Skills a PI needs or a snowflake's chance in hell

Jul 28 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

H/T to Adam Kucharski

pointing to an article about training in management, titled "Not all PhD supervisors are natural mentors – some need training".

So let's look at a bunch of things.

Firstly, Adam is right. You may think you don't need that "leadership training", because you're not going to run for public office. But you do. There will be at least something worthwhile in terms of dealing with problematic students, techs, trainees and most likely Chairs-from-Hell. In the world of cost/benefit decisions, the immediate benefit may not seem so large, but it can be. It sure beats the school of hard knocks.

But secondly. Oye. This article was not going to convince me that I should get training, let alone work towards being a better human being. The sub-headline on the article is:

My supervisor’s high standards and cold manner made me feel inadequate. If only he had been taught how to encourage me.

WTF? Somehow the mentor is responsible for making someone feel inadequate? This is how legends of snowflakes rise. Reading on, the first part of the article is a litany of how bad the trainee felt. All the horrible and terrible and discouraging things that happened to her that were the mentor's fault. There was not one whit of self-introspection in the article.

Yes, it would be lovely if we all could be Mr. Rogers, Captain Kangeroo, or some wonderful grandmotherly figure (i.e., true, real life course evaluation: Dr. Theron is insufficiently nurturing to be a good teacher". That's not real life. But lots of us are Tony Stark, but without the money and nifty electronic things.

Yes, I do think its worthwhile shopping around for a good mentor. Let me put the list from that post here:

  • Look for individuals as mentors who enjoy their roles and responsibilities
  • Look for individuals as your mentors who are experienced yet willing to listen to your concerns and needs
  • Look for individual mentors with whom you can build a relationship on trust, mutual respect and confidentiality
  • Consider any personal and/or professional biases that they may bring to your mentoring relationship

But, in The Guardian article, the writer put the blame for failure on someone else's (lack of) people skills. Yeah, the mentor was a jerk. No, he wasn't encouraging, and perhaps did cross the line "between constructive criticism and cruelty". Yes, it would be great if every mentor was a psychiatrist and counselor and Buddhist spiritual guide. But they're not. They are human beings with the whole range of problems that human beings bring to the table that is human interactions.

The article concludes with the suggestion that

Academic institutions should develop and require mentorship training for staff at all levels, not just those who are early in their careers.

Let me suggest that this would have exactly no influence on the jerk who was so discouraging. Let me suggest that senior people are pretty damn resentful of being required to take training. Let me suggest that this is the suggestion of someone who is not mentoring or supervising or more importantly swimming as hard as they can to stay afloat in the competitive world of academia. This doesn't mean that such training wouldn't have the potential to help. Go see the first para of this post. But by and large, the BSD's of this world who might need this, if they went, which is unlikely to start with, would go with a phone or laptop full of Other Things To Do.  Required touchy feely seminars and workshops are not the way to change the system.

So grow up. If you want to do science, take some responsibility for finding the people who can help. The writer says she went looking for help and everyone turned her down. Really? She could not find a single person to help mentor her? A single friend, even outside of academia to help her with the confidence issues? I do not have much faith that this person will last long in any endevour. Find what you need. No one is going to hand it to you on a silver platter.

26 responses so far

  • ImDrB says:

    *thunderous applause*

  • Anon says:

    Completely agree. In my decade's worth of experience mentoring trainees, I have found that there is one class of people who would never make it, no matter how hard you try as a mentor. This is the class of people who refuse to take responsibility for themselves -- their own performance, feelings, what have you.

    I have had students who came in technically weak, and by the time they graduated, they were extremely strong. I have even had students come in who were fairly unmotivated to start with; when they graduated, they were completely different people. But the one type of student I dread is the student who thinks everything is someone else's fault. These days, the minute I find out a student has this attitude, I find a way to fire them as soon as I possibly can. This attitude is a sure-shot recipe for failure.

