Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Posts tagged ‘Ph.D. in science’

Choosing an Advisor: Choosing Wisely

indiana-jones-last-crusade-grailRemember that scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade when he makes it through all the trials to the room full of “Holy Grail” cups? When the old knight who kept watch on everything tells them to choose a cup and cautions them to “choose wisely,” and the Nazi totally screws up and picks the prettiest cup, and he basically melts into a puddle of Nazi-scum. Then the knight says, obviously, “He chose poorly.” Then Indie comes along and chooses an ugly, small, little cup, and he drinks and is fine, and Capt. Obvious lauds Indie for choosing wisely? Why am I bringing this up? Because, you need to choose wisely when choosing an advisor. There are many time points when you will choose an advisor including undergraduate, graduate, and postdoc. Interactions with your advisor can make your job a joy or a living hell. So, choosing wisely is very important.

I was asked to write this post months ago, and I went out to a number of students and postdocs to get their opinions. Unfortunately for you, dear readers, none of them responded. So, you will have to hear my personal opinions. Maybe by writing things, some of which they may or may not agree with, they will be prodded into the act of writing? Maybe not.

OK, so here are my *pearls of wisdom* for you.

  1. Work-Life Balance. If you want to have work-life balance, make sure that the advisor you pick has work-life balance.  If they do not, they will not allow you to have it. Warning – just being a woman or having kids does not mean the person has work-life balance. My first time out, I picked an advisor who was a woman with a kid, and she had no concept of work-life balance. She was also very unsympathetic toward people without children trying to have work-life balance (see this recent post). She felt like people without kids should just work all the time.
  2. Type of criticism. Science is critical. See this post about taking criticism (post). Different advisors deliver critique in different ways. You need to find one that you can tolerate. Advisors are like coaches. You should see them that way. Like a coach or piano teacher, they will always find something wrong, even when you do it great. There is always room for improvement in science – especially when you are still learning. But, if someone delivers the criticism in a way you cannot tolerate, you will have a very hard time taking it.
  3. Time to degree/completion & post-job placement. How long is it going to take for you to get your Ph.D? How fast did previous students graduate? Do they have one paper? Several papers? What do they do when they leave the lab? Do they get good jobs? Do postdocs get jobs as faculty, if that is what they want? Do they go to industry? Where? Do grad students get good postdocs? Do undergrads go to good grad schools?
  4. Funding. Some people put this as the most important thing. I agree that if you have to TA the entire time as a grad student, it will limit how fast you can get your thesis done. And, if a person doesn’t have money for a postdoc, they obviously can’t hire you for one. The advisor needs to be successful at getting funding. Will they train you at getting funding yourself (fellowships or scholarships)?
  5. Resources. Funding is one type of resource, but are there other resources available? Is there time on the equipment? Or too few instruments to get on to do your experiments? Is there money to go to conferences? What about other knowledge or skills? What happens when the advisor wants to do learn something new? Do they let you flounder? Or send you to learn it from another lab?
  6. Other students. To me, this is the most important thing to do when visiting a lab. You must talk to the current students about the lab. They will likely be very frank with you about what they like and dislike. How happy are they? Do they have work-life balance? What do they not like about the advisor? When trying to decide about an advisor, I would definitely try to have lunch with the people already in the lab to see how they like the advisor. Ask about how the advisor gives criticism? How well other previous students have done with finding jobs after? How well is the lab managed for resources? Is there enough equipment? The right equipment? If you have to do something new, does the advisor let people flounder? How are new skills brought into the lab? How are the lab meetings run? Do people cry or get upset often? How does the advisor handle conflict in the lab? Avoidance? Do they micromanage? Does the advisor listen to complaints and criticism themselves? How does the lab operate? How do they give instruction? How do they set expectations? What is the make-up of the lab? How many undergrads, grad students, postdocs? I recommend having a list of questions for the lab members and making sure they answer all your questions.
  7. Advisors are not perfect. They make mistakes. If you found someone who is genuinely interested in your development as a scientist, they will probably still have a lot of other aspects you don’t like. As they say in the Muppet Movie, “peoples is peoples.” To me, that means that everyone has strengths and weaknesses. You are not entitled to a perfect advisor. Nobody is perfect. You are entitled to a certain level of respect and civility from your advisor. You are also entitled to expectations being set. You are entitled to progressive discipline if you make a mistake. The advisor is also entitled to respect because they have achieved a lot to make it to the professoriate. They are able to fire you if you are insubordinate – not even a union can protect you, if you do not do what is asked of you.
  8. How to work with a difficult advisor. I should write a whole post about this – hell, I should write a whole book about this – and I probably will someday. Let’s be honest, even good advisors can say and do stupid shit that pisses you off and is disrespectful. I apologize for anything I have ever done like this, and I know I have done it. If the advisor is mostly good, you can forgive these transgressions.  If you are having a hard time with your advisor, I suggest speaking to them in private about what is bothering you. But, you don’t want to come off as entitled or complaining. I suggest trying to come up with a solution and bring that to the meeting, as well as your complaint. Believe me, I have tried other things, and this works best. It can be hard to do, because they have power over you, in the form of your letter for future jobs. It can also be hard because many advisors have egos and some are really big egos. A bad advisor will not care what you think or have a problem with regarding the lab or his/her management style. A good advisor will consider your words, and see if it is anything that can be done (sometimes there is nothing that can be changed). But, letting something that is bothering you go and fester can make everything worse. Also, remember that your advisor is not thinking about you all the time. Remember, professors have all-consuming jobs, so they really cannot and should not be thinking about you all the time. So, return the favor, and don’t worry about what they think about you all the time. This will help your relationship.

