Thursday, June 11, 2009

Choosing a Graduate School/Postdoc Advisor

A friend of mine, M., went to see his graduate faculty adviser regarding the search for a postdoc position. Like many of his fellow competitive overachievers coming out of that group, he wanted to go on to an equally 'hot' lab and suggested several possible names to his adviser.

A few names on the list were immediately crossed out. Not because they are doing bad science, but rather they are well known to be lousy mentors. The adviser then listed out two well-known examples (in chemistry) of how choosing the wrong type of adviser (no matter how eminent in the field he/she is) can potentially lead to devastating consequences - Hellinga at Duke and E.J. Corey of Harvard.

And we should know better. Last fall, one of our classmates hanged himself. His death was a shock to everyone in the department ("shock" is an understatement), and his adviser later sent out an email to the department graduate student body:

Dear Graduate Students,

You have already received the sad news regarding the death of our colleague and friend C. I was informed last night, and this morning the department chair informed the graduate students, staff, and faculty.

I wanted to follow up further with you, since many of you have expressed your kind sympathies and concern in this regard.

This tragedy occurred at C’s home most likely over the weekend but was only discovered yesterday. I will let you know any additional information if his family feels it appropriate to do so.

As you may be aware, C was doing well in our group. He successfully defended his PhD proposal last year and became a PhD Candidate. He had just returned from the [subfield] symposium in Michigan, and was getting ready to present his latest results at the [national conference] in November. This tragedy therefore cuts short a promising career.

We should all keep C and his family in our thoughts and prayers. I will be in touch with C’s family after I receive information from the Dean of Students. We shall inform you of memorial services, as well as how we may express condolences to his family. We are already planning to do so both as a department and through my research group.


C got his BS from MIT, and like Jason Altom, he was "bright, outgoing, likably confident, intellectually mature, and with an inner reserve of self-reliance that is indispensable to any researcher working on the cutting edge." Another friend A. who was in the same group as C but who has since graduated and now a postdoc elsewhere recalled crying almost every week in her first two years and feeling depressed after the group meetings. Apparently getting called 'stupid', 'idiot' and screamed at during such meetings was to be expected.

...And the fundamental inequality in power between an adviser and a student requires responsibility and even psychological astuteness on both sides. The graduate student is agreeing to be pushed to his intellectual and physical limits by someone he barely knows.

A paragraph in the NYT piece puts it so succinctly:

Graduate study in the sciences, however, is a very unsentimental education. It requires the intellectual evolution from undergrad who can ace tests of textbook knowledge to original thinker who can initiate and execute research about which the textbooks have yet to be written. What is less often acknowledged is that this intense education involves an equally arduous psychological transition, almost a second rebellious adolescence. The passage from callow, eager-to-please first-year student in awe of an often-famous faculty adviser to confident, independent-minded researcher willing to challenge, and sometimes defy, a mentor is a requisite part of the journey.

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