    • potnia theron says:

      I think the writer's point was that had someone just said "good job" to her along the way, she would have thrived. We don't have enough information to judge. But, why the heck did she stay in that lab (if what she really wanted was to do science)? And more to the point, for the folks out there, nodding their heads over toxic mentors, the take home lesson is: chose your mentor. Carefully. Sometimes a person with whom you can work well is more important than the specific science you do in the lab or for your thesis.

      • Anon says:

        Agreed. Also, there is no such thing as an universally good mentor -- a mentor who is good for some students may not be so good for others.

        For example, my grad school advisor was very laid-back. Many of his students loved his constant "great job" and "you are doing so well" approach, but I was desperate for someone who would push me a little harder and provide me with some more guidance on choosing the right problems and writing papers better. Fortunately things worked out for me in the end as I found other people to help me or learnt some of these skills through trial and error. But I can see how a mentor like hers might work perfectly well with a more ambitious student who he perceives is trying harder, while she might do well with an advisor who is a constant fountain of "great job"s and "well done"s but who actually does their students a disservice by not pushing them hard enough.

  • Anne Carpenter says:

    I agree people who refuse to take responsibility for themselves are unlikely to succeed in life/science. But I don't agree the author refuses to take responsibility for herself, at least based on the article she wrote.

    I agree training doesn't fix a jerk. But, wow, the supervisor described in the article is a jerk.

    And holy goodness, your statement - "I do not have much faith that this person will last long in any endeavor" - what a terribly cruel thing to say to someone based on this one article she wrote, which contains valid complaints about a terrible mentor.

    Academia's cut-throat, no-positive-feedback ambience is not going to change if we insult/mock people for proposing ideas to reduce the number of abusive mentors in science. If you don't like her proposed solution, fine. But name-calling and judging her life and worth as you have done here just proves her point. Consider enrolling in Emotional Intuition 101.

    • Tenure track says:

      Her advisor is unquestionably a douche, but all the same, it is not a good sign that she didn't ask for more regular feedback from him, including examples of what she was doing right and where she could most improve. She didn't manage up. She writes like a victim with no agency.

      Maybe I've been hardened by a similar transformation. My advisor was not a jerk, but she was not warm and fuzzy--I can count on one hand the number of compliments I received from her during my PhD. But I also made a decision that this was business, and I was hired to do research and write papers, and so I decided to process my anxieties (which were severe) at therapy and with my friends.

      It is so easy for grad students, especially the ones coming straight from undergrad, to not recognize they have made a critical professional transition. I hand out 10x more encouragement than my PhD advisor ever did, but it makes me sad when I see how much some of my students seem to depend on it. All of us want to do good work, but with some I'm concerned they're subconsciously seeking maternal/parental approval far into adulthood. Acceptance in most worthy endeavors has to come from primarily from within.

      • DifferentAnon says:

        "She didn't manage up."

        Hey Tenure track,

        Let's be clear about one thing: it's your job to manage students, not the other way around. You are the one with a job; they are still students.

        When the person with the job (i.e., the professor) is doing all they can to make the situation work and there are still problems, then we can look at the student.

        "Managing up" is business BS designed to con people that have shitty managers into doing 2 jobs instead of one.

        • Tenure track says:

          Agree the phrase is bad business jargon, so I shouldn't use it, but it's really a basic principle for any relationship: tell the other person if things aren't working for you, and be constructive about it. Don't expect the other person to read your mind. The more I've managed, the more surprised I am by how different my trainees' needs are.

          Speaking up for what needs to change shouldn't be controversial.

    • DifferentAnon says:

      Apologies for misspelling your name in my comment, Anne.

  • Not all mentors are right for all folks. Some people are not "Good try" people, and there is nothing wrong with that. I would have hated a micromanaging mentor, but some people thrive on it. I know many people who changed research groups in the first year due to group mismatch. The author knew pretty much right away that it was a bad fit, but did nothing to help herself. She couldn't find another mentor ANYWHERE? Every scientist at her University has ties to her mentor? Every scientist in her field?

    I agree with Potnia--the examples used to describe how awful the mentor was come across as special snowflake. I don't offer my students A for effort either. The only example of something that seems out of line or excessively cruel is the discussion after the first year talk (and we only hear one side of it--after the other examples of "unreasonable demands" or "cruelty", I am not sure I would agree with the authors' assessment).

