Thursday, March 3, 2011

Advisor-Advisee Expectations

A few days ago, I posted about Submitting it Anyway, which was a dig at advisors who take forever to give comments on papers. Or in my case, take forever to the paper and say "I have no idea what's going on but it looks good. Submit it".

If I take a step back, that's a somewhat terrible relationship to have with your advisor. That's really good way to sow dissension amongst the minions. Students don't want to work for you. You appear (as their advisor) to not give a damn because you're some really uber busy professor. That's why when I posted about my research group and number of students, I didn't think having more than 4 or 5 students was worth it. With the downward spiraling of academic funding, I don't think it's easier to maintain more than that. You're too focused on funding rather than your students, your teaching, and your research.

Later tonight, I have a presentation over the interwebs for first year grad students at SnowU who are looking for an advisor. In this presentation (and in the future), I lay out what I expect from students and what they should expect from me. If there's a discord in the future, then we should both be adults about it and discuss it to make things right. Miss MSE's comment on my post that she had to involve her department chair and graduate coordinator in her advisor's lack of involvement is very unfortunate. I'm speculating (and you can tell me if I'm wrong) that if Miss MSE's advisor was approachable and available, that they could have discussed this issue to iron out some kinks.

Below are the main points that I want to get across to first year students looking for an advisor. They should know what their advisor expects from them right from the start and they should know what to expect from their advisor.

As a Grad Student, I expect you to...
  • Show up, be diligent, be willing to try new/odd experiments, be creative
  • Treat this like a job. When you have your PhD, you'll have to anyway
  • Get comfortable in the lab, you'll be there often
  • Write journal papers and attend conferences (it helps both of us)
  • Present your research regularly, both internally and externally.
  • Support your colleagues as needed
  • Not be afraid to ask for help from myself or any of your colleagues. We should be willing to say I don't know
As a tradeoff, you will learn a ton of things along the way, such as...
  • Lab Skillz. When you walk into any lab in the future, you will feel comfortable
  • Multi-disciplinary approach to problem solving. See that soldering iron? It works for mechanical engineers, optical engineers, physicists, just about anyone.
  • How to write and review journal papers, critique your work, write tactful answers to dumb reviewers
  • To give presentations where no one will be asleep
  • To be confident about your research and your abilities
  • Enough knowledge to give you a sizable base for a career in _______
But you should have expectations from me. As your advisor, I will strive to...
  • Answer your emails in a timely fashion
  • Show up in the lab (frequently!, daily?!)
  • Help you transition to be an autonomous researcher
  • Work with you to achieve your career goals, whether they're in industry, academia, or national labs
  • Get you connected in our greater research community
  • Be available, approachable, and reasonable.
If, for any reason, neither of us are living up to this, then we should be able to discuss it like adults and come to a suitable conclusion.


  1. Nail on the head with the funding thing: we're a group of 12, mixing computation and experimental research. The biggest reason my advisor takes forever to give feedback is he's too busy trying to get funding, which is harder due to the group's low publication rate (negative feedback loop). He's a pretty approachable guy, but there's only so many hours in a day and I can't really change his priorities.

  2. Yeah, my group has about 50 people in it: 7 graduates and any number of undergraduates, research assistants, post docs, and office staff. A fellow grad student submitted dissertation chapters and didn't get them back for over a month. I'm currently waiting on my thesis chapters, and I'm supposed to defend in 5 days! It took him 2 days to reply to an e-mail asking for permission to pass the uncorrected version to by committee members. He said no. If I had known he was this hard to get a hold of, I would have chosen a different adviser. Maybe it wouldn't have taken me 4.5 years to get a masters--assuming I will get to defend next week...