Thursday, August 4, 2011

Mass Exodus

The big drama around the office recently has been that three students, under the same advisor, have all quit in the last week.

It is inevitable that sometimes student/advisor relationships don't match up well. Graduate school is much different than undergrad, in that the professor you work for determines a huge amount of what your experience in grad school is going to be like. It's not so much that there are bad advisors and good advisors (although that certainly may be), but more like different people have different styles of management and methods of working.

The biggest piece of advice that I give incoming grad students, or those preparing to apply for grad school, is that you should absolutely find an advisor you enjoy working with. The school you go to matters a little bit (name recognition can be nice later in life), the specific project you work on matters a little bit (nice to work on something you enjoy, and if you plan on academia the research will be important), but the absolutely critical thing is the advisor. If you are applying to grad school, you already get excited about research in general, so surely you can find something in almost any project that is interesting to work on. Talk to students in potential labs - they will give you straight answers when you ask what life is like. Ask students you meet what the reputation of professors are, and they will dish on the department gossip.

If you work best when left alone to pursue your ideas, find a professor who prefers self-directed students. If you like lots of feedback on your work, find a professor who will meet with you once a week, and has a lab that encourages collaboration between students. If you don't plan on academia, you would rather find a professor who graduates students quickly, than one who pushes students to stay and amass a larger publication record. If you DO plan on academia, you want to find a professor who is a rockstar in your field, and might let you help write grants if you so desire.

Each student has different needs, and every advisor has different expectations and styles of managing their students. It's worth spending the time to find a good fit. Much ink has been spilled on the internet blogs on this topic, so I'll leave it at that.

So now, pondering the situation where several students decide to quit the same lab and switch advisors at once. The general mood was that the students did a good thing, and were looking out for themselves, and obviously the advisor was terrible.

But I'm not so sure. I feel bad for the advisor, honestly - he's a new guy, without tenure, got a rockstar amount of funding, and is growing his lab like crazy. That's got to be a tough situation, with a lot of pressure, and having several of your students leave at once is a pretty harsh critique of your mentoring techniques.

I have no idea what the issues were between the advisor and students, and I have no idea how/if attempts were made to change the situation before it got to the point it did. I just know for myself, I would have tried everything I could to work things out with my professor before leaving. But if I thought there was no chance to make things better, is it better to leave after one year, and basically start over in another lab, or to tough it out for a Master's degree and then switch to a new lab for a PhD? Oh, such tough choices. No wonder those three students have been walking around twitchy for a couple weeks now, pre- and post- leaving.

Hopefully the advisor also learned something from this experience, and can make adjustments in how he deals with students, and can find more students for the fall.

Mostly, the whole thing just makes me very grateful for the advisor I have, who I get along with fantastically. I am very blessed to be in a good situation - I like my advisor, my labmates, the work I'm doing (or trying to do), the department I'm in, and the school I'm at. I may stress myself out about trying to graduate next June - but the reality is, even if I don't graduate next June, the question is just whether it will be August or December next year. Neither option is the end of the world, and life is pretty good while I'm here.

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