Thursday, April 17, 2014

Characteristics of the Worst Graduate Students

In a previous blog post, I talked about what the characteristics of the best graduate students.  But what about the “bad” ones?  Around the dinner table at home, my wife and children are probably most familiar with stories surrounding the students who cause me the most anxiety, and in fact, if you asked my 15-year-old daughter, she could tell you the names of my three least favorite graduate students of all time!  So in the interest of completeness, I would like to share with you the personality traits and behaviors that lead to a lack of success in graduate school.  I will not give any names or enough information to identify a particular person, but if you are reading this and recognize the characteristics in yourself, you may need to do some self-analysis!
I’ll start by saying how fortunate I have been to work with so many truly outstanding and inspirational graduate students.  These are young people who are innovative, self-starting, hard-working, honest, collaborative, optimistic, aspirational, and hungry for success.  Those characteristics truly describe 90-95% of all the graduate students that I have ever advised.  These are the people who are thoughtful, show up for work every day, get results, communicate their results/problems/questions regularly, get along with others, and in general don’t give me something exciting to talk about at the dinner table when my wife asks me how my day was.  (For example:  Wife: “Brian, how was your day?”  Me: “Oh, pretty good!  Leo got some great results in the lab today, and one of Meng’s papers just got accepted in a really tough journal.”  My Kids (in my dreams): “Dad, how incredible!  Tell us more about how you helped cure cancer today?!?!”  My Kids (in reality): “How boring! Can we change the subject to something besides Dad’s work?!?”)  No.  The really interesting dinner conversations occur when one of outlier students is doing something incredibly annoying.  Over the course of 10 years as a professor, there have probably been ~3 students who failed due to problems they brought upon themselves.  None of them will ever have a PhD thesis with my signature on it.  So, how does a person get on this list?

Don’t come in to work: 
It’s simple.  If you are not at the lab, you cannot get any research done.  I have had students who I would rarely ever see, even though my office door was only 15 feet away from their desk.  During normal work hours, I would never see them in the lab.  If I stopped by the office at night or the weekend, I could not find them either.  When I meet with them every week, and ask what they did, they would have very little to show.  Before long, I would give them a lecture about how they need to treat graduate school like a serious job, and not just a hobby between classes that they dabble in when they feel like it.  Some students have a hard time making the transition from classwork to research, and come up with a lot of excuses not to make it to lab.
Another serious problem is someone who treats graduate school like they work at a bank.  Students in this category come into lab at 10AM, take 90 minutes for lunch, and then go to the gym for a 5PM workout, followed by dinner. It sounds like a lovely day to me, but these students are making progress at an incredibly slow rate.  Really, a person should be trying to work between 8-10 hours per day in graduate school.   Some people will do more than this for some stretches for a critical experiment or a deadline.  The fact is, when you get out into any job in Industry or Academia, you will be working at least this much (but getting paid a lot more), and you need to build good work habits while in graduate school.  Try coming into work at 8AM, working until noon, taking an hour for lunch, and then stay at work until 6PM.  If you are focused while at work, you will get a ton done, and still have time to sleep, eat, exercise, and see your friends. 
While there are some tasks for which you may be more effective somewhere besides the lab (like reading journals, writing, preparing figures…) it is best to try to schedule these activities while you are at work, and to have the philosophy of focusing on work while you are at work.  You can manage your time better by setting some time aside every day when your mind is sharp to do some reading or writing, but avoid doing it at home.  A lot of what happens in research involves interacting with other people, and others (like your advisor) being able to find you for questions and discussion.  My advice is to try avoiding being a nocturnal person (like a vampire) who works from 10PM to 8AM.  My students who tell me that they do this seem to be a lot less productive than those who expose themselves to daylight.

