Improving the sad state of professor, student relationships.

Over the past 3-4 years I’ve been inundated with complaints from numerous students who worked for, or are currently working for very well-known professors in the polymer field.  We are talking about institutions such as Carnegie Mellon, U. Akron, Northwestern, and many others.  My intention is to not disclose names of the professors or students.  Instead it is to draw the reader’s attention to a persistent, growing, and pervasive problem in the sciences today.  Doing so may ultimately help to remedy the situation and no doubt will translate to increased scientific discovery and an overall improvement in the quality of work being done.

It is my observation that the main complaints lodged against these professors by their students boil down to deficiencies of the former.  These include:

  1. A lack of integrity (both in terms of scientific reporting and as well as specifying inventorship of the student).
  2. Absence of respect for the student’s feelings which manifests in all sort of ill-mannerisms, mainly manifesting as verbal abuse.
  3. Treating students as if they are slaves by demanding way too much in terms of work output.
  4. Not providing any meaningful guidance whether it be in regards to laboratory technique, design of the project, etc.

As a result I get comments like: “We attended Professor X’s birthday party.  All his current and former students were there.  They spent most of their time discussing how they hate him.” or “I can’t stand to be in the lab when Professor X is around, he always has more work for me.  If I run into him anywhere on campus he’ll have me there every day, all day long.” or “Professor X didn’t invent that, it was his Korean postdoc who still works for him to this day.”  Amazingly enough the best comment these students will give me is something to this effect: “Well, Professor X is really good at looking at data and finding a trend.” or “Professor X can decipher NMR spectra very easily.”

During my short stint working with students on research projects I have noticed that many of the things they require from their research advisor are both time consuming and also demand a great deal of patience.  Some of these include:

  1. Spending time in the lab to get the student started, including showing them how to do certain manipulations.
  2. Trying to put everything concerning a student’s work ethic into perspective.  Do they have other outside responsibilities, have they ever had to work diligently (ca. 60+ hour work weeks)?  Recalling not only your experience as a student but those of other students who went to school with you will help temper your demands.  Likewise, in certain instances you will be able to realize when you do need to use the prod.
  3. It is highly unlikely that you will encounter a student that has the degree of knowledge that you possess in your area of study.  Always try to impart that knowledge in a manner that isn’t condescending.  I find it useful to bring up many things as digressions during discussions of other topics at hand.  Another route is to point out a reference that contains much of what is known about the field of study.
  4. When student’s make mistakes do not deride them, even if they prove to be costly in terms of lost time or money spent.  It is fine to point out the error but at the same time I have found it is best to recognize the fact that we all are prone to mistakes and to let the student know that even you have made them yourself.  Even providing a recap of previous mishaps that you have had in the past can be of value to your student.
  5. One final thing I like to do is make certain that the student understands they get credit for anything they invent and even if they don’t make much of a contribution I always reward them for their efforts in a number of ways.  These include small gifts, lunches, and invariably placing them as lead author on the publication they helped with in hopes that it will assist them in future endeavors.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.