My students

I go back and forth on my students. When I first started I had recruited a few MS students and a couple PhD students. Since then I’ve more than doubled and threw in a post-doc and a handful of undergrads. The first MS students are since gone. Now, when I first started I could walk through the lab or office area and they were all having wonderful conversations that got everyone thinking and working together. Now, it’s relatively quiet either from absence or just everyone is focused. Albeit when I first started we had two primary projects, and now we have a few more, so not everyone is working on the same thing so there’s not a lot of working together other than the ‘can you help me with this?’ type of conversations. This got me thinking about categories of students and what I’ve learned from them. Obviously this is my own experience, and I’m hiding their identities to protect them. Stereotyping isn’t always nice, but I don’t care; this is the truth, and that’s that. Also, I just want to say that I really love my students. I invite them to my place a few times a year, I buy them lunches and coffee when they’re working late to help me hit deadlines, and I’ve helped place every one of them that have graduated in my lab in wonderful jobs in industry. So if I type anything negative, I’m not sorry for it, but just want to preface my stream of consciousness with that disclaimer.

Types of students I’ve had so far:
The golden student (or child if you’re into playing favorites): this is the student I can trust with the largest array of tasks and know that I can leave them alone. I have great scientific discussions with this student, and this is the one I will fight the most for because I know they’re not just incredibly smart, but incredibly driven. They enjoy their work, and want to ensure they do a good job, in addition to graduate in timely manner. I can give these students a variety of work, and they get that done in addition to their own, while getting their own grant applications in. I’m certain they hate me because I subconsciously hold this student to higher standards.

The I-need-to-graduate-now student: These students want to start making money now. And they want to do the minimal amount of work necessary and consider themselves to be the most important. They’ll get their letters, but won’t be as prepared as a student that puts in the full amount of effort. They’re focused on one task, which is great for getting focused tasks done, but I’ll hear whining if I ask them to do anything that may delay them getting their letters and their sweet paycheck.

The other academic infiltrators: These students came from industry to get an advanced degree then go back. They’re all MS students, but I wish I could get them to move into a PhD program. These are pretty driven students, with a great amount of practical experience, though like a lot of industry folks, they lose a lot of their theoretical basis in the ‘real-world’

The foreign national: So I have a US passport, but I am not from the US. I understand being different, so I try to help them acclimate by starting up group conversation unrelated to work. Gets everyone to loosen up. These students love being here and are okay taking their time. So long as the language barrier isn’t too harsh a lot of these students are paid for, are hard workers, and enjoy their time in America. Don’t build a wall.

The problem child (I chose the word child for a specific reason): Ugh. Arguments for days, work quality isn’t great, and work ethic isn’t great. I have other things to say, but I don’t want to exude that negative energy. I know the type now, and I’ll be sure not to recruit this type.

The cool grad student: These students are chill, enjoying taking their time, and taking their off-time very seriously. Fun to have and they get their work done. For the most part this is the ‘regular’ grad student profile.

The cool undergraduate: This student just wants some experience and a letter. Nice students that are willing to do some dirty work the other students don’t have time for.

The uptight undergraduate: While I’m not the biggest fan of the term ‘type-A’, these students are it. Neurotic and kind of kiss-assey. These students will go places, but they’re crazy awkward. They’re smart, but for reason can get great work done. Maybe because they’re in a rush?

The sexist/racist/whatever-ist: So that only lasted 3 months. Firing my people in academics is way easier than in industry.  In industry there’s HR, performance reviews, tracking tasks, one-on-ones.  Here, I had one warning discussion then cut the cord.  They’re someone else’s problem now.

Hours they work:

When I went to grad school I had previously been in a National Lab and an industry post so I had work hours I was used to: 8am-6pm with the occasional long night or weekend. I had that in grad school, but with more long nights and weekends. While, I have a couple showing real dedication, most are around from 10am-4pm Monday-Friday. Those that have projects involving live specimens will come in for an hour here or there to check on samples, but apparently this is commonplace for most of the labs here. Maybe it’s the mentality of the university. I don’t want to be a mean person and give them hours. They’re adults, and if they don’t publish they don’t graduate, but their slower pace hurts my productivity, as well. Maybe I’m just used to the faster mindset of when I ran my industry lab and the consequences for failure or delay were more severe. Either I need to change my expectations, be a time-bully, or start doing things myself (like I did with the industry-sponsored project).

How the group has changed over time:
When the group was small there was a very tight dynamic. Everyone seemed friendly with each other, and there were fewer conflicts. With more people I’ve been having to deal with a lot of social dynamics that I had to deal with in industry, but for some misguided reason I didn’t think that a less mature group of people would be better. I’ve reached my tipping point for how large I want this group to be, and I sometimes wonder how PIs deal with large groups.  I wonder at what point a group can’t maintain a tight-knit-ness?  I mean if there’s two people they will be tight, even five can have good comrade-ery.  But if the group has 100 people some people won’t even know each other’s names.  There’s something between five and 100, I’m sure, I just prefer a smaller group.  I feel we can get more done with five good people rather than 10 okay people.  Also, just the management alone is crazy.  It would be cool to get double the amount of papers out, but not at the expense of having more fun.


3 thoughts on “My students

  1. I agree with the time management for larger teams. This semester I have 3 PhD students, 6 MSc students and 3 UGs. Argh! I’ve had to be more structured. Now I have a group meeting Monday mornings to establish goals for the week. I have a Google sheet with a tab per week and everyone’s declared task for the week. We also review previous week completion. I also include myself in the sheet because I typically have to do a bunch of things to help them (purchasing, reviewing, etc). Then I nearly block out Fri to meet with all PhD and those UG and MSc that need another face to face. These 2 last through appointment slots in my google calendar.
    I also had to do an excel sheet with funding source, graduation date, and milestone plan for those I am funding. Just to keep track of people! Keeping track is my obsession lately! Not loosing any student through the cracks of craziness. I cannot deal with a bigger team without a post doc.


  2. > With more people I’ve been having to deal with a lot of social dynamics that I had to deal with in industry, but for some misguided reason I didn’t think that a less mature group of people would be better

    I lost track a bit here, could you elaborate? Are you saying that that it’s easier to deal with the social dynamics of a less mature group of people?


    • Haha, in industry I had to deal with the occasional nonprofessional spat. This was mainly among technicians, but dealing with gossip and rival point-of-views came with the territory. I thought for some reason that I wouldn’t have to deal with this personal bickering when coming to academia; thinking that a less mature (though more educated) group would not have as many personal spats. But I’ve had to deal with about as many as I had to in industry. It’s not easier at all to deal with a less age-mature group. It’s exactly the same!


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