The Wandering adviser

This is going to register so close to home for some of you since you may be in this situation right now.

Your adviser is a wanderer. Brilliant, full of ideas but never focused to stay on completing tasks. Let me make the assumption that you are a PhD student on a research assistantship that your adviser has worked hard to secure for you. Here’s what your life might look like: Your adviser assigned you a project of some sort and then two weeks later she walks in with another great idea and every few months or so, another idea emerges. You are so caught up in the fun of trying new things, 3 years go by quickly. You have very little to show for in terms of progress. You have moved from one project to another. Don’t get me wrong here: You are probably learning a lot on this journey! But, you have not written any of these projects into a paper for submission to a peer reviewed journal because you’ve been busy trying new things. Neither you or your adviser have paid close attention to the courses that you should be taking. You are merely taking research credits or the odd class here and there because every day is an endless ream of ideas. Can you relate to this? As I travel the country and provide Professional Development seminars, students explain such a scenario (in private of course!).

How do you navigate such an adviser. Enter grit, determination and sheer persistence.

First, make sure that you pay close attention to the courses. Fill out our program of study (POS), pick your committee members after discussing with your adviser and get the POS signed. Make sure that you complete these courses on time based on departmental guidelines.

Next, write your research proposal and get your adviser to review it and provide comments. Let your committee review this and finalize the research proposal. Now regardless of all the ‘side’ projects you are working on, you can focus on the main research project. You have to persist through this stage since your adviser will continue to veer into new ideas.

Next, make sure that if your department requires a comprehensive/qualifying/preliminary exam, you set up the time line and then proactively work towards completing the exam.

Here is the important part. Realize that your adviser is never going to stop being a firehose of information and ideas. Receive the ideas but prioritize them. If you show good progress on your main research project then you can continue to place the new projects as a lower priority.

This is also important. It is your turn to become creative and move towards your end goal. Write that first paper since nothing excites an adviser to see new results. Write your results section for the new paper and then wrap the rest of the paper around it. You’ll be surprised how quickly you’ll get on track. I’ve had to use some of these tactics in my graduate school days.

In this endless stream of ideas, chaos and research, your priorities for your research and career must come shining through. If you are not proactive you will end up staying too long for your PhD, worse still get disillusioned and may be tempted to quit the program.

 

Professional Ethics for the Graduate Student

Probably one of the most difficult topics to tackle is professional ethics. Why is that? In a world where there appears to be no one right way to do anything, everything appears gray.  You’ve probably heard the phrase “there is no black and white” or that, when the situation is rather gray, the right thing to do is to leave it up to the individual. As catchy as that may sound, that type of thought process will land you in trouble when it comes to doing research or engaging in graduate student activities. While this section is largely geared towards professional ethics for a graduate student engaging in research, I will also touch upon some generalities.

This list is not meant to be exhaustive, but it is pieced together from my years of experience as a student and an academic. I also have a unique vantage point as chair of a department.

