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!