Tuesday, September 17, 2013

What were the 3 best and worst things about your research group?

A reader very kindly donated to the GeekGirlCon DIY Science Zone and has asked the following question:
I constantly think of or hear things that professors do with their students and think "what a great idea!" or "holy hell I hope I never do that to my students."  So, rather than constantly thinking of these things and forgetting them I was hoping you could forever put this in print AND include the wisdom of our wonderful community by asking for everyone's top 3 list of best and worst things about their research group in grad school.  
First, thank you to anyone who donated! And second, I am more than happy to answer this question:

The best 3 things about my grad school adviser/group (note that I'm remembering this through a haze of positive nostalgia):
  1. Personal mentoring: I always felt like my research advisor was dedicated to making me a better scientist, a better communicator and a better chemist. Group meetings weren't micromanaging beatdowns, they were a weekly 2 hour opportunity to learn from him (and each other!) about all aspects of organic chemistry. Even one-on-one meetings were positive and solution-oriented. 
  2. Help with communication: Papers, orals, theses, interview talks were all practiced in front of the group, with slide-by-slide critiques given by fellow group members. 
  3. Picking up the phone: I am always weirded out by stories from folks whose advisers wouldn't write letters of recommendation or make a phone call or two about a student. He has always been an advocate for his students, even after they've long since left his group. 
The 3 worst things about my grad school adviser/group:
  1. Favoritism/cliquishness: People have a natural tendency to congregate with like-minded people. There was a fair bit of cliquishness, and it was occasionally clear that the boss would prefer to interact with one group of students over another. I think this is a natural state of affairs, but I think that research advisers should act intentionally to counteract it. 
  2. How we treated 1st years: I can't quite put my finger on it, but there was definitely a style of mentoring 1st years (usually by 2nd or 3rd years) that either worked really well (90% of the time) or didn't work at all. I think we could have done a better job there. 
  3. Benign neglect: My adviser did a great job of training us to be independent scientists and people who could think critically about chemistry. There was very little micromanaging, which I was (and still am!) incredibly grateful for. However, there were times when I felt that it shaded into benign neglect, and that projects or students could occasionally languish. (I don't think it happened very often, which is why I'm putting it at the bottom of the list.) 
Readers, what were the 3 best and worst things about your research group? 


  1. Well, I just have to respond to this one.

    The best three things: I cant think of anything, except that my degree was paid for by taxpayer money.

    Worst three things:

    1.) Advisor treating me with benign neglect (usually extreme) or just not caring about my project at all. This is preety much been the case for me with all of the 5 (yes, five) advisors I have worked for. As my grad advisor said, the best you can hope for is that your advisor does not interfere when your project is working.

    2.) Egotistical advisor--one of the five really had a very high opinion of himself which was annoying, yet entertaining b/c he had the intelligence of a typical second tier university grad student. He was faculty b/c his research area was named "Molecule of the Year" by Science mag the year he was looking for a faculty position. *shakes head*

    3.) Gross incompetence or laziness- my post doc advisor was not an alcoholic, but acted like one. Constantly made mistakes that hurt people in the lab, such that a good piece of work got into a lesser journal than it did. Took naps in the afternoon, never showed up on Friday. Still expected a 60 hr work week from the post doc/grad students.

  2. I'm just finishing up my thesis right now, so I perhaps have a fresher perspective on this.

    The three best things:

    1. Project Flexibility: There was a lot of flexibility in our group in many different ways. I was able to redefine goals on projects when it was clear something a little different than the original idea would work better. I was actually able to come up with a great new idea that no one had thought of before because my advisor gave me freedom to pursue my own ideas in addition to hers. I really appreciated the hands-off approach once I got started in my groove doing research.
    2. Work Schedule: This may be different than most synthetic/organic chemists since we were a physical chemistry lab. But since a lot of the work is a combination of computer modeling and experimental work, we were able to maintain a more flexible schedule. As long as work got done, my advisor didn't mind if you were working at home one day, for example.
    3. Relentless Advocate: My advisor did a great job contacting multiple people for me trying to find a job or postdoc. She's done the same for the other students, too, even ones who didn't work out so well research-wise.

    The three worst things:
    1. Very Slow feedback: When you did get feedback, my advisor was very helpful. Sometimes it took ridiculously long to get manuscript drafts back, though. Long as in one year. We're lucky we weren't in a competitive field, or else we would have been scooped left and right.
    2. Slow start: The downside to having a lot more flexibility is that I felt that it took a certain kind of pro-active attitude in the beginning to get started doing research. A couple students didn't get much done at the start because they didn't receive as much guidance as they probably needed.
    3. Time management: This is a bit related to (1), but it seemed by advisor had issues with time management. She would careen from deadline to deadline and neglect important long-term goals with no specific deadline (like publishing manuscripts) as a result.