Notice what isn’t on my list? Science. Because, basically, I think the type of science you do is irrelevant. Yet, when I talk to grad students, they often say the most important thing is the science that is being done in the research group. I think this is very wrong headed. Why? Because there is usually more than one person in each field doing interesting science in that field. Chances are that some of the people in the field will be BigShots with lots of money, students, and postdocs. Some of these BigShots are amazing advisors. (Yes, they do exist! I can think of several in my field.) If you get one of those, you have hit the jackpot! Sadly, many BigShots are crappy advisors. They suck in, chew up, and spit out students like it is their job (when actually, it is part of their job to advise and help the next generation of scientists succeed).  There are also lots of little guys out there, doing good science, plugging away, and often in desperate need of smart, dedicated, and hard working students. They also often care deeply about mentoring and advising. As long as they have the resources for you to succeed, you can do great things at these smaller groups. Finally, I think there are so many great, interesting science questions out there, and you can make advances on anything. Grad school is about learning how to do a long project, so you need to go to a lab that will teach you those skills. But, I’m not sure you need a paper in Science or Nature to learn those skills.

In my time, I have picked several advisors, and I have chosen poorly and chosen wisely. The thing I was most surprised about was that many professors have big egos. Now, I am a faculty member, and students make decisions about me. I’m not exactly sure how to convince them that I am worth the risk. I have been successful with students graduating in a timely manner (five years) with several papers with mostly full funding. But, alas, they often do not care about such mundane, practical matters, despite the fact that it will affect them every single day of their lives in grad school.

I am sure there are lots of things I have forgotten to add, but these are the things I thought of first. Hopefully some other people will help by writing, too. If you have a blog post, feel free to send it to me to post. I hope to hear from you! If you want to get an email each time I post, push the +Follow button.

Advice for International Students

chemistryTis the season for graduate admissions. Many of the applicants at UniversityofState (UState) where I am a faculty member are foreign. Some of these clearly have a lot of coaching and help, but others are clearly lacking. So, I have asked an International WomanOfScience for some advice on getting to US schools and ultimately an academic position from your CountryOfOrigin. Enjoy! (Remember, you can get email updates by pushing the +Follow button).