  1. If your research involves data, the first thing to remember is to not alter, fudge, or change data. This is especially true if you own an instrument and make measurements. You have a professional responsibility to report the data as it was measured.
  2. It is imperative that you report your results with all of the methodology so your results can be duplicated if necessary. This is definitely a professional responsibility since you have to allow others to learn from your research and build upon your work as well. For those of us who receive federal grants and contracts, it is important to remember that these research dollars were funded largely from tax payers.
  3. The same situation applies for the data that you collect that were funded by grants and contracts. It is your professional and ethical responsibility to make it available to everyone. Therefore, hoarding data for personal gains is not conducive to research.
  4. We are all creatures of perception and preconceived ideas. We may all claim to be open minded or broad minded. We may have the highest degrees possible – a Ph.D. But when it comes to research, I have seen a many a researcher who desperately hopes to fit the data to the preconceived conclusion. Bad idea.
  5. When plotting results in figures from the data, it is critical to show all data not just the ones that fits the best correlations. Often, it is in those outliers where some interesting research findings exist.
  6. Plagiarism is a difficult issue. I often tell this story to the students in my Professional Development course. An eye opener. When I was in the first semester of graduate school, I became friends with an international student who was also new to the program. As young Graduate Research Assistants, our job was to work on research topics with our advisors. Our advisors gave us state-of-the-art research papers to read and helped us through the process of doing leading edge research. My friend’s advisor was a no-nonsense, top notch researcher in his mid to late career. He had a prolific publication record and was well know in his field. As students, we not only did research but also took courses to bolster our understanding and strengthen our foundation.  In January of that year, just at the beginning of that semester, my friend’s advisor gave him a journal paper that had just appeared in print. In my field, there are a lot of papers that appear on a weekly/monthly basis and not everyone is aware of every new paper the week it appears in print. As you go through this story, the key thing to remember is that my friend was an international student. My friend carefully read the paper that his advisor had given him and treated it like every other paper on his reading assignment in his class. This class  was taught by a professor who encouraged his students to write project reports. My friend now made a huge mistake that he thought was not a major issue. He wrote a project paper for the course with several paragraphs and words that were taken from the paper that his advisor had given him. To make matters worse, the professor was excited about my friend’s project paper and ideas and upon reading the paper promptly walked to my friend’s advisor and exclaimed, “Take a look at this amazing project paper.”  You can already sense that trouble was just around the corner. My friend’s advisor took a quick look at the project paper and not only proceeded to explain the problem but gave the professor the same copy of the paper that he had given my friend. Upon learning that the student had copied a lot of material from the paper, both the advisor and the professor were upset. The student was confronted and was quickly dismissed from the program on grounds of plagiarism. Some of you may feel that this was the right decision, and others may think that the decision to dismiss was rather harsh – especially since the student was not “aware” of plagiarism issues. It is, therefore, imperative that all students at the beginning of their research career, and at the beginning of every course, be reminded of plagiarism issues. It takes less than 5 minutes to do this, but it eliminates a lot of heartache for everyone involved.
  7.  Often faculty (and therefore the students) are asked to review papers that were written by other researchers. Remember that when you accepted the responsibility to review this paper – I emphasize the word responsibility – you accepted the conditions set forth by the journal for reviewing this paper. An important clause is that you will not take the methods outlined in the paper and use it for your own gains. This means that you cannot reject the paper and then turn around some of the ideas in that paper and publish it in another venue. This is certainly unethical. Granted, that these things do happen in real life. My advice is to practice professional ethics and stay above board and guess what? You can sleep well at night knowing that you have not stolen someone else’s ideas.
  8. Whether you are reviewing a paper or proposal it is important that you review it for its merits and move on.
  9. Here is a potentially explosive situation that I heard recently. “My wife’s advisor did not allow her to publish her data because it went against the grain of his theories. He, therefore, delayed her graduation and frustrated her progress.”  What does one do in this case? As much as your advisor may be the world leader in his field, the first thing that you have to determine is whether the advisor asked the student to falsify the results. If that is the case, then I suggest that you find another advisor somewhere and distance yourself from this person as far as possible. No compromise. On the other hand, if all you are having are disagreements in the way the analysis is being conducted or the methods that are being used, then make sure that you are not over-amplifying the problem. Your advisor has a lot more experience than you. Create an atmosphere for discussions and arguments that are productive.
  10. Another source of conflict that is an ethical issue is the order of authorship on papers. Here is another story. A friend of mine while in graduate school was asked to write a paper to a major journal. His advisor let him believe that the student was going to be the first author. At the very last stage of submission, the advisor placed his name in front of the student’s name. The student was upset, but the advisor indicated to the student that it was an executive decision on his part. As sobering as that story sounds, I have heard other instances of this lack of professionalism. Advisors should be in the habit of building a student’s career not frustrating them. Having said that, it is important to note that the rules of engagement regarding authorship should be outlined early on in the student-advisor relationship and reinforced at crucial junctures.
  11. When collaborating with other scientists, most of the issues outlined above are still true. Establish rules of engagement upfront so there are no misconceptions on authorships or responsibilities. Communicate effectively!

Professional ethics is a lot more than simply the examples and discussion points that I have presented. When confronted with ethical dilemmas, my recommendation is to carefully evaluate the situation rather than reacting to the situation. Apply common sense principles and learn how to think about another’s vantage point. If you are a student, think about your advisor’s vantage point. If you are struggling with what you perceive is an ethical issue and you do not know what to do – do not stew over it. Seek out a mentor and work through the problem. Finally, most people that I know and work with are ethical and are genuinely interested in their profession. Therefore, do not make a mountain out of a molehill.

