Supporting other people’s students

As I’ve progressed through academia, my relationships to grad students have changed. First, I looked up to them, then I was one of them. As a postdoc, I was friends with and also a mentor to many graduate students, and now as a faculty member I’m an advisor and mentor for my own and other grad students. So now that I am a faculty member, how can I be a good mentor for graduate students? Over the past few years, I’ve realized that I have thought a lot about how to advise my own graduate students, but I haven’t given much thought to mentoring other students.

A few interactions have made me examine this more closely. Over the past several years, I’ve had graduate students come to me for advice- in some cases because relatively serious issues have flared up in their own labs and in other cases to simply talk through more minor situations and brainstorm how to manage their relationships with their own advisors. I’m happy to know that grad students in my department feel that they have a safe space in which to consult with someone. But what is my appropriate role? (I’m talking here about general advice-giving, not more serious issues that require specific reporting actions on my part).

In some cases, I have recommended that the student bring in other people- grad program coordinator, campus ombudsperson, etc. In other cases, perhaps where I’ve had a more direct advisory role with the student (i.e., as a member of their committee), I’m able to direct actions towards specific outcomes. And in still other cases, I’m simply there to help the student talk through the situation and brainstorm strategies or actions the student can take to make their relationships with their advisor smoother. So far I’ve been lucky to have talked through situations with very mature, reflective graduate students. They have often communicated to me that while they are focusing on the negatives in this specific situation, there are also many good attributes of their advisor.

But I struggle with three things. First, I’m only hearing the student perspective on the issue. The advisor may be behaving a particular way for very deliberate reasons- for supportive reasons (e.g., because the student needs a metaphorical kick in the a** to get things done or because the advisor is keeping the larger picture in mind whereas the student is focused on only one part) or for detrimental reasons (e.g., the student is being used to further the advisors goals to the detriment of the students goals). Second, the nature of the relationship depends on the personalities of both advisor and advisee and also can fluctuate substantially through time. I have been fortunate to have fantastic advisors- but there were times during my PhD I really hated my advisor and there were also students in the lab who had more consistently difficult relationships with our advisor than I did. And so while some advisors (or students) rightfully develop reputations as being fantastic, difficult or somewhere in between, those aren’t one-size-fits-all narratives. And third, some advisors ARE much more problematic than others- they are not engaged with their students, they don’t communicate well, they aren’t acting as advocates for their students, they are using their students to further their own research interests only rather than supporting the development of their students as independent researchers, etc., etc., etc.

Because of this, of course there are no one-size-fits-all answers here either. How I advise students will depend both on the specific situation, as well as the lab that they are in. One of the major things I worry about is how these interactions may affect my own relationships with my colleagues. So far, my relationships with my colleagues have not been affected by my interactions with their students. But I’ve been around academia enough to know that it’s only a matter of time. There ARE problematic advisors, so if I’m always the sympathetic ear to their students, will that lead to difficulties in my own professional relationship with that person? And if so, how do I manage those issues given that I will need to interact with and work with my colleague in the future in a number of different contexts? How have other faculty members handled these issues? Have there been situations where your relationship with a colleague has been affected by how they interact with and treat their own grad students, and what did you do about it?

Guest Post: Accusations and second chances

As women in academia we talk a lot about helping and supporting other women. We want to make academia a safer place for us, and to not have incidents of sexual assault, harassment, or discrimination swept under the rug. But what happens when we’re friends or colleagues or mentors of the accused perpetrator in one of those situations? How do we react? How do we feel? Does the same logic that we apply to other peoples’ situations still make sense when we’re emotionally invested?

I had a friend who was involved in an indiscretion with a student. Details of the incident were hazy to everyone, even to the participants (because of inebriation). Colleagues and students were kept in the dark because of privacy issues, and the incident never made it into the media. I felt pulled in so many directions as the situation played out. As a friend I wanted the accused to get a fair hearing, and to support him in his time of need. As a colleague I wanted to salvage research projects and the goodwill of collaborators. As a teacher I wanted make sure that the department’s classes weren’t interrupted. As a woman I wanted the female student to feel safe, heard, and taken seriously.

It felt a little bit like the five stages of grief. Continue reading

Guest Post: The burden of representing a demographic

I am incredibly proud to be a woman in science, to be a role model for other women and girls, and to hopefully push some of the barriers that still exist for women advancing in academia. But sometimes this can feel like an incredible amount of pressure to succeed, to show the world that I, one woman, can be great, somehow demonstrating that all women can be too. Let’s be honest – I’m not always great.