About me: I got my B.S. in Physics at a small-ish university in a warm foreign country. While an undergraduate, I participated in two summer research programs in the U.S., and I spent one year as an exchange student at a prestigious university in the midwest where I was also involved in undergraduate research. I attended graduate school in a very cold state, and I am now an Assistant Professor at a primarily undergraduate institution in the U.S.

As an international Science student, you should follow the same advice given to all students: keep up your grades and get involved in undergraduate research.

Two of the main challenges international students have in being admitted to graduate school in the U.S. are that the admissions committee may have a hard time judging the quality of the undergraduate institution you attended, and grades may be reported differently on transcripts. The best way to show the admissions committee that you can be a successful graduate student in the U.S. is to prove that you can be a successful undergraduate student in the U.S. Look for opportunities to come to the U.S. as an undergraduate for a summer or a semester. There are few summer research experiences open to non-U.S. citizens or residents, but they do exist. For example, there is the Internship for Physics Majors at Fermilab. Your home university may also have exchange programs, where you can spend a summer, a semester, or a year abroad. Even if you are part of a language program (like an ESL program) it may be possible to take a Science or Math class (it never hurts to ask!). If you do well in this class you will have demonstrated you are a capable student, and you could then ask the instructor for a letter of recommendation. A program like this has the added benefit of allowing you to figure out if you would enjoy living in the U.S. before you commit to coming here for 5 or more years.

PLAN AHEAD. It may take longer to gather all of the necessary materials for your application:

TranscriptsSome (most?) U.S. institutions will require an official translation of your transcript. At the university I attended, this took quite a long time (4 – 6 weeks).

The TOEFL, GRE and GRE subject tests: Depending on where you live, you may have to travel to a major city to take these tests, and they may not be offered very often. Thus, it is very important that you register early and plan your trip so that you can take the tests before the deadline for graduate school applications.

Paying for Application Processing:Some institutions in the U.S. charge an application fee and some do not. Most of the institutions that charge an application fee accept major credit cards. It is worth calling your bank and inquiring about the currency exchange rate and any extra fees for foreign transactions.

Other costs:In Science, most graduate schools will offer you a teaching assistantship, research assistantship, or fellowship, that will cover your tuition, health insurance, and provide a (small) salary. Make sure you understand exactly what each university is offering and how your salary compares to the cost of living. In addition to moving costs, you will probably have to put one or two month’s deposit down to rent an apartment, there might be university fees that are not covered as part of your “tuition,” and co-pays or a deductible on your health insurance. Also, some U.S. cities have very good public transportation, but others do not, which makes it difficult to live without a car.

VISA issues:These have been numerous in my case. It is probably best to contact the university’s International Student office and/or your local U.S. embassy. You should also try to understand as much about the system and the laws as possible – don’t trust that all of the advice you get is good, or even correct. Once you are in the U.S. make sure you take originals and copies of all relevant documents with you when you travel abroad.

The hidden curriculum:Your goal in graduate school should be not only to master a particular sub-field and conduct original research, but also to become a professional in your field. You need to think ahead to what you want to do after graduate school and look for opportunities that will help get you there. For example, if you want to go into industry, an internship could give you valuable experience and contacts. If you want to go into academia, your university might have a program that helps graduate students and post-docs explore and prepare for possible career paths (research institution vs. liberal arts vs. community college). You should try to regularly attend conferences, both locally (like your state’s Association of Science Teachers) and nationally. In any case, you will need letters of recommendation from several faculty members, so be well-prepared when it is your turn to present a seminar, be on-time for meetings and classes, and when you say you are going to do something, DO IT! In other words, treat graduate school like you would a job and behave professionally.

Culture Shock: There will certainly be differences between your own culture and american culture that you will need to be aware of, but there is also a culture to your particular field. What I found most helpful in graduate school in this regard was mentoring from other graduate students that were a few years ahead of me. If there is a graduate student group at your institution, make time to go to events and meetings, talk to the other students there about their experiences, and ask for advice.

What did I miss? Feel free to post questions in the comments.

I hope you found that post helpful! I am sure this WomenOfScience would be happy to answer questions in posts, so feel free to ask here. Thanks again for that insightful post.

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