Sunday, July 14, 2013

Dear Abby’s Advisor Agony Advice

We briefly interrupt our redox-tastic summer to prevent the first installment of a new feature: a brand-new agony column for those who supervise scientists.

As a side-benefit of having my name, I have received countless letters that start:
“Dear Abby, I have a problem. Ha-ha-ha.” 
Or emails: Dear Abby, I have a problem :-) (or j/k).

But every once in a while, I get some real ones. For example:

Advisor Abby,
My students come to my office, and just start crying. Since I remember that you cried all the time when you were a student, you might have some perspective. What should I do?
Sincerely, Big Famous Professor

Dear BFP,
Some people are leakier than others. Don’t make a bit deal of it. Ask student if they prefer to wait until they’ve stopped crying to have a conversation, or if they can simultaneously cry and converse. Do keep a box of soft tissues handy, though.

Advisor Abby,
My students don’t write up their papers. What can I do to make them?
Yours, Struggling Associate Professor Who Needs More Pubs to Come Up for Full

Dear SAP,
You can’t make anyone do anything. But you can give lots of support, provide coffee and treats, institute a quarterly manuscript-exchange day, and remind your research group to write in small, bite-sized pieces every day.

Advisor Abby,
Students just aren’t as good as they used to be.
Signed, Professor Out-of-Touch

Dear POT,
Your job is to bring out the best in other people. Please concentrate on that.

Dear Readers—I would love your input on a request for advice that I recently received from a colleague, written below.

Advisor Abby,
In my 20 years as an experimental scientist, I have developed a nose for a good experiment—what might be interesting, what isn’t, what is worth the risk, what is likely to be a waste of time, etc. I realize that my judgment is not always infallible, and sometimes there is ambiguity. But in this case it is very clear what is the interesting and important next step in the project, and a junior scientist working with me is strongly motivated to do the much less interesting experiment.
As an advisor I like to give my students and especially postdocs as much latitude as possible to frame their science and design their own experiments. When the experiments are routine and don’t cost that much in terms of equipment and/or people’s time, then the stakes are low and it’s ok for a student or postdoc to travel a while down a path that I suspect will yield less fruit.  But when the stakes are high—say only 24 hours of experimental time have been granted on a costly instrument—then I feel more strongly that my judgment is heeded.
            How do I show the junior scientist why the experiment they want to do is the less interesting experiment, but while still allowing them to save face?
Definitely Right, but Also Trying to Be Kind.

If you're an advisor  or other scientific supervisor, and you have some experience with this type of situation, please let DRAT know how you approach these situations.

If you're a student and/or postdoc or are supervised by another, please let DRAT know how *you* would want your adivisor to interact with you in this situation.


  1. I've found that having chocolate on hand can stem the undergraduate crying.

    1. So true! Once I found boxes of chocolates in the shape of band-aids (from the wonderful Economy Candy in NYC) but they never got to the students :-)