When I was interviewing for postdoc positions I had a particular experience where I really discovered this feeling. This interview was two days long and on the first day I gave my research talk. I dressed in a skirt suit and tried to be very professional. I am generally a good speaker and was confident about my talk. But part way through, a young man about my age asked a question that threw me off my game. It was a really simple question that I should have been able to answer easily. But I didn’t know. I gave a bunch of related information that led to an indirect answer, but it was clear that I should have had a direct answer to the question. The question-asker and other attendees talked a little more about this issue without pushing too hard. But I felt stupid. It made me hyper-aware of everything else in the rest of my talk, from the words that I said to the way I was presenting myself. Continue reading

Summer Plans

It’s summer.

Well actually it’s that odd time – between the end of the semester and the start of summer proper, when we still have a few administrative tasks, time set aside for graduate student committee meetings and qualifying exams, and the other things pushed until after exams are done. The weather is also in between – or rather up and down (though that’s also climate change). Either way I am trying to plan out my summer – my personal plans, travel, and writing goals, determine my really specific (and manageable) goals, and sketch out a (reasonable) schedule to make them all happen.

There have been a few posts around – by @duffy_ma at @DynamicEcology and by @ProflikeSubstance – on planning a sabbatical (I am sure I’ve missed posts on this – please add links in the comments!). Planning summer feels similar – but without the external pressures of still being asked to do service. The common theme is: How do I make the best use of this time when this CHUNK of un-scheduled time stretches out in front of me? There are some good comment threads to those posts too and I’d love to hear what your summer plans are, and what works (or doesn’t work) for you. Continue reading

I have a vested interest.

In the fourth grade, I was obsessed with marine science and sonar technology, and I’d spend Saturday afternoons watching The Hunt for Red October instead of Saved by the Bell. That summer, I toured a Navy sub in dry dock– my first time! — and I asked the officer leading the tour when we’d be going to the sonar room. “Sorry, kid. It’s classified,” he said. Masking my disappointment, I replied that it was okay, because I was going to be a sonar technician when I grew up, and I could wait until then. “But they don’t let girls on subs,” was the officer’s surprised reply, as he looked at me as if I’d sprouted horns. When I asked why not, he told me I wouldn’t want to be stuck on a sub with a bunch of smelly guys anyway. My “Then…why aren’t there submarines for just girls?” got no reply.

So, I have a vested interest.  Continue reading

Your emails should contain a greeting and a closing.

I’m sure any of my readers who teach college students today would not be surprised that I have said the title of this post to multiple students this semester. Teaching at an elite university, I’m surprised at how little preparation my students seem to have for interacting with faculty, staff, and administrators. And this year, as classes come to a close, I’ve started to wonder: whose job is it to teach the “hidden curriculum” — the professional life skills students should leave college with and will prepare them to be good team players, bosses, and students? I think for the past few years I’ve ignored my responsibility when it comes to teaching these skills to students because, for lack of a better way to put it, when they ask me for extensions with big puppy-dog eyes, I have trouble saying “No, in a job environment you would have to ask much earlier and explain why you need an extension and even then you might not get it.” I think my approach isn’t serving the students in the long run. Continue reading

Field season safety: a tale in two parts

Field season is coming up fast as the spring semester winds down, and even though I’m done with fieldwork now, it’s on my mind as my labmates gear up for theirs. Field season safety in particular is on my mind. There have been great recent articles and blogs about the dangers of sexual assault and unwanted contact while conducting fieldwork, especially in remote locations or isolated conditions. But I want to focus on two different, potentially overlooked and very American aspects of safety: cars and guns. Today I’m just talking about cars and road safety, and my next post will be about guns.

Working in the “field,” wherever that may be, often requires driving to field sites. For my own research, I was often driving for more hours in a given day than sampling at each site, due to the distance between field sites and frequency of sampling. While the sheer number of hours I’ve logged behind the wheel may be at the far end of the spectrum, driving for at least two hours per fieldwork day is common for others in my lab and department.  Since fieldwork is often collaborative, the driving is also often split between the research team. This means that undergraduate students, technicians, graduate students, and postdocs all rotate driving shifts throughout the day and across the field season. I never gave much thought to trusting my field crew with driving and our field vehicle until an incident a few years back. Two undergraduates who worked for me and I were in the car. One of the undergraduates was driving, and as he was pulling out from a field site, he took a weird angle going up a short hill (this was not on a paved road) and our vehicle rolled over. Fortunately, no one was injured and we were traveling so slowly (since we had just started the vehicle) that the car was not totaled. However, it was a deeply humbling and frankly terrifying experience for everyone involved. Continue reading