    I think mentorship training might actually be useful (it depends--most of the "training" we got at National Lab was hugely time wasting), but I am not sure more training would have helped this relationship. People are who they are, and adopt a style that works for them. It won't work with every mentee, though.

  • DifferentAnon says:

    I agree with Ann. I think grad students/trainees are the fat people of Academia – before fat-shaming became socially unacceptable.

    It never ceases to amaze me how much compassion other faculty can muster up for a professor failing miserably at his *job* as mentor – that’s right, let’s not forget that mentoring is something he gets paid to do, not some sort of favor. Meanwhile, students are told to “take responsibility for themselves” and to choose their mentors wisely. As if it were so easy to decide who will or won’t make a good mentor based on limited initial contact with someone and half-honest feedback from current students concerned for their own futures.

    Funny how faculty who complain about poor students in their groups are never told to choose their students wisely.

    You wonder why the heck she stayed? What makes you think she was in a position to leave (financially, emotionally)? Do you also wonder why the heck battered women stay?

    Really surprised and disappointed to see such a lack of empathy emanating from this place.

    • Another Anon says:

      Seriously! Thank you Ann and Different Anon!

      In every other career that I've had, I've been in the fortunate position to be able to create an "Acclaim" email folder. Not so in academic science. I don't think it has anything to do with my skills but everything to do with the culture of our work environments.

      Constructive compliments and criticism literally cost a mentor nothing. So why are we willing to dole one out in truckloads? And why does wanting positive feedback signal neediness and lack of maturity? Feedback, both positive and negative, is completely normal in every other industry.

    • Tenure track says:

      "As if it were so easy to decide who will or won’t make a good mentor based on limited initial contact with someone and half-honest feedback from current students concerned for their own futures."

      You're right. This is exactly why many of the most successful people I knew in grad school (most of whom are faculty now) worked as research assistants in multiple prospective labs at different universities before choosing an advisor. It's a very serious decision.

      "Funny how faculty who complain about poor students in their groups are never told to choose their students wisely."

      What? We worry about this all the time, and it's the biggest piece of advice I received again and again and again as new faculty. We're always comparing our heuristics for identifying who will be a good match, and kicking ourselves for not seeing things sooner.

  • Rheophile says:

    Well, shit, if balking at receiving multiple “What is the data point count now?” emails late at night makes me a snowflake, sign me up. I'm a little surprised at the attitude being aimed at this student.

    What additional responsibility does the student need to show here? With a sufficiently incompatible mentorship - like this one - you either quit or stick it out and suffer. This author chose the latter, and seems to have even finished - finishing a PhD with a mentor you hate is not exactly the behavior of an easily-melted snowflake. As Potnia realizes, there is little that mediation or training will do to fix a mentor who says, "You have done nothing to be proud of today."

    I can just imagine what happened. The student, unhappy but proactive, turns to other faculty and staff people. She gets some advice, but no one says what she actually needs to hear:"I have no power over him, he is a bad mentor for you, and you should switch groups." Instead, they dance around it.

  • aspiring riffraff says:

    I switched labs late in grad school due to an abusive mentor. The pressure from the PIs in the department to stay in abusive mentor's lab was enormous- only two old guard tenured PIs and the PI that became my new mentor supported my decision to switch. The rest either ignored me (I'm fine with this) or actively tried to thwart my switch to the new lab. To this day I have no idea what they thought they would gain/lose by this. The non-PIs in the department were almost universally supportive, particularly the postdocs, lecturers and admins.

