Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Towards a jerk-free world ...

Recently, a student wrote to me asking for advice on the process of choosing his graduate adviser at the university he's going to start attending this fall. There are posts in this blog under the label HigherEd - Advice meant for people like him.

In particular, this post has links to advice from Sean Carroll and Chad Orzel; both of them emphasize the importance of choosing one's adviser. If you make a misstep, life could become miserable (here are two examples:from India and from the US).

In you are like what I was when I entered grad school, you are broadly aware of what interests you, and more acutely aware of what you loathe. Clearly, this is the first filter: you certainly don't want to spend N years (where N is typically 5 years or longer) working in a subfield that repels you. This filter gives you a preliminary list of potential advisers.

Now you use the second filter: get rid of 'jerks' (aka 'assholes') from your list! The argument is similar to that used for the first filter: you don't want to spend the next N years working with someone who's known to be toxic; worse, he/she will have a lot of power over you!

For the first filter, your prior experience is the guide. What about the second filter? How do you figure out who's a jerk? Use every possible resource at your command: scour the web, search blogs, and lurk around social networking sites where you might pick up some gossip. If you know someone (who knows someone who knows someone ...) at the university you plan to attend, tap them for inside information and knowledge.

After you get to your university, you would normally get some time before you choose your adviser. Use this opportunity to talk to not only the potential advisers, but also their students. Visit them in their labs, and check out the atmosphere there. Keep your eyes and ears open for anything sinister.

Bottomline: Do everything you can to figure out who the jerks are. And avoid them.

Corollary: If it takes some time before you discover the jerk in your boss, it's never too late. Dump him/her immediately, and move on: change your adviser, university, field, line of work, whatever! Life is too short and precious to spend around nasty people.

* * *

Jerk avoidance is important not only for graduate students and post-docs (whose advisers have enormous power over them, sometimes for a big chunk of the rest of their professional careers), but also in business settings. Do read Building the Civilized Workplace (free registration required) by Stanford's Bob Sutton who recently published he No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t. Sutton blogs here.


  1. Sunil said...

    one thing that helps students coming in for a phd in the sciences (definitely in the greater biological sciences, and usually in chemistry and sometimes physics as well) in the US are "rotations".

    Students are typically expected to do 3 rotations in three different labs (of their choice)(over the course of 6 months or a year), where they get a feel for the labs and the PI in particular. So, after that, when you choose a lab, you pretty much know what to expect. *Most* of the sensible ones go to a PI that they get along well with. Also, they get more time to know people in the department and hear stuff from "the grapevine".

    I'm surprised that most engineering departments STILL haven't introduced rotations for grad students.

  2. Anonymous said...

    i have been through this process and actually wasted one year of mine with a person who had no idea what was going on in the research.

    a piece of advice from me :
    take classes of professors you are considering as your advisers. how good a researcher a person is generally gets reflected in the class. pointer: if a prof can make you understand seemingly obscure ideas with ease, he/she has clarity of thought. chances are, you will get better work done with him.

  3. Anonymous said...

    Having seen the horrors myself, I can't possibly emphasize more on the seriousness of the advice you've posted.


  4. The Intellectual Masturbater said...

    Abi: This is really good advice. One that might seem obvious to some, but is very important to consider. Thanks for the post.

    That said, I just have a corollary to what "Anonymous" said. A good teacher and a good researcher are not always the same thing. While a person may be an excellent teacher, they are not always a good researcher and vice versa. This is something you might also want to consider.

    From personal experience, my adviser is an excellent researcher, but (on his own admission - and mine) a horrible teacher. However, he's a great person to work with in many ways. On the flip-side though, one has to be fairly independent to be able to work with him and that is something not everyone is comfortable with.

  5. Anonymous said...

    A very good post, Abi. I hope it reaches out to the grad students that need it the most. I also have my $0.02 to add- while gossip mills are a source of information, one must be wary about getting very lopsided or prejudiced information from a single source as against a balanced opinion of more than one person.
    Truth be told, there are few perfect student-advisor relationships. But grad students, (Especially international ones) stick to crappy situations thinking they have no way out, which is not true. It takes courage, but there are always other advisors, and one must be really clear- if you begin to see problems you don't think you can deal with, leave right then and seek a better life.

  6. Ashwat said...

    I think grad students can change their labs when they want, but a person working at a job cant. Also, its unfair that we have to move to doing something else just because our boss is a jerk.