Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Posts tagged ‘working with others’

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.

Why I Love Undergraduate Research

IMG_0104I train a lot of undergraduate scientists in my lab. I have already discussed all the managerial methods I devised to train them including the bootcamp, state of the lab (orientation),  lab rules, and writing/presentations. But, I am not sure I have mentioned why is enjoy working with undergrads so much. So, here is a list of the top-ten reasons why I love working with undergraduates (in no particular order):

1. They are funny. Obviously not all people are funny, but every now and then I get a really extroverted and funny person in the lab. Maybe because the undergraduate lifetime in the lab is shorter (0.5 – 3 years) than a graduate student (4-5 years) or postdoc (3 years), so there are more of them in general coming through the lab, but there have been a higher frequency of funny undergrads. I realize that some people don’t like when students have a sense of humor, but I do. Mostly the students are self-depricating, and are not making fun of other people. Sometimes they rib the other students, but they are often too shy or scared to make fun of anyone much more senior to them in the lab hierarchy. Of course, there are times when the humor should be turned off, and they are able to understand that and act professional when needed. But, I love that they are funny.

2. They are brave. Approaching a professor about doing research in his/her lab – especially a professor you have never had for class – can be very daunting, yet undergraduates do it frequently. In my lab, most undergraduate researchers work on independent projects without the direct supervision of a postdoc or grad student. In a sense, they do science without a wire, but there is always a net. They often come into the lab not knowing what to expect or what they will do. But, they overcome these anxious feelings because they are wonderfully brave.

3. They are shy. Despite their bravery, many undergraduates are introverts or just shy. This is quite an endearing quality, especially when they put it aside to present their work and truly get into talking about the science they did. Being shy is not the same thing as being disengaged. They overcome shyness for science, even though, they are shy.

4. They are honest. Since they don’t usually know much about the science, undergraduates present what they think honestly. Sometimes knowing too much can be a hazard to discovering the real answer. They present what they see, even if they are shy or even anxious about it. I often give undergraduates high-risk problems that we have no idea what will happen. These problems are great because they sometimes result in very cool, unexpected results. If they had some idea that what they were seeing wasn’t right, they might be persuaded to alter their presentation of their results, but their naiveté helps them stay honest.

5. They are resourceful. Since I give my students new problems with unknown answers and no direct mentor in the lab, this allows them to own their projects. The goal is to teach them that they can learn these things on their own, and many times, they realize that they can use anything and anyone to help them. Through the process of doing independent scientific research, they become resourceful.

6. They are driven.  It is so easy for students to not do undergraduate research. At UState, we have no requirement for research in any major. Driven students seek out research opportunities and can get an immense amount of work done. The student who seeks out research is often very driven.

7. They are young. I love that the undergraduates are young. I love working with young people. It keeps you young. I don’t want to get mentally old. I want to learn new things, and so do they. Sometimes being young means they can be immature, but many of my students are very mature – it’s all apart of them also being driven. Mostly, they are fun and open because they are young.

8. They are smart. Undergraduates can be very smart. What does it mean to be smart? It can manifest in so many different ways: having a good memory, ability to represent complex information clearly, ability to explain things verbally, ability to make connections from old content/knowledge to new content/knowledge, ability to do math in their head… These are all good attributes for someone doing scientific research.  Do not confuse a lack of knowledge of content with smartness and ability to learn. Undergraduates don’t know everything or anything, but that is not the only marker of smarts; undergraduates are smart.

9. They are pliable. One goal of doing undergraduate research is to learn. It isn’t just about learning concepts or skills of the research, but learning many other types of professional skills such as writing, presentation, communication, and working in a group. College, in general, is a time we use to also learn who we are and who we want to be. Luckily, unlike us old-timer professors, undergraduates can still alter their personality. You can help them to identify what type of person they are and what type they might want to be. You can help them to become that new person inside and out, and this is only possible because undergraduates are still pliable.

10. They are open to fun. The main reason why I have so many undergraduates is because they are fun and open to doing crazy/fun things. When I say, “Let’s make a lab music video,” they say, “Yay! What song?” When I say, “Let’s try this experiment,” they say, “OK. How should I do it?” When I say, “Let’s have a party,” they say, “Woot! When?” I want my lab to be a fun place to be and a place people want to come to work. Undergraduate researchers are essential to that formula because they are open to fun.

So, what about you? What is your favorite reason for doing research with undergraduates? Post or comment here. To receive an email every time I write a post, push the +Follow button.

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