  3. The best thing about mine was the nightly discussions and I mean nightly with the PI in the staff bar, he paid of course.
    Pieces of paper sufficed, and ideas abounded. It helped a lot him as well as us. At least we got training in how to deal with copious amounts of beer.

  4. Three best:

    1) Group dynamic: everybody more-or-less got along. Any rough patches were brief (I think there was only one serious argument between any two people in the group the four and a half years I was there). Everyone had a good friend in the lab while I was there.

    2) Mentoring: advisor's door always open and welcoming. He was willing to help you with whatever goals you had as long as you were willing to work at those goals as well. Frequent checks on how you were doing in lab and in life.

    3) Post-grad: advisor is always willing to write a letter or make a phone call for you, or meet or talk with you about advice when it comes to science or jobs. Every once in a while I would get a call out of the blue from him about some opportunity he saw that looked like a good fit for me.

    Three worst:

    1) The chemistry: I loved the chemistry we did, but it kind of languished while I was there with my advisor not willing to branch out from a very narrow field. Part of this was some personal/professional uncertainty in his desire to stay at that school. Part of it was that no grad students pushed him and he was comfortable (which he rightfully earned).

    2) Lack of ambition of grad students: sometimes I was the only one who really did anything beyond what was explicitly asked of them.

    3) Lab space: it was a dungeon crossed with an underground bunker. The lab upgraded to new space right after I left.

  5. The best:

    1) Useful advice and connections: Like any good manager, my advisor knew his bleep, tossed a number of good ideas my way over the years, and often knew the person that had the tool or technique I needed to push past some hurdle (or find a postdoc/job), and gave me an introduction

    2) Steal underpants

    3) Threw good parties

    The worst:

    1) Tyrannical with respect to work hours. Blew up when I took a week long vacation during my fifth year. Before that, I hadn't gone more than four days without working since I entered his lab.

    2) Didn't involve lab members in grant writing, other than to send him data. I regret not having this experience

    3) Unsafe lab. Looking back on what we were doing now, it was nuts. I have one scar to show for it, and so do some of my old colleagues.

  6. The good:
    1) The research. I found most of the research projects in the group very interesting, and my advisor was very excitable, which made it all the more enjoyable so long as the data kept coming. At times, I found myself actually enjoying days where I collected data from 8am-midnight, and then worked up the data to send to the boss in a 2-3am email.

    2) The camaraderie of the group members: I had the benefit of working with a pretty good senior student upon joining the lab, and as a senior student, I really enjoyed mentoring the junior students. Socially, we mostly got along and certain subgroups of students would hang out even after spending 10-12 hours in lab together. A minor asterisk to this point is that my advisor admitted to a strategy of actively trying to be a common enemy to the entire group as a way of unifying them. I'm not sure that was necessary, but there's no control when n=1, so who knows?

    3) Funding: During my time in the group, we rarely worried about the cost of our research, which is saying something when you're constructing your own instruments.

    The bad:
    1) Advisor's style of management: As I mentioned, my advisor was very excitable when it came to research results. This meant that the advisor would push and micromanage the hot/interesting project at the expense of the others. Given the ups and downs of research productivity, this meant that the advisor would almost inevitably get impatient and upset, causing the pendulum to swing the other way into neglect. Depending on how self-starting a student was (and some amount of luck regarding his/her project), one could expect to be micromanaged ~3 months of the year, and mostly neglected the remainder. This behavior was also manifested in the queue of manuscripts on the advisor's desk, with some additional factor as to how "scoopable" a result might be. One illustration of this publishing pattern: my first paper on his desk was also the last one I'd publish in the group.

    2) Project methodology: As a scientist, I believe that projects/experiments should be conducted with a hypothesis in mind, which is then either supported by the results of the experiments or the hypothesis must be revised to reconcile the differences with the measured results. There were some projects in the group, however, where the advisor expected to find X, and you had better go off and find data in support of X. And with the power dynamic of grad student vs. advisor, it's a precarious situation to suggest that X just might not coincide with physical reality.

