may want them to keep records of their work, but they may be doing something difficult to record (eg. bioinformatics) and not know what to put. Students will have different strengths and weaknesses. If one of their weaknesses is one of your peeves, as a mentor, you may have to work closely with them several times a week for months to build up that strength. Just like exercising – not all people are natural athletes and will need coaching.

 My grad student is a dud

During meetings, you likely become hostile/ frustrated when a person doesn’t understand your statement/question. You may find yourself repeating what you said, or belittling them saying “you don’t read enough” or “use your brain”. This is really unconstructive. They either honestly don’t know, which continuing to assault them with questions won’t help, or they are not sure what your are trying to get at, which means your question isn’t direct enough. Take a breath and rephrase.

As far as journals reading goes: did you bother to go over the information in the journal with them? We only remember 10% of what we read, but 70% of what we read and discuss. It is good to give ‘tough-love’ by challenging us intellectually when talking science during meetings, but this is not something to be done in a constant “I’m smarter than you” ego-stroking way, and not during seminars! That’s not their purpose. Seminars are for improving communication and getting input about a project from the greater scientific community. Sometimes grads will become lazy, not reading enough journals or working in lab, and will need a talking to. This is something that needs to happen in your office, again not during a presentation.

If they come to you, and you get into a conflict, but you don’t have time. Just tell them that you are under time constraints and will meet with them later at X time. If they say it is urgent, something actually IMPORTANT they are doing right now, and you can’t easily come to agreement, this is a symptom of a greater problem. You either didn’t know they were running a tricky/expensive experiment or you weren’t clear with them on the protocol and how to deal with problems before starting. There was too little communication and engagement between both of you. This too little communication likely has roots in them not feeling they can come to you, and you need to root out why and be open to the answer knowing you probably won’t like it.

 The vanishing grad student

You have vastly more experience and knowledge. When a student does something incorrect (eg. preparing a lab with the wrong type of plastic tubes), it is not stupidity, it is a lack of knowledge. Graduate STUDENTS are still learning. Calling a graduate student stupid for anything less than life-endangering mindlessness simply encourages the hiding of mistakes, and ensures that a student will avoid communicating with you in the future. Name calling, berating, accusations, passive aggressive communication, yelling are unacceptable and supremely harmful, your grad student will begin to withdraw from you and lab.

Without regular communication from them, you may feel like they are hiding something from you, keeping you in the dark. The resulting avoidance is not them hiding something from you, it is them hiding themselves from you. Your suspicious and confrontational attitude puts students further on the defensive, causes them to distance themselves even more (possibly to the point that they come into work when you are not present). This vanishing graduate student may give you the impression that the student is lazy, since you never see them in lab. So much research fails, so it is easy to feel like a failure, and having an advisor that has no apparent faith in a student’s ability puts them into depression/discouraged mode. This makes a student not WANT to work, they cease to care anymore, and progress slows or completely stops. If you are negative to them and they are negative towards you, like the same poles of two magnets, you will repel rather than working together.

 Will they ever graduate?!

So much time is wasted in grad school for no reason. Here’s some noticeable areas needing improvement for all science advisors. NEVER assume that if you tell one grad student something, the other grad students know. A lot can happen between you telling someone a general practice/request, and that grad student seeing all the other students, so the message gets lost. Email/tell everyone if it is important. Make sure BOTH do’s AND don’ts go into the SOPs! You know it. Your CURRENT grads know it. But next year, or 5 years from now, those grads won’t know it. They’ll waste their time doing something that doesn’t work, or making a common mistake (using the wrong _ to do _) that causes possibly weeks (or in my case, half a year) of work to fail.

Grad students often dig and dig, futilely trying all sorts of things, not recognizing the gems and wasting effort, gathering piles of data that may require more time to sort than it did to make. Women especially have a hard time with “good enough”, and will keep trying to get that r-squared value from 0.96 to 0.99 for months. Some times you have to step in and say “all you need to do is X”. While this may seem like coddling, once they see how “good enough” becomes really good when combined with other work in the big picture they will start to reign themselves in. You will save a lot of time and resources if you cut your student off and say it doesn’t have to be perfect, just accurate and replicable.

Sometimes interesting things that pop-up will sidetrack the student, and sometimes these tracks are whole new dissertations projects themselves. If you have a wandering student, who may get lost in the forest of research questions, you may need to give them a little structure in their research. Help them focus on getting X done this week by doing X protocol. Remind the student/clarify what steps specifically need to be done to be “done”, or else they may spend years longer in grad school than they need to and burn out.

 Leading by good interactions

You should regularly be asking yourself “am I too hands-off or am I micromanaging?”, because you are likely doing one or the other. This seems to be the most noticeable problem with graduate advisors, and is a near-universal leadership problem. Hopefully just being conscious of how you are managing your students will prevent the extremes of sheer neglect or harassment. Some students will need more/less guidance and they may not know which they need, so just be aware:

–          If you don’t show them how to steer the ship, don’t complain when you don’t reach port!

–          If you grab the wheel from the driver, you’ll likely crash the car.

Ask students how THEY are doing, not just their research. Take an interest. They will be more engaged with you and the lab if you engage with them. In a few years they will be your colleagues, people who will work in your field, sit on grant panels, recommend students or jobs…etc. How do you want them to remember you? Interpersonal skills aren’t usually the mark of a scientist, so like any skill, it will take practice. When a student does something clever, or does good solid work, tell them you think so. Positive work environments are more productive.  If a student seems to be floundering: be supportive – tell them that you know they are capable individuals. Also, guide them: if they are spinning their wheels, work out a solid plan to overcome the hurdle. This is your chance to use those years of experience. And as burgeoning scientists, they will ask why you recommend doing something a particular way, this is not a threat to your intellect, they are just trying to learn!

 In conclusion:

Maybe the advisor reading this doesn’t do any of the unskillful things mentioned here, but can you really be sure…? Just please remember:

–          Your grads WANT to make you HAPPY. You are their lifeline to a job, to contacts, to skills they will need to succeed in their career.

–          As the leader and role-model, you set the tone of the lab. Do you want friendliness and cooperation, or distance, passive-aggressiveness, and self-interest?

–          Not all students will be focused, self-directed, and helpfully considerate. Some will need encouragement, focus, direction, and even discipline. Still, if you take the time to work with these less-than-perfect students, they may become awesome and be allies to you long beyond their time in your lab.