  • xykademiqz says:

    I went and finally read that piece. It seems that student really should never have joined the group to begin with (she was explicitly asked if she thought she could hack it; always a red flag). The advisor sounds like a very difficult person, but I can imagine other students who would thrive in a high-pressure, high-expectation environment. (My advisor was really really tough, but I liked it and I worked well with him. Lots of people asked me how I survived, and I said no problem really, it was fine. In contrast, there was a student in a nearby cubicle who was traumatized a decade and a half after finishing, working with the same advisor, and he wasn't the only one. My great and inspiring advisor was another student's tyrant from worst nightmares. )

    However, it's weird to hear how the student had to give a high-stakes talk in first year seemingly without preparation? I have several dry runs with each student before even minor conferences, especially if they are junior. I think (hope) most advisors do the same, and after these first talks students definitely always need reassurance. I make them practice enough times so it has never happened that they blew it to the point that I would have to say, "You did nothing to be proud of today," or whatever that advisor said; that sounds really really weird. She might have completely blown it, which if we're talking a 1st year student is largely on the advisor -- where the hell is coaching? Then again, I can't imagine ever saying to a student, "You did nothing to be proud of today," unless I caught them stealing lab equipment or cheating on a test.

    Overall, that article sounds weird and odd. Maybe some of it is a result of unfortunate editing that cut out some important context or details.

    Nonetheless, the vibe I got from the article is that the student did likely need reassurance perhaps more than average, and not every advisor (even most objectively good ones) are willing to provide the level and frequency of affirmation that the student might have craved; her actual advisor seems to have been on the opposite end of the spectrum from what she needed. If you have a "tough love" approach to training students, there is a type of student who will thrive in your group; but then there are those, like the student in the article, who will feel traumatized by your approach while you as advisor will feel perpetually irritated by what you perceive as inexplicable neediness and lack of self-confidence.

    I have a colleague who liberally gives out "Good job!" I do not, but I am not a praise miser either -- when something is done well, I definitely acknowledge it loudly and clearly, but I expect serious work and don't praise for effort alone.

    Anyway, why did the student not find another advisor? That one is hard to answer. One aspect is that it's the UK, and there are constraints on PhD duration and who's funding it that I don't think translate easily to the US. If this were in the US, and the student couldn't find anyone else to work with, that might mean that: a) people asked advisor about her and he didn't have much good to say, so they didn't want to risk taking her on, or b) the advisor is a very difficult person who hates anyone taking on/poaching his students, so no one dares do it any more. Option c), and this one will not make me popular but I promise it's a real concern, is that the student might have sounded so desperate or needy trying to find a new advisor that most people were alarmed by it and didn't want to get involved because the whole situation sounded like too much drama and people didn't have the time or emotional bandwidth to deal with this. I know this sounds cold-hearted, but, as potnia says, all faculty are working as hard as they can to maintain their programs and don't want to risk potential trouble if they can avoid it. I have seen this play out several times. In my department there are only two or three faculty, all of them on the lower-research-activity end of the spectrum, who are willing to take on the students who seem like they might be more trouble than they are worth, and have led them successfully to completion, but it took a while and I don't know what could have been done within the constraints of a UK PhD.

    Sorry for the novel. tl;dr version: that advisor sounds somewhat tyrannical, but there are many students who crave such challenge and thrive in high-pressure environments; there are also markers of advisor toxicity with respect to the student in question, but also weird aspects of the article that make me question its veracity; the student really should have switched advisors, although I can't tell how feasible that is in the UK system; in the US, I have seen potential new advisors "wash their hands" off a student who's perceived as too difficult to work with or stay away from anyone associated with a certain group.

    Overall, those who would need touchy-feely seminars the most are in fact least likely to attend or appreciate them. A high-powered PI running a group with a pressure-cooker mentality is not doing it by accident; I guarantee he thinks self-confidence and non-stop work are necessary for success and likely resents any implication that he should be tending to anyone's insecurities. Now, a different question is whether we want such people in academia; in today's climate where money and publication prestige rule, the answer is obviously yes. Unfortunately, students like the one in the article do get mowed down in the process. I don't know what is to be done without a serious overhaul of what is regarded as important in academia, and I don't think that will happen any time soon; if anything, the current trend of moving towards more money and prestige is likely to become even worse and the atmosphere more cutthroat.

    • David says:

      "However, it's weird to hear how the student had to give a high-stakes talk in first year seemingly without preparation?"

