Graduate students are one of the best, and one of the most difficult aspects of my job. I constantly wonder if I’m doing it right. I worry because I care about the students. I care about whether they are learning and growing as scientists, and I care about them as human beings. I also care about their scientific output. In fact, as a lab-based scientist, I am dependent on the work that they do.
There are a two main flavors of my worry. First, Am I doing enough for their scientific development? Second, am I falling into the trope of the over-demanding pre-tenure faculty?
The first of these generally has two main steps transient* frustration with a student triggers a longer spiral of second guessing myself as a mentor.
The frustrations are usually normal** day-to-day things. Mistakes, failure to take notes of discussions, failure to locate notes from discussions, needing to repeat instructions that should not need to be explained again****, slowness of writing, oversharing about personal issues, failure to talk to me about research-related questions, and lack of keeping up with the literature, for example.
But then I start wondering: Is there something about what I am doing that could fix some of these problems? Am I giving my students too much room? Or am I micromanaging? Am I applying too much pressure? Not enough pressure? Is it contradictory if I am working on something up to a deadline, but demand they have drafts to me early?
Obvious frustration of a student can also trigger my second guessing – someone upset after feedback on their writing, or even a twitter discussion of unrelated trainees frustrated with their PI over feedback on a draft of a paper. Am I that PI? Did I not explain why changes need to be made?
I’m not alone in this – either the frustrations or the second guessing. And as of writing this, I don’t have good solutions*****. I also know that many of the things that frustrate me is caused by something that is a source of anxiety for students.
Writing? Terrifying. Talking to your PI about something in lab that you feel like you should know? Nerve wracking. Making a mistake on a critical experiment? Horrifying.
But these are exactly the same things that trigger my own concerns about the science that happen in the lab. I need to get papers out, so someone that constantly misses deadlines for getting their work written up is a real issue. And if they won’t talk to me about it, I don’t know whether it’s anxiety, if there is something I could help with, or if they are working on it at all. But what is the best way to respond to this? Should I be more demanding about deadlines and words on a page? Should I acknowledge that teaching and classes and having a life also require their time, or should I push for everything to be done all at once^. I could request a set number of words per day, but I’d usually prefer well thought out words, thoughtfully strung together than 500 words of mind dump^^^.
A major mistake on an important experiment – especially one that we have talked through what feels like a thousand times^^ – will always make my stomach drop. It’s a crucial part of learning, but it also slows down their experimental output. Should I be worried about the attention to detail from this person? Their notes? Or only worry if it happens again. Should I demand they work around the clock to redo the experiment? Or be satisfied with talking through the problem to make sure they have learned from their mistakes. Or should I just acknowledge and let it drop, assuming mistakes happen and redoing a long experiment won’t kill them, me or my research program?
I’m slowly finding my own way through some of these issues, trying to find a balance between getting the work done efficiently, and remembering that everyone has lives outside the lab. So far, the most important thing for me is making sure everyone is talking to me about their research, and their struggles with balancing the various parts of their job.
I still haven’t quite worked out how not to worry about my role in my students’ scientific development, or how to know if I’m doing too much of something or too little.
* I rant to friends outside academia.
** I can think of examples where I was guilty of some*** of these myself.
**** Experimental designs should be in your lab notebook. In detail. Every single experiment.
***** Maybe tomorrow.
^ Something i’ve not learned to do.
^^ See also: failure to write/find notes on discussions.
^^^ One solution is to write the paper without the student. I’m not at all okay with this option. Writing is a hugely important skill for students to learn.