>mentoring from the sidelines

Jul 03 2010 Published by under colleagues, mentoring

>So, what should you do when you think that a colleague is taking advantage of a graduate student?

First, some background. I moved across town to start my own lab. This has several practical consequences. First, and most awesome, I can move my experiments from one place to another with minimal interruption. But what I want to focus on today is that I already know most of the faculty that are my colleagues. Generally, this is good. I had a super postdoc and I get along with almost everyone in the community. But there are also bound to be kind of awkward times, as these folks have to accept me into the secret faculty club and realize that I know the handshake, too.

This brings me to the current situation. I was talking to  a graduate student the other day. It was a hallway interaction, she had not searched me out for advice. I have known this grad student for several years, and she is one of the superstars in a highly-ranked graduate program. By every metric, she should be graduating. Now. Turns out, her advisor has been suggesting that she stick around for another year or two. In return, she can "take what she works on with her". WTF? That doesn't make sense. Where exactly is she taking this "new project"? To her postdoc in some other lab? We are in one of the biomedical fields where a postdoc is required to stay on the academic track, which is what she wants to do.

As I pressed further, Pre-doc superstar told me that she is the only person in the lab that knows how to work the Magical Data Machine. She is also, bar far, the most productive person in Dr. Advisor's lab. If she sticks around for longer, she will probably publish one or two more papers. But she will have a LONG graduate career. I think that Dr. Advisor is thinking more about his own lab than the career of Pre-Doc Superstar.

I told this student that I thought she should move on to learn something new. That I felt staying in the Grad Lab was not the best move for her, career-wise. I told her that it was not her job to worry about Dr. Advisor's lab, but that he should be more concerned about her career development. I also told her to ask other faculty in the program for advice. I generally get along with Dr. Advisor, though we have had our moments. Hopefully this won't come back to bite me in the ass.

7 responses so far

  • Comrade PhysioProf says:

    >It is the responsibility of the the thesis committee to rein in this kind of PI behavior. It would be exceedingly foolish for you to involve yourself in this.

  • Dr.Girlfriend says:

    >"Turns out, her advisor has been suggesting that she stick around for another year or two. In return, she can "take what she works on with her". WTF?"WTF indeed! That makes me sooo angry. Holding her back is plain wrong.If her advisor was suggesting she stick around AFTER her defense and was offering to PAY HER a postdoc salary, then it would be a different matter. I have known several people stick around for a year or two, and it has worked out well for everyone. Usually it is for personal reasons (waiting for spouse to graduate etc.,), but staying around to finish off a few extra publications need not bb detrimental to a career. Postponing a graduation date IS. The sickening thing is that this student is probably better than any new postdoc Dr. Advisor might hope to find - he should at least be offering her a postdoc salary if he wants to keep her!Good for you for giving her sound advise, and hopefully your department will stand by you should Dr. Advisor get pissy!

  • GMP says:

    >Gerty-Z, I have three points I'd like to make. 1) CPP is correct: you are just starting as a TT faculty, try not to get involved. Unfortunately, you yourself are in a vulnerable position right now, and try not to get into a fight with that PI right away. 2) I am sure the PI wants to keep her because she is good, but the PI may not be entirely selfish. You might not have all the data. For instance, perhaps there are several papers that could materialize in the next year, with which the student's CV would look significantly stronger. I held back a student by 18 months because we had something smashing in the works; without it his record would be OK, about average; but while waiting another 18 months his record is not absolutely outstanding because he has published several truly outstanding papers in the meantime (and the citations for his work prior had picked up) so the looks much better on paper. How long a PhD is should be weighted against the norms of the field and how the record looks afterwards. If her record is considerably stronger after an additional year, it may not be a bad idea. 3) The last one is in vein with what Dr. G mentioned. The PI wants to keep the student, and may be willing to discuss a short-term postdoc instead. If he really needs her, he would likely go with that. She is in a position that she should really weigh what her options are: maximinzing number of good pubs while minimizing time to PhD and ensuring PI will still give a stellar recommendation... (But try to stay out of it as much as possible for your own career's sake.)

  • Gerty-Z says:

    >CPP and GMP, I should clarify that I in NO WAY formally involved myself in this mess. It was just informal chatting, and I tried a CYA by sending her to others. Mostly I'm concerned because Dr. Advisor has a nasty passive-aggressive streak. GMP-It is true that I only know the story from the student's perspective. But I know this lab really well as they are in my old post-doc institute. Super Grad student's publication record is ALREADY way above average so even if she did blast out two N/S/C papers in the next year it would be gravy at this point. And if she stayed for 18 mo longer it would push her grad time WAY outside the norm (she is already a little past the avg.). Here is my problem with the short post-doc: it ruins your chances to apply for the named fellowships. You only have 1 year from defending to be eligible. She would be a good candidate, but not if she is puttering away in the same place. Do I have that wrong?

  • Beaker Half Full says:

    >I have been told by my PI that he does not support the idea of students staying in their thesis labs as post-docs for the same fellowship eligibility reason you state. I tend to believe him and I would think that any chance at securing funding as a post-doc would make you look like a good faculty candidate (or so I've been told). Therefore, why lose out on funding for eligibility reasons within your control just so you can say you graduated in X years when in reality, you left the lab in X+2 years.

  • Dr.Girlfriend says:

    >I am not really up on fellowships available to US citizens. However, I do know of postdocs getting fellowships for their second postdoc and during the second year in their current lab.Fellowships are great, but only if backed up by publications. In fact a strong publication record alone trumps a fellowship and average publication record. If an extra year brings with it the very real chance of Science or Nature paper, then that is good reason to stay.There is also that new NIH fellowship that covers your last 1-2yrs as a postdoc, and once you get a job the first 2-4yrs as a tenure track prof.

  • prodigal academic says:

    >I totally agree with CPP and GMP. Not only are you vulnerable (especially if the PI is known to be passive-aggressive), but you do not know the whole story. I think what you did was good--Superstar student should consult the other members of her committee, who should be aware of her progress and situation if they are doing their jobs.A short-term postdoc could be good or bad (depends on the situation). Superstudent has a lot more options after defending, so she should finish up if she is ready. It should be her choice to stay or go after the defense.

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