Finishing your Ph.D. dissertation – The final stages and preplanning

You’ve labored through courses and preliminary and qualifying exams. You’ve read a lot of papers, prepared a proposal for your research and travailed through reading, writing, coding, analyzing and the myriad of details needed to complete a Ph.D. dissertation. The only thing that is left to do is to get your written work to be approved by your adviser, mail the dissertation to your committee members and then stand up and defend. Sounds simple doesn’t it? This last stage requires a lot of planning and some careful thought.

This is what a forward thinking graduate student should do

1. Policies. Before you go any further find out the departmental policies for submitting a dissertation and the deadlines. It is also important to read the graduate school hand book to make sure if there are additional procedures and policies in place.

Common misconception : When the time comes, I’ll just ask the department staff assistant or my adviser. Better yet, I’ll just talk to a fellow student.

My answer : Wrong! Wherever you find a place of employment or life in general there are numerous policies and procedures in place – all with deadlines. Know these policies and write them down on your calendar/organizer. You should know all policies such as : How many weeks before my defense should I send my committee members (CM) my dissertation? It is important that you send your CMs the entire dissertation – complete from title page to references/Appendices. It is poor practice to send CM portions of your dissertation.

A dissertation should never ever be sent out to CMs unless the adviser has worked through the various drafts and approved (the complete dissertation).

2) This could be costly! Most Universities require the PhD student to be enrolled anywhere from 3 credits during the semester that you are defending. Let’s say that you are planning on defending your dissertation during the summer semester. Make sure that you adhere to the deadlines. The Graduate school will not process your dissertation of you do not submit it on time for the summer semester. This means that you will become a Fall semester graduate and guess what? You have to pay 3 credits of tuition even if it means that you will only need part of the Fall semester to finish your dissertation. Rules are rules and most Universities will not make exceptions. There is no sense in getting frustrated at the University or for that matter your adviser or the department. If you do not plan the sequence of events carefully leaving adequate time for the various steps there is no one else to blame but you!

Poor time and project management will lead to frustration and less money in your bank account.

3. Your Committee members have other responsibilities as well. If you have 5 committee members you may think that they will be there every step of the way. Some CMs are very involved and others are less so but it is your job to navigate the process of writing and defending your dissertation. Engage our CMs in meaningful ways and tap into their expertise. In other words, make them work for you!

It’s time to move on

One of the hardest decisions for both the student and the Professor is to know when to end that relationship. There are so many dynamics in this complex relationship between student and mentor, or student and adviser.

When do I know that it is time to let a student go?

  1. When the trust factor breaks down completely between student and the adviser. Here is an example. I had gone for a 6 week research project to another country. I had talked with each one of my students in my research group about my expectations for their research during this very important summer time. I had mapped out research plans and goals for each one of them before I left and I indicated to them that business is as usual since it is easy to keep in touch via email and other means. For most of my students except one this worked very well. My emails always were promptly attended to and work was being done even in my absence. But for that one student it meant freedom. He never responded to my emails and when I returned back to my office I went to his office and my questions were met with a cold stare. Days later I found out that the student left on vacation for 6 weeks while I was on a research trip. Mind you, that this student was being paid through a Graduate Research Assistantship at that point. As you can imagine it only took a few days for him to leave my group and the University to never return again.
  2. Some cases are even harder. One of my students that I recruited from another country came with excellent credentials but soon after he landed in the United States he began to miss home and could not adapt to a new country and a new place. He failed in all of his courses and he made the decision to go back home. He still keeps in touch and a few years after he returned home, he took some time to adjust and then went to Europe to finish his degree. He is doing extremely. Wrong time at the wrong place.
  3. This situation is even harder. The student simply does not grasp the work required for a research project and complete it according to the expected standards of the community. despite training and mentoring the student simply is not a good fit. As an adviser try to find a landing place for the student rather than simply terminating them. After all you recruited this student.

For the Early Career faculty member : The biggest picture

I was recently asked by a graduate student from a discipline that is not even close to mine about the the big picture view for a early career faculty member. It got me thinking seriously. Most early career faculty members have been taught to how to interview well, do good research, write high quality papers, proposals, present their material well and teach well. More over they are asked to be collegiality and serve their communities well and with respect. Don’t get me wrong, these are indeed good and usual pieces of advice. Faculty who succeed at earning tenure and even beyond are often times left wondering, there must be more.