      Moving away from the referenced article, I was amazed in my time at university at the number of students who did not appear to prepare for talks. Folks who didn't know what order the slides were in, or when info would be coming up. Even if your PI doesn't do dry runs (which they should), you can do it on your own. My roommate and I used to present in front of our neighbor and ask for real criticism. It was incredibly fruitful, but many students don't do it (I'm not going to speculate on why). That's part of taking responsibility for your own success.

  • PIs get loads and loads of advice to choose students wisely. Failed mentorships are not easy on the advisor either (if they care--if they don't, no amount of training will help).

    Yes, the advisor sounds like a jerk, but the only real obvious example of this is the "nothing to be proud of discussion". You worry about high expectations? Ask about what your potential supervisor expects in terms of hours and workload BEFORE joining the group. You don't like emails at night? Don't respond then. Wait until morning. Maybe say something. I certainly have ignored emails from supervisors at inconvenient non-work hours (or haven't seen them because I wasn't working!). You want someone to praise your efforts? Don't pick a tough love style advisor. You don't like constant check ins? Use your words--your PI is not a mind reader. It would drive me nuts too--I hate being micromanaged. But from the mentor's point of view, you could be unhappy about anything, really. I have had conversations with my students about how what I was doing increased their stress, and we hashed out a solution that would work better. You are an adult who joined a research group, not an indentured servant. Someone who cannot advocate for themself will have issues throughout life.

    A mentor is not a parent, psychologist, or life coach. You go to grad school to learn research skills, not life skills. The lack of self-confidence and anxiety displayed in the article would best be helped by a trained counselor, not a STEM researcher. A good mentor would perhaps refer the student to student services (or the local equivalent), but not everyone recognizes mental health problems so readily.

    • DifferentAnon says:

      "PIs get loads and loads of advice to choose students wisely."

      Oh please! Show me ONE example where a PI is complaining about a bad student, and someone chimes in with, "you really need to choose your students wisely." OTOH, the default assumption (of many PIs) seems to be that students and/or postdocs are too stupid to realize this when it comes to choosing a mentor.

      And yes, a mentor *should* be like a coach. One that knows how to get the best performance from each of their charges. But I guess that fundamental skill is too much to expect of a "mentor" in the sciences. (Perhaps the ginormous salaries of coaches are justified after all.)

      If you don't know how or don't care about mentoring students, don't become a professor. Because that is a crucial part of the job. There are plenty of students who can trace the onset of their "lack of self-confidence and anxiety" to a shitty grad school advisor.

      • dr. zeek says:

        "Oh please! Show me ONE example where a PI is complaining about a bad student, and someone chimes in with, "you really need to choose your students wisely." OTOH, the default assumption (of many PIs) seems to be that students and/or postdocs are too stupid to realize this when it comes to choosing a mentor."

        As a relatively "new" TT-track PI going up for tenure next year, I got this advice from one of my mentors last year. I believe the exact wording was "as much as you need hands in the lab, you need to make sure that they are not just hands in the lab".

        Yes there are crappy mentors, but there are also students who are not coachable (Note: I am not implying that this is the case in this situation).

        I am not super touchy feely in my praise--when things work, I give them a good job and then ask what's the next step. Thinking about it, my praise is commensurate with their effort. If my students are putting in average work or average effort, they get average praise. I expect a lot from my students and I think that they expect the same from me. They don't always hit my expectations nor do I always live up to their expectations. Does that mean I am a bad mentor or they are horrible rotten students? Probably not.

      • Tenure track says:

        "If you don't know how or don't care about mentoring students, don't become a professor. Because that is a crucial part of the job. There are plenty of students who can trace the onset of their "lack of self-confidence and anxiety" to a shitty grad school advisor."

        An excessively hands-off, compliment-sparing advisor is precisely how I found the real source of my confidence and the tenacity to deal with 50-90% failure rates on manuscript submissions, paper rejections, and hard research. (As I've said, though, I don't consider this the best approach--encouragement is good.)

        An advisor's primary job at a R1 university is to keep a research program running while training some of the next generation in research. (Undergrads get taught somewhere in there too.) PIs must literally choose between being perfect coaches and getting research done. Some trainees take up way, way more time and emotional resources than others. We *have* to think about this. I feel terrible when I'm late getting comments back to a hardworking trainee because another is ill-prepared for professional life.