Come into work, but don’t work:
          There was once a student in my group who I would see at his desk very consistently, but he seemed to never get much work done.  Week after week I would meet with him, and it seemed like whatever progress he had to report to me could have been done in just a couple of hours.  One day, out of curiosity, I walked up behind him at his desk to see what he was working on.  Was he reading journal papers, researching some information to help him solve a problem, emailing his mother?  No, it was Facebook!  Basically, every time I saw his computer screen after that, he was spouting nonsense to his friends back in his home country.  He made the mistake of friending me, so I unfortunately got exposed to all the various posts made throughout the day.  My advice: save the video games and social media playtime for outside the office, and focus on work while you are at work.
          In a similar vein, another student always seemed to be on the phone during work.  There may have been some kind of complex family situation, a side business, or something that required a lot of loud arguments.  It seemed impossible to have a 30-minute meeting with this student without his cellphone sounding off several times, and he was constantly running out of group meeting to answer calls (or doing text messages while another student was speaking at group meeting.  Very rude.)  Once again, my advice is to be engaged at work while you are at work, and do not treat the lab as a place to do a lot of personal business.  Sometimes it is necessary, but it should be the exception, and not the rule.

Refuse to work with other people:
          I once had a student whose philosophy was that he should be able to accomplish everything in his thesis work without the input of anybody else.  He felt that asking one of the senior students in the group for advice was a sign of weakness.  This person had such problems interacting with other people that it was necessary for me to hold weekly sub-group meetings in which I had a written matrix of tasks and assigned “finish-by” dates, so he could not agree to do something and then wriggle out of it later.  This person found himself rediscovering things that people in my group already figured out years before, finding out everything the hard way, and not making any real progress.  People also learned that they could never rely on him for lending a hand with anything, and so eventually they stopped asking.  This student found himself completely isolated from the group, and unable to duplicate results that others were able to achieve easily because they took the time to ask questions that enabled them to learn how to build and measure things correctly.

Antagonize your fellow group members, so all of them refuse to work with you:
          An antagonistic personality will also serve to isolate a student from the rest of the group.  I have had a small number of students who had an attitude of superiority that led them to not only question the work of other students, but to belligerently accuse them of being wrong, and to insinuate that their projects were not worthy of serious time.  These students would engage in prolonged and aggressive questioning of other students during group meeting that would extend into heated arguments during the rest of the week.  Interestingly, the students with this attitude were also those who had the least to show in the way of their own accomplishments, and also the least amount of background knowledge.  While a certain amount of questioning and challenging is a good thing, these students could never let things go, and would conduct their questions in a manner that was seen as threatening.  After a while, the senior students and postdocs in the group just stopped listening to them, or offering them any advice that they could have benefited from in their own project.  My advice to students is to ask plenty of questions, but conduct yourself in a gracious manner if you want your fellow group members to be helpful collaborators.  Rudeness and aggressiveness rarely gets you the results you want with your co-workers in any context.

Antagonize students in groups I collaborate with, so their groups refuse to work with my group:
          By now, you might realize that the same people that I was referring to in the last section could not limit their rudeness impulses to people in their own research group, but indiscriminately extended their approach to whomever they encountered.  Unfortunately this also included students from other professors who I collaborated with.  I ended up having to apologize to the offended faculty and student in the other group, and chose other students with more pleasant dispositions to collaborate.  Collaborations are really important to a faculty member, so students should take it upon themselves to try hard to make them work, rather than get into fights that the faculty have to straighten out.

Break things by being stupid, and fail to take part in fixing them:
          In one of the most egregious examples of incompetence that I have ever encountered, a visiting postdoc managed to completely destroy a $750K piece of equipment the very first time he laid hands on it without someone carefully watching his actions.  How did he manage to do this?  He underwent training, and was taught all the ways that he could incur serious damage, but apparently none of the training lodged itself into his brain.  During the first time he was allowed to operate the equipment solo, he encountered an unexpected message.  Rather than stop what he was doing and ask the experienced person what to do, he put the machine into “manual” mode, and just seemed to start pressing buttons.  30 minutes later, the machine was ruined.  What was worse, several other people needed to spend many hours to repair the damage, but this person did not offer his time or assistance in any of the work.  This postdoc’s behavior (in this instance and other related ones related to safety) got him permanently banned from the lab.

