Gaining and granting independence

Graduate students need both direction and freedom – a balance that changes as the student matures and becomes more independent. Some students need their hand held for a year (or two), while others are capable and adventurous enough to set off on their own much sooner. I’ve often thought the hardest thing for a mentor to do is let their grad students explore this freedom – much like watching your baby take his/her first steps and hoping they don’t fall on their face and/or break something. I’m sure it takes a while to find the right balance, and I’m guessing no mentor does it perfectly.

It’s difficult for the graduate student to manage this balance as well. Students go through a development process in grad school, and, somewhere along year three, the *good* ones develop an attitude – one that reminds me a lot of an unruly teenager. The student has learned and become independent enough to do a lot on their own, but they’re not ready for complete independence and all that goes along with it – a doctorate, independent funding, their own lab and attitude-bearing grad students. So begins the struggle between a PI that needs their student to focus and stay on track, and a student that thinks they’ve learned everything they need to know.

I’m all for giving students room to run, but they also have to realize the consequences – a later graduation date, wasted resources, getting scooped while chasing your tail down the wrong path. To an extent, this is a great learning process. But it can also hurt the PI, especially when s/he is junior and trying to gain traction with publications and grants. Additionally, letting your student run wild isn’t the best method of mentoring (IMHO). So exactly where is this balance? When do the PIs out there let their students run full-steam ahead, and when do you put on the financial brakes?

Give me your thoughts!

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7 thoughts on “Gaining and granting independence

  1. My PI's philosophy was that he gave you money and an opportunity to work in a well kitted out lab, and what you did with that was your own business. I found this to be annoying. Mostly because I didn't have anyone to bounce ideas off of (we all worked on different projects) and because I couldn't 'depend' on anyone. I developed a very hands off attitude. It's helped me because I've worked for people that are away from the lab more than in it, so I've very independent and motivated, but I also feel like I don't have a scientific support structure. Had I stayed in academics, I wouldn't have had a mentor or someone (other than peers) to help out/give me advice.

    That being said, my PI also let me buy anything I wanted (we were kind of a rich lab). He did put restrictions on others. I think he deemed me responsible because he bought me a 'science gift'(a miniprep machine) once, and it was such a POS that I made him send it back.

  2. From my own experiences, I think the ideal balance is to allow graduate students to come up with their own ideas, but run them past the PI prior to purchasing reagents and trying the new experiment. That way, they have the ability to try new things, but the person providing the funding can also keep tabs on them.

    I'm in a lab where it's so hands on, I'm constantly feeling strangled. I'm given no opportunity to try things on my own; my boss complains I'm not an independent thinker, but every time I suggest something, he shoots it down and insists I do something else instead, without explaining why my idea may not work (and sometimes, I do it anyway, and it DOES work, he just wanted me to collect data in the same way the lab has always done it, rather than try something new).

  3. This is an interesting topic, and while I don't have a lot of experience doing mentoring, the little experience I do have supervising undergraduates suggests that there is no one way to tackle mentoring. Even just looking at other graduate students I was with while in grad school or other post docs here at my first position, I can't imagine them all being mentored the same way. Some just have more gumption than others with respect to being independent. Some are more willing to just go out, screw up a few times and get the ball rolling on the experiments (I fall into this category, particularly the screwing up several times!)

    I think I've been lucky as my grad school adviser's style worked well for me in giving me a lot of space as I progressed, but not exactly leaving my to flail around too much on my own. He allowed me to learn some tough and important lessons when some experiments I cared very much about yielded some bizarre results and I just had to walk away from it unless I risk chasing something that was only marginally interesting.

    My current adviser is fairly similar, although I feel I've been given a lot of leeway with how to approach my experiments. This seems to make a lot of sense as now I'm a postdoc and I should be able to direct things myself. Nonetheless, we always chat about how things are going and where I'm taking things. Every once in awhile my adviser will come along and give me a prod, but for the most my adviser is good about letting me just do things even if it results in me making a few screw ups along the way, which s/he doesn't appear to mind (although I don't know for sure yet!).

  4. You bring up a good point FDX, in that the mentoring relationship can be strengthened by having complementary styles. Likewise, mentees that know they need more direction should be willing to go talk to their mentors if they're of the “let 'em run” camp. It's a two-way street, no doubt about it.

  5. That's a good point on the mentee side, I didn't think of that initially.

    One of the things I did after a few months at my new postdoc is to tell my adviser that I plan on applying for a tenure track job one day and that if there is anything I should be doing to move my career in that direction I would like him to let me know if I was getting off track. I definitely think it's important for there to be a dialog about career goals as this would certainly shape the relationship, as long as both parties are open to academic and so called “alternative” career paths.

  6. FDX – that's a very smart move. A mentor can't help you if they don't know where you want to go.

    To anybody looking for a postdoc, though, I would suggest bringing up what you think you want to do during the interview. It's the best way to find out if the environment is a good place for you to train. Don't wait until you've signed a letter, picked up and moved (especially if you want to go outside of academia). Get your possible advisor on board ahead of time.

  7. I also find this topic SOOOO fundamental and important to lab science, and something that isn't addressed nearly enough. It's very much a question of style and personality on the part of advisor and mentee. My grad advisor was masterful at finding the right balance (letting me sink or swim on my own, but providing a safety net), and then of course giving me a kick in the butt as needed. And all of this with a PI trying to get tenure (which she did).

    As a postdoc I've not been so lucky. I have an advisor that wants to do everything herself and cannot let go of control, but if things don't go well, I get blamed. Even if it was her idea. I hope, for the sake of my fellow lab mates she figures it out better with them than with me, but I'm doing what's best for me now and leaving. This is not the right environment for me.

    I think if a grad student is pushing too hard for something the advisor really doesn't like, then it might be time to pull the 'I'm the boss' card. But with a postdoc, particularly one with their own funding, the advisor should be much more hands off.

    And the best mentor is able to recognize that each person in their lab is an individual and everyone will probably need to be handled a little differently.

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