Thinking critically about the ways we help our students

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wskqpFolks can throw around the word “mentoring” rather sloppily. Which can lead students to being told that they’re being mentored, when they’re not.

I’ve seen a bit more of this while reviewing a variety of formal “mentorship plans” (in the context of panel service). A lot of people get what mentorship is about. But a good fraction of the plans weren’t so much about mentorship as they were about supervision — they said what the “mentee” would be doing for the “mentor,” but not specific about how the “mentor” would be supporting the specific needs of the “mentee.”

So what is mentorship and what isn’t? I volunteer an example for your consideration: Continue reading

Do you write your recommendation letters?

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This is a question for both the people requesting letters of recommendation, and those who are signing the letters of recommendation.

About a month ago, a blog post-ish thing was published in Science, that was griping about a not-rare phenomenon. Sometimes when junior scientists ask for letters of recommendation, they’re asked to write a first draft of the letter. This is, allegedly, “minor fraud.” Continue reading

If you have a bad advisor in grad school

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A couple weeks ago, I emphasized that most PhD advisors are really good.

In a haphazardly conducted poll, one in four people reported their PhD advisor that was not caring or helpful. Crappy advisors may not be the norm, but we still have 1 in 4 too many.

I’ve seen a variety of situations, choices, and outcomes over the years, and would like to share some thoughts with grad students who are experiencing a bad PI. I’m hoping those of you who have gone through nasty experiences might be able share insights as well. I’ve just been a bystander, and there should be many more voices than my own.

When dealing with a bad PI, I think there are two big questions:

  1. What can be done to ameliorate the situation?
  2. When should you bail on your PI and move to a new lab or even a new institution?

Continue reading

A lot of scientists are kind, careful and caring

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I just returned from a tremendous meeting of the Entomological Society of America. I experienced a lot of moving moments.

I attended my first EntSoc meeting twenty years ago, as an early grad student. I’ve skipped the last few years (because family). This return brought a flush of friends and close colleagues that I don’t see on a regular basis. I got to meet PhD students who are being advised by my own former undergrad students. When I was in grad school, my advisor had two small kids. At this meeting, I got to see his older daughter, now in a MD/PhD program.

There are so many scientists who made a difference in my life — professionally and personally —  and having so many of them gathered under one large roof was overwhelming. Continue reading

Advising undergraduates on applications for grad school

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Now’s the time of year when prospective grad students need to get serious about applying to graduate programs.

Students are probably relying on their professors to guide them through the process. While professors are generally well informed, we have to be careful to not overestimate how well we can steer our students.

Please remember a few facts:

  • The grad school application process varies dramatically, even among subdisciplines.
  • Procedures vary greatly among different universities, and many are idiosyncratic.
  • Personal experiences with the grad school application process >5 years ago are outdated.

Undergraduates typically have misconceptions that are particularly difficult to dispel. After all, telling our students a set of facts doesn’t necessarily make them understand how important these facts are.

Undergrads are often very surprised to discover that the process is haphazard, and how their personality and professionalism affect the outcome. Even if you tell them about it in detail before they start.

What is the fix for this? Undergraduates should be getting direct advice from current graduate students who are just a little further down the same road. Ideally these students are alums from your lab or your institution, but if you need to stretch further to find grad students to advise your undergrads, it’s worth your while.

In addition to talking with grad students, it’s not hard to find quality contemporary advice to share with your students, like this post by Christine Boake. Be careful to provide information germane to a particular field, because sometimes it’s not obvious that what appears to be written as generalized advice may work really well only within certain disciplines. If you are in ecology, for example, here’s another great post about the grad school application procedure from Dynamic Ecology. If you know of others that you want to share, please post them in the comments. (You can do it anonymously.) I wouldn’t even know where to start for physics, chemistry, computer science, cell/molecular biology, and so on.

While you’re at it, please don’t give generalized advice to students wondering whether to do a Master’s or Ph.D.

Advice on whether to do an M.S. before the Ph.D.

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If you have undergraduates who are thinking about doing a Ph.D., they may be seeking advice about how, or whether, to do an M.S. first.

I’m in a field in which the M.S. is entirely optional. Some people have ’em, and many don’t. (I don’t.) Many folks have strong-ish opinions about whether or not doing a Master’s is good. Some say it’s good because it helps you hone your experience, get into a better lab for the Ph.D., and results in a higher quality dissertation research. Others will say that an M.S. could be an unnecessary, financially and temporally expensive detour that might result in a subpar experience. In addition, sometimes students get trapped in M.S. programs for a long time, as many M.S. granting institutions like to treat their graduate students like the Ph.D. students that they can’t train.

Here’s my suggestion for those who are about to advice a promising undergraduate for or against the M.S.:

Throw your experiences and biases out the window.

There is no generalized reason why an M.S. degree is, or is not, a valuable precursor to a Ph.D.

The reasons that a Ph.D.-bound student should pursue or avoid an M.S. are entirely individualized, based on a given student’s experience, aspirations, and opportunities.

The things you need to take into account in this calculation are many, but they pertain to the student and not any generality that you might have to proffer. These include:

  • How difficult it is to get into a good lab for the PhD
  • Whether professional success in the subfield is associated with having an MS
  • Whether the student can afford the MS financially
  • Whether the experience of the MS would alter the decision to do the PhD
  • The specific program and lab that the student would go to for the M.S.
  • Whether the student has temporary geographic constraints
  • Whether the student has a realistic idea about what life is like in a PhD program
  • The presence, absence, or specifics of the student’s career plans
  • Whether the student’s probability for success in the PhD would be altered by having the experience of an MS
  • and I’m sure there are may more

You know your students well, or at least you should know them well. Dispense your advice on what they, in particular, need and what is in their best interest. Everybody is different, and the landscape is constantly evolving. What worked for us, just a few short years ago, can’t be used much to inform contemporary decisions.