Friday, April 23, 2010

Why do I Bend Over Backwards?

My second year student is continually giving me trouble. Some of this stems from me being a newbie adviser, but most of it comes from this student being inflexible. I understand that this move effects his life - where he lives, who he meets, where he may get a job later. Hmm let me explain a bit.

His desire is to obtain a PhD from prestigious old U., and to move to the new U. with me. He absolutely refuses to transfer to the new U. He is an international student, and his intention is to go back to his country and work in industry. He maintains that a degree from the internationally recognized old U. is more important than a degree from the new U. (even though new U. is much more highly ranked in my discipline). For all this to happen, he must complete his candidacy exam and register in absentia every semester. The tricky part is funding. My NSF funding for him will run out in his 4th year, and I cannot use start up funds from new U. to pay off my student from old U. I must use external funding. I must obtain a grant for his project (or some related project) in the next year to maintain his funding through his PhD. If I don't... then it gets messy.

Anyways, the student is freaking out because his project isn't working. He reasons that if his project isn't working, then he won't pass his candidacy exam, and we won't secure external funding. I tried to explain to him that this isn't really how academics works, and that he would be just fine. He didn't believe me. I'm tired of babying him and comforting him. Just suck it up already and be professional!

On top of this, he is a So-So student. I often have to ask him to do things twice. He still doesn't take notes during our meetings. His redeeming quality (or fault?) is that he is a perfectionist, so his data is robust and I have confidence in it. So why am I bending over backwards for this student?? Simply put: my doppleganger. If I leave my student behind, my doppleganger will take the student into his lab, scoop the project, and take my research ideas. I know that sounds paranoid, but this doppleganger has tried to do this to others (I finally have evidence). Is it all worth it?


Anonymous said...


For someone in power to hire an expat in industry abroad, all that matters is the reputation of the University that granted the PhD. I know, because I have been there.

I am on the academic job market in the US right now, and I believe this is true even for academic job searches. People do (and unfortunately, will continue to) give undue importance to where you had your PhD from. Moreover, for your student, what is working for him is only the big name of the university, as you are an early-career academic, and understandably have not had a chance to build the clout that your student can use to further his own career.

He obviously likes you, and that is why he is dragging his feet moving to new place, while still wanting to work with you. I hope you take this as a sort of complement and that it shows a certain degree of respect and trust for you.

The funding and all other necessary formalities can suck a lot of energy. I guess if it becomes too much, nobody would blame you if you decide to cut him loose if he does not move along with you. The loss of time and resources on that project (plus the prospect that it will get stolen) is something of a downside of your own decision to move.

Unbalanced Reaction said...

How frustrating. I guess, given that the project might get scooped, that you are stuck with him. Sucky.

Anonymous said...

You are being very patient and accommodating to this student. However, I am confused as to why you are concerned that your doppleganger will take over the student AND the project if you don't continue to support the student. I can see the doppleganger taking the student, but if you have NSF funding for the research, it is your project. I don't see how anyone else could in good conscience take over your research ideas when you have already obtained funding for them. It seems like, worst case scenario, your student stays behind to work with your doppleganger, but you still have funds to hire a student at your new university to continue the project (maybe an MS student?). Any data your student has already collected belongs to you, and he could not publish it to the benefit of your doppleganger.

Is there anyway that the student could finish up a PhD before the NSF funding runs out? I know people who have completed a PhD in 4 years. Since he says he wants to go back to his home country and work in industry, you don't really have to worry about him trying to develop a research career. He just needs enough data for a PhD and a few pubs. Do you think you could compromise on the depth of his dissertation just to get him out before the grant expires? Alternatively, are there any possibilities to support him for an extra year on some other kind of fellowship? For example, I am in an EPSCoR state, and my state legislature funds fellowships for grad students who are working on EPSCoR funded research at certain institutions in the state. Any programs like that?

Good luck!

Janus Professor said...

Anon- I agree that it is hard to believe that the doppleganger would scoop the project. Given my recent experience with him and what others have told me, I wouldn't put it past him. Yes, the project is funded by NSF, and he cannot have access to the grant. But he is an idea stealer, and he could easily have my student teach everyone in the lab the techniques that make my own lab unique. But then... if the student isn't so great how much could he really carry over? So I'm really on the fence with this.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with the first anon on this one. For certain countries, the reputation of the American school means so much more than the rank of the department in that particular field. Please try to understand this for your student's sake.

Anonymous said...

As a former international student, I totally understand where this student is coming from. In his home country, the ONLY thing that will matter is how well recognized the name of the university granting his degree is. We all know it means little in terms of how good of an education he got, how good of a scientist he is, etc. but none of that will matter in his home country. That is the sad truth. I don't know where your student is from - but I know this to be true in many Asian countries.

I chose to to establish my academic career in the US, and so the advisor, department, etc. in my FIELD, and the publication I had, was WAY more important than the name of the university. But had I chosen to go back to Asia, it wouldn't have matter one tiny bit how many Nature paper I had - only that I graduated from Prestigious University X.

I would try to be understanding for the sake of your student. You are the one who initiated the move, and he's attempting to deal with either losing his future job prospects or starting over. That is a much more difficult position to be in than you may think.

Hope said...

Wow. Is this “so-so student” the same one who figured out on his own that what you had been doing for the past year was wrong? Doesn’t sound that so-so to me … unless you yourself are a so-so researcher.

After reading this post, it’s pretty clear that your concern here is your doppelganger (and yourself), not your student. Perhaps he senses this and this is, in part, why he is so freaked out and unwilling to just follow you elsewhere. I hope you end up cutting ties with him, because I think *he* might be better off.

Anonymous said...

It's not JP's fault she is selfish and thinking about herself. They train academics to be selfish. We are told not to care about students - just how can the student help me? Students are byproducts in the empire building career of an academic. It's very unfortunate.

Anonymous said...

Following up on a comment above, I think it is easy to forget how traumatic/disruptive an advisor's move can be for a graduate student, no matter what the circumstances. It is a situation that emphasizes the lack of control they have over important aspects of their PhD training. The student sounds like he has some positive attributes - might just take some additional patience as you work through these difficulties.

Arlenna said...

Yes, it's selfish to do everything you can to try to figure out how to help someone else's life work out the way they want it to. It is especially selfish to put that other person in that position because you want to have a lifestyle that doesn't aggravate your chronic disease and make you f'ing miserable. It is SO selfish to worry to the point of anxiety about someone else's needs while you also try to protect your 'empire' from sabotage by an unethical asshole.

Man, you people really don't get it, do you?

Hope said...

Man, you people really don't get it, do you?

Well, what I get from this post is that the main (perhaps only?) reason that JP is “bending over backwards” for this “so-so student” is to prevent him from going to work for Doppelganger, and to prevent the latter from potentially scooping her. This is all about what’s best for her, so yes, she is being selfish.

But I never said she didn’t have a right to look out for herself. In fact, I argued in my comment on the previous post that 2nd-yr student also has a right to be “selfish.” What gets to me is how much JP is complaining about the hoops she has to jump through, as if all this were only for, or primarily for, the sake of the student.

Frankly, I think the guy might be better off staying at Prestigious U. and working for someone else. But I doubt that this is the advice that he’s getting from JP, because it wouldn’t be in *her* best interest.