Early career faculty struggle with many issues. Fitting into a new University and an academic system that is supposed to be freethinking, yet rigid beyond reason is not an easy task. They are thrust into teaching situations with very little training, let alone mentoring. The pay check is a consolation either every other week or monthly. The only thing that may seem like a security blanket is the research that the faculty member finished up as part of their dissertation. Their mind wanders back into that success story.

Most departments pay no attention to deliberate mentoring, others do a perfunctory job a, while others realize that a properly mentored faculty member is not just a successful one but a future leader.

What I am about to say next is not meant to be a noble statement or a standard cliche. It is important for you as an early career faculty to develop a set of core values or a driving mission statement for your career. Nowhere will you find more satisfaction than being a mentor to a student. Taking the best of the best practices and pouring it into a student to see them do better than you ever did is sheer magic. That’s why I believe that you need to take a look at your graduate student as a future peer and an extension of yourself. If you grab a hold of this is as a process and not just events filled with exams and research mile markers there are several things that will begin to fall into place.

So, how then can you accomplish this paradigm of student to peer and beyond. Let’s take a trip down memory lane. Think of the first day that you walked into your adviser’s office for the first time. May be you were recruited over the phone or email or at a conference. But here you are, at the doorstep of an adviser with whom you will spend almost 3 to 5 years to get a graduate degree. Do you remember being nervous? I was!

It is important to realize that not all students come to the same set of knowledge, skills abilities and other characteristics. It is impossible to know how motivated they are, their work ethic and the skills that is needed in the long run to help them succeed. Having a strategy on training and mentoring students to succeed is your responsibility.Of course it is a partnership but you have the experience of having gone through graduate school, research and the joys and travails of graduate school that they don’t. Therefore this should be an opportunity for you to set the stage for their success.

Looking at incoming student as a responsibility is a good one but it is much better to view the student as a future peer. With that in mind it becomes easier to mentor and help your student succeed.

A graduate education is a blend of courses, research and it should be fiilled with professional development opportunities.

As an adviser you must pay close attention to course selections for your student. Make sure that you know how your program’s curriculum is structured. Help the student select courses. I’ve always tried to have my students have a lower class load in the first semester, very much like where you are now. Most Universities give you a lighter teaching load for the first semester or so, so you can acclimatized to your new surroundings. The same principle holds for students. A slightly lower course load for the first semester will help them get settled in. This is especially true if your student is from another country. The adjustment period is critical and it is your responsibility to help with the transition the best you can.

Keep the big picture alive. Remember that this is a long term relationship that you are building with the student. Start well and finish strong. Hell build the students’ career and it is probably the most rewarding thing you will ever do!

Strengths and Weaknesses

As a graduate student it is important that you know your own strengths and weaknesses.You may ask why? Here are some reasons:

  1. Knowing your strengths and writing it down means that you are taking ownership. It builds self esteem. But be realistic though. If you write down that you are great speaker and you are not, then there is a mismatch between your self assessment and reality.
  2. Knowing your weaknesses means that you are willing to admit it and then you have a chance to convert weaknesses to strengths.
  3. Review your strengths and weaknesses periodically to see if you are moving some of your weaknesses to strengths. Graduate school is a great place to make these positive moves.
  4. Let’s not forget the opportunities that you have. Do you know that there are numerous opportunities and funding available for you to network, travel, and learn from experts. Ask what opportunities are available. Travel, network, present a paper and the possibilities are endless.
  5. Know the threats that you may have that prevent you from completing a degree. Learn how to mitigate them the best you can.

The best place to start is an honest assessment and then chip away to make progress towards your goals.

Transitioning from undergraduate to graduate school

By Dr. Sundar A. Christopher – profsac@gmail.com
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You have decided to go to graduate school and you have applied to several graduate programs around the nations and even attended some open house events so you can learn more about the department and the University. This is the Spring semester already and you are just a few weeks away from getting that hard-earned undergraduate degree. Well done, you are almost there.