    3) The next step: My advisor was hit-or-miss when it came to helping students defend and helping to plan for your next position. Some students received assistance regardless of their desired path, whether in industry, government, or academia. Others were actively encouraged (or discouraged) to (or from) certain paths, or certain post-doctoral positions, in opposition to what the student sought.

  7. @Anonymous
    "2) Steal underpants"
    You really humorous

  8. The Good
    1) Good projects with defined goals. Most people in our group graduated in 4-5 years with at least 3-4 1st author publications.
    2) PI loyalty. He fiercely defended the members of his group when other professors or administrators tried to question us.
    3) Very punctual with administrative tasks. Every time I needed him to submit a letter of rec or requisition paperwork of some kind, it was done within 24 hours.

    The Bad
    1) PI played favorites. Attractive young women were the pinnacle, you knew you were 2nd class if you were a male. Also chose to use a backwards motivation strategy. He harassed the people who worked hard and left lazy people alone.
    2) Insisted on incremental steps in a narrow research area. Refused to entertain other ideas, despite losing funding and getting very bad scores on grants
    3) Grad students policed the group. Always at least one tyrannical personality in the lab who everybody hated, but PI refused to step in and manage it.

  9. Good ones:
    1) His knowledge and the opportunity to be educated (if you wanted)
    2) The recommendation letter he wrote for me
    3) Group hikes?

    Bad ones:
    1) Lack of passion.
    2) Lack of interaction.
    3) No interest to publish/publish only top 90% of results after a long waiting time.

  10. Best:
    1. The entire department got along fabulously and there was always someone willing to help out anyone in need regardless of status or seniority.
    2. Heavy emphasis on presentations, including lab presentations and travel to regional, national, and international meetings.
    3. Everyone was generous with awarding credit where credit was due.

    1. Cliquishness that turned into gendered bullying. Women bully in a manner vastly different from men. The men in charge couldn't tell the difference between cliquishness and bullying and it led to a toxic environment for anyone The Clique determined to not be "one of us". When I tried to report this to the PI I got the typical "you just need to get along with them" type of response. It made my last 3 years in that lab hell.
    2. Definitely the benign neglect thing.
    3. Having to fight for every danged thing. I realize this is a thing often encountered "in the real world" but we had to justify our existence continuously, including fighting for time on equipment, fighting for projects, fighting to be included on projects, fighting to publish our results, fighting for a letter of recommendation for a fellowship, etc. Not physical violent fighting, but constantly advocating for our existence. It was exhausting and I always felt that most of it was unnecessary. This was unique to our particular lab group and not a function of the department or school or anything else.

  11. The Good
    1. In the end, I left with a great publishing record and got the postdoc I only dreamed of.
    2. Unlimited funds and freedom to do whatever research I wanted
    3. Little pressure from the boss
    4. A wonderful group of colleagues

    The Bad
    1. Absolutely no guidance and no internal lab structure (until myself and others implemented one)
    2. My boss always wanted something, but would never say what that something was
    3. The laziest and downright dirtiest people could get a PhD at the same time as me

  12. The Good
    1. Advisor's passion for the work. This was reflected in how we were taught, our discussions, and how hard we worked. We were taught how to learn, which a lot of people aren't taught to do. We were actively involved with writing papers and grants.

    2. Lab camaraderie. Helped when the research got tough or my advisor was being an ass.

    3. The research. Appeared to be very esoteric, but the skills we were taught carried over to a number of different fields. Really cool stuff I still brag about.

    The Bad
    1. Bad Management. I firmly believe that every professor needs to take a management course; the majority of them are idiots at dealing with things like lab issues, firing grad students, and fixing stupid people problems. Mine would get pissed at everyone instead of manning up and talking to the one person he had an issue with. Would pick the oddest things to micromanage.

    2. Advisor Neglect. I could go on and on about this; let's just say that at first it wasn't an issue, but there was a sabbatical where for a year we were barely talked to, and then he came back and demanded to know why we didn't get anything done (no postdoc in charge while he was gone).

    3. Dealing with stupid lab members. Had to clean up their messes, teach them basic things they should already know, and separated myself from them when they made our group look bad.

  13. Best:

    1) Total freedom of work topic within the field.
    2) Freedom of work hours. Sometimes this meant 12h days, other times a bad hangover was justification for a day off. As long as you got shit done, he was happy.
    3) Supported use of conferences to get near vacation spots.
    4) he kept the lab kitchen liquor cabinet stocked for us.

    1) non-traditional authorship order convention.
    2) lazy grad students never kicked out.
    3) hard to think of anything else bad, grad school was the time of my life.


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