  • DifferentAnon says:

    "As a relatively "new" TT-track PI going up for tenure next year, I got this advice from one of my mentors last year...."

    Was that in response to a conversation you were having about a problem student in your lab? Because if not, then that's not the same thing at all. Do you really see no difference between giving someone general advice *before* the fact and in response to a particular situation?

    Picking an advisor is no easier than picking students for one's lab. But when faculty screw this up, they are usually *not* made to feel that they deserve to be in that unfortunate situation because they didn't do their homework.

    • When I had a problem student, my own mentors definitely told me "next time look out for this" and "the wrong student is much worse than no student" and then tried to help me fix it so I could keep productivity high enough to keep going. Most professors have small groups that cannot afford to carry an unproductive student, especially in those crucial lab starting years. When faculty screw this up, they can lose their lab (no grant renewal) or job (no tenure), and are unlikely to get another shot.

      I would think that the comments in this thread fall into the general advice before the fact sort, considering that the author of the article has already finished her PhD. I see students make foolish research group choices pretty regularly--picking someone for their name/reputation or flashy research project even after being warned off by others. Most of our incoming students are in their early 20's with limited life experience and think this won't happen to them. Advice on picking a good match considering not just the research project can't be repeated enough.

  • xykademiqz says:

    Picking an advisor is no easier than picking students for one's lab. But when faculty screw this up, they are usually *not* made to feel that they deserve to be in that unfortunate situation because they didn't do their homework.

    I just want to point out that picking a bad student can completely destroy a junior professor's career, while that student can get another advisor or move schools and still graduate.

    I can't speak about the biomedical sciences, but in my physical science field it goes something like this. You are a brand new assistant professor and you get startup funds that typically include money for two grad students for two years (the rest is for equipment and travel, maybe summer salary for the first couple of years). Those two students over the first two years better be a good match and produce enough good data for you to get grants, otherwise you will not get tenure and your academic career is over. I spent 1/4 of that student money (i.e., 1 student semester) on a first student who was a total flake (as in, would go MIA for weeks on end). Mistakes like that can end up with you spending all your money with nothing to show for and your academic career is done. In contrast, a flake student (or a student who was otherwise a poor fit for the group, or with a poor technical background, or immature, or whatever) can still eventually shape up and get their degree.

    With how scarce and precious grant funding is, for most people who are not BSDs (and thus flush with money), bad hiring decisions are extremely dangerous for the future of the research program. Group members who are not producing for whatever reason are a drain on the resources and the PI's energy, with little to show for; even one bad hire can sink a small group's chances of grant renewal.

    Most graduate students, if they are really motivated to get their degree, do eventually find a way to finish it in another lab or even another university, even though the initial placement didn't work out. But if the PI of a small group loses funding because the money was wasted on unproductive staff, or is on the tenure track and never gets funding because the money has been spent on people who didn't rise to the challenge, there is no do-over.

    I am not trying to minimize the anxiety that a poor student--advisor relationship can produce in a student. But it's not like PIs are these unfeeling demigods off of whose back everything slides. PIs also have finite time and energy, and are typically under a tremendous amount of stress. Most PIs don't have large labs, so even one student who's a poor match for the group can lead to deleterious, irreversible career consequences, especially if the PI is on the tenure track.

    • dr. zeek says:

      I was going to respond to DifferentAnon above. Then I read this. I feel like every mentee needs to read this and realize how much skin we have in the game. And not just "I need data", but also in their success.

    • DifferentAnon says:

      I don't agree with you, but this has nothing to do with my comment, so I don't understand why you quote me.

      FWIW, I don't know a single professor who has failed to get tenure because of a bad student hire. Be honest, do you? And I have seen several people get tenure who made bad hiring choices early on. You seem to have recovered just fine.

      However, I know several students who have not gotten PhDs because of poor advising. They are the ones living with "irreversible career consequences," while their shitty advisors are still employed and screwing up other students' futures.

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