Get banned from the lab:
          If you are banned from the lab, it is very hard to make research progress.  The person mentioned above actually got banned from another lab for breaking yet another piece of equipment.  I think he is the only person to ever be permanently banned from two labs at Illinois.  I ended up having to pay for all his damage from my grant funding.  After that, this person spent the rest of his postdoc in his office surfing the internet, and never first-authored a paper with my group.

Blame all your problems on everything except yourself:
          Sometimes, when things are not going well, people seek to identify the source of their problems.  Problems are not hard to find, and some common ones are: 
“My advisor did not tell me exactly what to do.”
“My equipment did not work.”
“I did not get the result I expected.”
“I did not know how to perform a technique.”
“I needed some piece of equipment, and I did not have it.”
“I did not know what other people already knew about this topic.”
“My classes are giving me too much homework this semester.”

One of the most important characteristics of successful researchers is resourcefulness, and this is a very important lesson to learn. 

Your advisor will not likely be able to tell you every single detail of how you will perform your experiment, or give you a bulleted list that will tell you, from start to finish, every step you will need to perform to complete your thesis.  It will be up to you to get input and direction from your advisor, but to use your resourcefulness to fill in the rest.  Not sure what to do?  Then talk with some other members of your group, and develop a written plan that you can review with your advisor.  If a piece of equipment does not work, you may need to get into it, and discover how to fix it or get it repaired.  Don’t know how to perform a technique?  You may need to take a class, attend a workshop, or get someone to show you how to do it correctly.  Need a key piece of equipment?  Try to figure out who might have it on campus, figure out how to get one on loan, or find one for your advisor to buy on EBay.  Not sure how others have approached this problem in the past?  Go to Google Scholar and read up on some published scientific literature.  If you are spending all your time on classwork, your priorities need an adjustment, or you need to structure your day so you can keep making steady research progress.
          Certainly a graduate student cannot solve every problem, but considering that you are among the most intelligent and highly educated people in the entire country, it is expected that you will take initiative to aggressively identify and solve problems on your own.  Science is hard, and this is part of the learning experience!

Fail to draft a paper on your research:
          The most problematic students that I have advised are also those who never completed a project from start to finish with sufficient attention to detail and thorough understanding to prepare a manuscript that was of high enough quality to submit to a peer reviewed scientific journal.  For these students, there was always a lack of understanding of what had been published by others previously, a failure to listen to my suggestions for what experiments would lead to convincing arguments about their hypothesis, or just a failure to follow though on what they started.

Need to know EVERYTHING before you can do ANYTHING:
          This issue can trip up people who are perfectionists.  Sometimes, it is indeed useful, when encountering something that does not meet with the expected result, to revisit the fundamentals, simplify the experiment, and tease out the variable that may have been giving an undesired effect.  However, when it becomes necessary to take this approach for absolutely every element of a project, it becomes an impediment for achieving the goal at hand. For example: I need to completely understand all polymer chemistry and biophysics before I can use this epoxy material in the construction of my device!  Another example:  I need to take the highest level classes in electromagnetics and quantum mechanics before I can consider how to fabricate this device for performing surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy!  One particular student kept finding places and reasons to return to the fundamentals without ever making much practical progress on the stated goal of reproducing and optimizing a device that had already been working in the lab for two years.  Typically, people can gather information on the fundamentals while simultaneously making practical progress in the lab.  It is a parallel process rather than a serial one.

          So, that’s my advice on how to avoid becoming one of the graduate students who your advisor will lament daily at the dinner table.  You will find that a collegial attitude towards your fellow students, a philosophy of treating your lab research like you would treat a “real” job, being careful not to carelessly break expensive stuff, some self-motivation, and ability to make progress despite the lack of perfect conditions will take you a long way in graduate school and in life.  Good luck!!!