The Female Science Professor is thinking about what advisors owe their students:

When I got my PhD and went out into the great big academic world, I felt that I had the respect of my adviser, but I knew not to expect anything more from him in the way of support in my career other than the standard recommendation letter.

I never minded because he was that way with all of his students. He had a sink-or-swim philosophy of advising, and this continued after students graduated.

Now that I am an adviser with former students of my own, I think his approach makes some sense because it is a very fair philosophy. He doesn’t play favorites, supporting some former students over others. He treats us all with the same benign neglect. He’s proud of what we’ve accomplished, he is glad that he had a role in our academic careers, and he’s happy to hear from us when we write and pleased to see us at conferences, but his responsibility for us is over.

My own experience was toward the opposite extreme– I have a whole bunch of equipment, including a $10,000 turbopump on “permanent loan” that was donated by my old group at NIST. The grad student before me actually got contacted by the Smithsonian after Bill won the Nobel, because he had been given most of the original laser cooling apparatus when he graduated.

Obviously, this is not sustainable for any research group graduating more than one student every 4-5 years, but it is food for thought. And fodder for a poll:


  1. #1 reesei
    August 28, 2009

    Problem with this poll, that relates to FSP’s original discussion: Are you talking about a good student or post-doc, or a not-so-good student or postdoc? The only thing an advisor “owes” is an honest letter of recommendation. But if a student is a good scientist, many of the others may apply.

    (And in my field, the advisor owes the student/postdoc _not_ to collaborate – otherwise, people think the young researcher can’t think on their own!)

  2. #2 notedscholar
    August 28, 2009

    Interesting that these discussions always focus on the positive. What about the negative duties of professors for their bad students? If professors have positive duties, shouldn’t they also have negative duties, e.g. trying to prevent the advent of evildoers in scholarship? Several of my old professors believed this and mistakenly identified me as a damaging influence, slandering me to graduate admission committees and so on. In light of this experience, I think it may be a good idea for professors to take the restrained role you cited.


  3. #3 Paul
    August 28, 2009

    I filled out the tick-boxes, but I have a problem with the word “should.”

    I don’t believe that there is a automatic obligation of any kind, nor is there a “one size fits all” appropriate form of behavior. What’s appropirate under one set of circumstances may not be appropriate in others.

    Having said that, however, it is my experience that many PhD students and their advisors continue to collaborate immediately after the student’s degree is awarded because they had results “in the pipe.” That is, a number of results were incomplete at the time of the dissertation, or simply left out. Rather than throw away perfectly good research, both parties benefit by publishing those findings.

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