Something that is not discussed ‘until’ you get to graduate school is making that mental transition/adjustment from UG to graduate school. You probably already know that you had to make some adjustments and a huge transition in your way of thinking when you went from high school to the UG University. This next step from UG to graduate school is even bigger in terms of an adjustment.

Here are a few things for you to keep in mind as you make this transition.

The experience. You must learn and accept the fact that graduate school training/teaching is very different from the UG experience. Your class sizes  are going to be much smaller. Depending upon the University that you will attend, some classes that you will take may have only as many as 5 students. Yes, you heard that right – 5 students. This means that you are going to get a lot more attention during the classes and guess what – you are expect to engage with your Professor during the lecture. That could be an alien concept if you either came from a UG experience that did not cultivate interaction or by very nature you are reticent. You have to move beyond that reticence and start engaging with your Professors.

Beyond the classroom. You are not going to like this part of my blog when I say that in graduate school not everything will be explained on a Powerpoint or on the board. Good Professors are not supposed to ‘over-teach‘ (or under-teach for that matter) any given lecture. They are supposed to provide the framework and provide some thinking/creative time for you to figure out the material ‘after’ the class is over. As a rule of thumb expect to spend at least 3 hours of thinking/research time for every hour of lecture in graduate school. This means that you need to be taking good notes. Not everything can be written on a PPT or on a board and the Professor is supposed to be bringing his/her experience (including research experience) to the classroom. Therefore take good notes. Good students not only rework lecture notes after the class is over but also prepare for the next lecture by reading up on text books or journal papers.

Journal papers. This is another huge transition that you have to make while going from UG to Graduate school. Not everything from a graduate course is going to be in text books. If all of the material from a graduate course comes exclusively from a text, then something is inherently wrong with that course. Graduate courses must bring leading edge research material to the class room which means that you should be assigned reading based on peer reviewed literature in your field. Some of these papers are ‘classic’ which means that you should be studying them like a text.

Solving problems for home work/assignments. Do not expect all of your assignments to be cookie cutter – easy to solve – at first attempt type of problems. It may take hours or in some cases a few days worth of work involving group discussions with your classmates.

Which brings me to the next important point : Working in teams. Solving problems in graduate school is exciting when you bounce off ideas with one another. I remember during my graduate school days certain problems took many hours to solve and we had some lively discussions. We did our own work and turned in individual assignments but we had some excellent discussions. This goes for problems involving computer work/coding as well. Group discussions are profitable but do your own work and research.

Managing time. I talk quite a bit about managing time in my book ‘Navigating Graduate School and Beyond – Wiley Press’ but I want to say a few words here to place this in context. Poor time management will lead to undue stress on you and your professors – let alone your advisers. Do not put them in a difficult spot by turning in assignments/projects late so they have to give you a ‘zero’ for your work. Learn how to come to class at least 5 minutes prior so you can settle down and focus. When an assignment is due it is downright embarrassing if you walk in 5 minutes late to class after everyone else has turned their work in – and then proceed to walk up to the front of the class to find a stapler or a clip to put together an assignment. Graduate school is the best place to flex your time management skills. Learn from your peers if necessary and come up with a method that clearly indicates to your Professors and your adviser that you are serious about being in graduate school.

Assignments/Projects. Strive to have a top quality paper. Typed, spell-checked, staple it (beforehand) and strive for professional quality to indicate that you are serious about graduate school. Trust me, sloppy work shows!

The complete you. Graduate school is an exciting time to learn, do research and earn a degree that will propel you to an exciting career. However you must realize that you strike a good balance between classes, research, and personal item. Again managing that all important time is the key. Learn best practices for alleviating stress. I’ve known students who jog, play tennis or work out diligently in fitness centers. You can get carried away by focusing on these elements as well. Graduate school is probably not the best time to become a professional body builder or a tennis professional – so keeping that in perspective will help. I often encourage students to keep an eye on eating a balanced meal and chugging lots of water. I encourage foreign students to NOT room with fellow countrymen so they can get over the language barriers. The bottom line is this : Make sure that you alleviate stress (yes, graduate school is not entirely stress free!) while keeping your goals in mind.

Here’s some home work for you : Read the Chapter – Casting a Vision from my book and write down your Strengths, Weakness, Opportunities, and Threats – a SWOT analysis.

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