Why you should get to know grad students

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My favorite thing about conferences, aside from seeing old friends and colleagues, is getting to know grad students.

There are so many great reasons to get to know grad students, and even more if your lab doesn’t have them.

First of all, I’d like to remind everyone that grad students are both professional scientists and individual human beings. Grad students are not interchangeable pieces. They don’t have as much experience as senior researchers, but most of them have dedicated their careers to this fun endeavor of science. Moreover, grad students do the same job as faculty – teaching, research, and even service (seminar series, running journal clubs, and stuff in the lab that is expected of them). My lens is adjusted so that I see that grad students are just like me. I’m just older than most grad students and, now, more grey. From there, the differences are minor unless it’s my position to mentor a student.

If I’m not a mentoring a grad student, then I am this person’s colleague and I will treat them with the appropriate level of attention and respect. Even though some early grad students might not see this in themselves.

I have made number of good friends – or perhaps close colleagues – because I’ve made the time to build these relationships. Though I’m not in grad school, this shouldn’t keep me from continuing to make friends with grad students.

Grad students are great because they are excited about their projects and love to talk about them. By hearing about what they’re working on, you not only get an introduction to their own work, but also all of the recent ideas and discoveries that have contributed to their ideas. Hearing the 10-minute intro to a dissertation is drinking a thick rich idea smoothie, from the person who has probably read more about that combination of ideas than anybody else.

Grad students are great because they are often eager to hear about what you’re working on. There are two big benefits to this. First of all, they comprise a potential audience open to new ideas and your work could be influential. More importantly, if they hear about your project in some detail, it’s likely that they’ll offer a separate perspective, new insights, and relevance from their own line of work. They might suggest a fancy new kind of analysis, a new set of things to measure, or other people who might be interested in your datasets of whom you’re not aware. They might know of datasets that would shed light on your own and they could put you in touch.

Grad students are great to hang out with if your lab is made up of undergraduates, as a resource for your students. It’s not likely that your undergrads are going to pal around with your PI friends at conferences that much, but they are more likely to get to know the grad students as see their successes as a possible model for their own next steps. They also can advise about the whole grad school application/selection process, as they’ve done it recently.

There is another practical benefit from getting to know grad students well. You become a deeper part of the field when you get to know its future leaders before they are breaking new ground. When you befriend a the current generation of grad students, that means that you’ll be friends with the next set of junior faculty. Even mentioning it sounds mighty careerist, but it nevertheless is a long-term positive.

I enjoy people for who they are, and when grad students are doing good work I go out of my way to compliment them. It costs you nothing to mention the truth but it makes a big difference to someone who is just starting out. I’ve tried to be outgoing in this way ever since grad school, and I’ve made a point to not change this as I’ve gotten older.

When I do see old friends at conferences, I met most of them during grad school days (either mine, theirs, or both of ours). While most other professors at an obscure school like mine would be unknown to a new generation of scientists, I’m at least not wholly anonymous, because I’ve continued to make the effort to know people. Being friendly and supportive of your colleagues is itself its own reward, and is one that compounds itself over time. That’s a nice side benefit of being friendly.

Calling in The Wolf

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Part of being a scientist is being so excited that you bite off more than you can chew. You’re busy working on a current project, but there’s another that needs one more analysis, or the grant just needs some polish – or the right preliminary data. Maybe you’ve got a great find but you can’t find the hook to sell it. Sometimes, a project is 98% done. And that 2% is a huge stumbling block, especially when it’s something not yet in your expertise.

If you don’t have a postdoc at hand, you’ve got two choices. A: Let it linger, until you find the spare time, momentum or resources to get that done at some undefined point in the future. B: Call in The Wolf.

Faculty at teaching schools are isolated. You can’t drop by a neighboring department, or look down the hallway, to see if someone might want to join you on an endeavor. There just isn’t anybody there who can help you. If you’re not finishing it after, say, several months of lingering, then call in the finisher who’ll get the job done. Somewhere, out there, exists a person who can deliver what you need, and would benefit from delivering it for you. You need to call in The Wolf.

A finished project is better than any unfinished project. If I’ve done a project, I want it to be done. The “done” part of the prior sentence takes precedence over the “I” part. My guideline is: if bringing someone in will get it done, wonderful! The more the merrier!  While projects overweighted with personnel are hard to manage, it’s a mistake to let a project grow stale for lack of attention.

There are people out there that would give up a couple days of their time, to become coauthor on a paper or a collaborator on a (very promising) grant. Even if you just contact them out of the blue. (As long as your website/CV vouches that you’re bona fide.)

So, this is all well and good, but you make it sound so easy! But how do you get The Wolf’s number? People are so busy, who has the talent and wants to take on more work? There are a few avenues. They all rely on your professional network.

There are a few subspecies of Wolf:

  • Canis lupus parvus: Someone at a teaching institution with the appropriate skill set. You bring them in because the final 2% is easier for them than it is for you. (Because we are isolated at teaching institutions, we may rely on collaborations, as long as they fit our strengths.) Be careful to not mistake this subspecies for a similar one, C. lupus tarduswhich is tied up with teaching and will not be able to meet deadlines.
  • Canis lupus taucetiensis: A grad student or postdoc, who is hungry to get on an additional paper. Hungry like the Wolf.
  • Canis lupus canescens: The PI who is the world expert on the thing you need. If you look up this PI, whether you know her or not, she can presumably knock out the task in no time. Even if you’re small potatoes, you might get referred to someone from the lab.

If I’ve needed a little something to get a project done, I’ve found that reaching out to new people has always been helpful. If the person I’m contacting isn’t available, interested or prepared to do it, then they inevitably refer me to the right person. Just be sure to explain up front what you propose, and clearly specify, timeframe, authorship, funding, and so on.