Grad students these days…

One of my newly appointed duties post-tenure, is to serve as an advisor to graduate students (other than those in my own lab) in one of the many programs that I am affiliated with. This is my first sort of ‘real’ year doing this particular teaching/service responsibility, and so far it has been quite an interesting one. Based on my (admittedly anecdotal) observations, I have come to the conclusion that grad students today, in general, are quite a bit different than they were back in the day. A few examples.

First, it I’ve heard that the incoming graduate students are doing poorly on one or another aspect of coursework, because “they don’t know how to study”. I’m not sure what to with this observation. I recognize that one’s ability to study effectively is a learned skill- and that graduate school is a special kind of curriculum where one has to be able to take facts and evidence, and be able to put the pieces together to figure out where to go next- and that that can be a challenge if one has not done it before. But- from what I’ve been hearing the ‘don’t know how to study’ comment refers to not being able to recall facts delivered in class. Maybe I’m a bit of a hard ass- but if the instructor gives you a list of 6 facts you should be able to recall for the exam- it seems pretty obvious to me that you should probably know those 6 facts and the information delivered in class surrounding them. Is this just lazy-assed-ness or what?

Second- students aren’t taking notes in class, and aren’t seeking out faculty input or help on subjects they aren’t totally comfortable with. WHAT??? Students are apparently given the powerpoint presentations of the faculty, and are given access to taped lectures so they can re-watch the lecture (or watch it for the first time if they didn’t attend class) as they see fit. I’m all about different learning styles and whatnot- but I don’t think one gets too much from just passive listening. I’m not sure the communications revolution – making sure everyone can see the taped lecture- has been helpful as far as developing good, disciplined study habits is concerned. Back in the day, we went to lecture, we paid attention in lecture, we took notes, we did the recommended reading, we did problem set after problem set to get a handle on the material and be familiar with what kinds of questions might show on an exam. We went to lecture and we took notes because we knew we had one chance to get the material in class- if you didn’t pay attention it was at your own peril. Am I just hopelessly old fashioned?

Finally- there is the issue of seminar, journal club attendance. Seminars and journal clubs  seem to be taken as an optional obligation by grad students this year. ??? What is up with that? Now I just lost my patience. Kids – get your ass to seminar. Period. You are wasting a chance to be learning some new, cool science. You are wasting the opportunity to learn what makes a superb or really shitty seminar. You are wasting the chance to broaden your horizons.

I almost can’t believe that I’m writing a blog post about this topic. It seems so obvious. You won’t be a successful graduate student if you expect to skate through with people handing you the answers, unmotivated and un-invested in your own education and projects.  Now …..get offa my lawn!

Did your student write the paper, or did you?

Hmmm. Not sure I’m happy with that title, my students probably could have done better.

I was talking with a colleague about paper writing the other day. In comparing mental notes, we had completely different experiences of how our papers got written as graduate students. I wrote mine. Well, that is a lie.  I wrote the complete first draft. That first draft came back to me absolutely bathed in red pen. Yeah- that’s right PEN. These were the days before you could just hit ‘accept all’ on the track changes function and have a nicely edited draft with the touch of a few buttons. I alternately hated (not really, only figuratively of course), and loved, and hated (only figuratively), and loved my mentor as rounds of drafts were turned in and handed back sometimes with words edited back to read exactly as they had been written in some earlier version. In the end I admired my mentor’s technique with this whole thing- because he/she made paper writing a very valuable learning experience for me, the trainee.

I try to torture teach my students this way now, and I see both the strengths and weaknesses of this approach. The biggest strength I have already mentioned- the learning experience of becoming a better writer and learning the thought process of putting a data, a paper, a story really- together. To build a case, make an argument on paper. The weakness- of this approach is that it can take what feels like forever and a day- as green students cobble together their idea of what constitutes something publishable (with anxious advisers prodding them along). The difficulty, the time and the effort involved for the adviser depends on the language, writing ability, and background knowledge of the student. When English is the second language- having the student write the first draft can mean that the mentor re-writes practically every.single.word. Re-writing at this scale can be incredibly labor intensive for the mentor.

My colleague, on the other hand, never had the experience of putting a paper together and doing the crazy amounts of editing during their graduate training. Oh they may have lightly edited some draft- but the bulk of the text was written at the outset by the mentor themselves. I’m sure that this approach ultimately brings the paper to submission status faster, and students may still learn what pieces of data are needed to put a paper together- but I bet a lot of the learning of scientific writing is lost when papers are written this way. There are clear benefits to the mentor, the student, the lab and the project in being able to publish quickly. What happens though- when the student has to put together a thesis? What happens when they move on to their postdoc and haven’t yet written a whole manuscript from start to finish?

And finally- I wonder how career stage of the PI plays into this… are more seasoned PIs more secure ($s, papers) and not as needy of quick pubs… thus able to let newbie paper writers flounder a little? Does the necessity of as many pubs as quickly as possible that early career stage PIs make them more prone to do the paper writing for their trainees? Or are these factors irrelevant… are we bound to repeat what our mentors trained us to do- do it like they did it. That seems to be how I do it… then again – I think I had a stellar mentor in this respect.

The Basics of Professional Communication, Part 1

I received the following email recently:

Hello DrDrA,

I am in the process of putting together my thesis committee. I would be honored if you would consider being a member of my supervisory committee. Once I have a list of potential faculty members, I will, at a later date, arrange for a committee meeting early next year. If you have any questions, please feel free to email me, and I am readily available for a chat if you would rather meet in person.

Have a great day!


Nice, polite request for me to be on his/her thesis committee. Just one problem: I have NO IDEA who this person is, what his/her project is, or WHY he/she thought my expertise might be a valuable addition to the thesis committee, nor did (s)he give me any clues. The only details I removed from that email were my name and his/hers. I’m in the mood to be snarky today- but I’m going to hold back and try to be instructive instead. Here is what I’d like to see next time:

Hello DrDrA,

My name is Very-Thorough-Student, and I am a graduate student in the Widget Making Department pursuing my doctoral work in the laboratory of Big-Shot Professor (actually it doesn’t matter if she’s a big shot professor, as long as you tell me WHO your advisor is). I am a second year student and my thesis project is to understand the molecular basis for widget function (might elaborate on this just a touch).

I am in the process of putting together my thesis committee, and your expertise in widgetry would be very helpful. Would you be willing to be on my thesis committee?  We are tentatively planning to have my first committee meeting early next year. If you have any questions, please feel free to email me. Thanks for considering this request.



In this second version all the important details are included. Let the person you are making a request of know who you are, where you are from, what you are working on, and why you think their expertise is needed. If you do it this way you are much more likely to get a response.