Why junior faculty are so horrible to their grad/post-doc staff

i-f875c0b07d9b3cb6229668554781b35a-alice.jpgI had a realization over the weekend, as I contemplated the enormity of the amount of work I had to do, and the scant allowance of time in which to do it. I have suddenly realized why (at least junior) faculty can be so horrible to their graduate students and post-doctoral staff. It comes down to a complete gridlock of their time.

I have so many people who need to meet with me (I know! Lowly me!) that my days are filled with meetings, or getting to meetings, or class. This means there is really not enough time to get any work done, such as prep for such meetings or such class time. So I end up working in the evenings prepping for meetings and class, which means all the other requests that come in amongst the 100+ email messages I get every day get ignored.

The only way I can get myself out of this mess is by dumping stuff on grad assistants or post-docs, and I don't even have time to prep them properly, or give them the tools they need to be able to handle the work. So the result is that they are forced "sink or swim" and it looks like I don't care enough to help them.

I know; guilt again. I'm really good at that.

Then there's the problem where I think I have given some task to my research staff, and they need me to sign off on something, whereas I would rather they take the ball and run with it, only talking to me when they really need help. Instead, I have this sense they need reassuring, which again makes me feel like they need more of me than I have time to give.

At the end of the day, I feel torn between the need to educate my research staff in various research practices, in helping them learn to be self-sufficient, in developing the skills to work in groups together, and the need to have them just get the work done.

It's not a pretty place. I have significantly more sympathy for junior faculty advisors of grad students than I used to.

But those senior people... they should really know better, right?

More like this

SW Notes: This post was begun a few weeks ago...you know, in the break between semesters. But I've been delayed and delayed in getting it done, and today is a day of metaphorical desk-clearing. So I'm just going to put it up now, half complete and let you all finish discussing it in the comments…
Sean Carroll is offering more unsolicted advice (though it is in response to a comment, which makes it borderline solicited...), this time about choosing an undergraduate school. He breaks the options down into four categories, with two small errors that I'll correct in copying the list over here:…
Sciencewoman says: Some of readers have been wondering about what life is like for those jobs at primarily undergraduate institutions (PUIs). Alice and I are indubitably unqualified to answer that question, so Kim Hannula of "All of my faults are stress related..." graciously offered to provide…
Gleðileg Jól! Another blast from the past of Ye Olde Blogge You're in grad school. Yay. Now wtf do you do... Well, you need to jump through the hurdles first. Most places have some course and seminar requirements, you may in some cases test out of them or waive them, but think about whether you…

Shannon's Theorem applies to human bandwidth, too.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 14 Oct 2009 #permalink

Can't believe I'm going to say this, but there are definitely advantages to my adviser's approach (which you and I have talked about extensively offline/IRL). He can be incredibly tough to work for, but some of the structures he put in place really did help the overall functionality of the group and his overall productivity (read: he always has a senior graduate student running point for the group, which can help create more of a hierarchical structure to your lab, which means you don't personally have to answer every single question from each of your students).

Having lived as the SGS for many years (too many, actually... now the model is for someone to serve in the role for ~2 years then transition it to the next person), I can say that although it was very tough at times, it not only helped the group run better, it also helped me develop professionally. Again, I certainly am not advocating the exact same approach employed by my adviser (recall his ridiculous grad student attrition rate) but if you want to talk about some ideas you always know how to get a hold of me. Wishing you at least a few moments of peace and calm in the coming weeks!

Funny, I just posted about the Chronicle's piece on students being busier, and mentioned that faculty are busier than they used to be, too. Not that I'm faculty, but I have it from an anecdotal source.

I don't think senior faculty do know better because people tend to think life is how it has always been for them. So, if as a student and lower level faculty, you had chunks of time devoted to study, and prep, and writing, then students and lower level faculty today should, too, right? Except, everyone's life is getting busier. So, it isn't the case.

Good luck with your juggling of meetings and teaching. Other than I made a conscious decision at the beginning of this term to not feel guilty about prioritizing the way I need to prioritize, I don't have any helpful advice about the guilt.

I am curious as to how you suggest fixing the problem.

By Katharine (not verified) on 14 Oct 2009 #permalink

Amen. I'm glad you put words to this. And to think, some people out there still think we just teach two classes a week.

OK, but how about the junior faculty who do the complete opposite? The "total control freak" types?

By Mentee of jr f… (not verified) on 14 Oct 2009 #permalink

Personally, I think this is usually a problem when the junior faculty grow their lab too big too fast. If it were up to me, ideally I would start with one staff person and invest the time to train them up over the summer. Then add one grad student and train them up, with the staff person available to help. Then add one more a little later (or the next year). Eventually yes, a milder version of what indie phd describes is ideal- where you have a "journeyman" trainee to help as a safety-net for the "apprentice" trainees when you are away.

I do think it scales non-linearly, where at the beginning they are each more work than they put out, but after a while there is a huge payoff in the invested time. Somebody should make a graph of this theory (FSP and Isis are good at that kind of thing, maybe you can ask them to do it?).

Senior PIs make the same mistake, so far as I can tell. Most PIs suck at saying NO. NO to keeping postdocs and grad students in the lab too long, requiring the PI to write more grants to support them and meaning the PI has even less time to spend per trainee. NO to reviewing so many articles, NO to so many talks that require traveling to meetings. They also suck at taking advantage of technology designed to save time (see FSP's recent post on taking notes while team-teaching because she refused to use any kind of audio or video recording).

I like having a junior faculty member as an advisor. They haven't had a long track record of successful students so at least they care if I succeed or not!

Great post! However, by specifying "junior faculty" you are suggesting that senior faculty are better. If they are not equally bad, it's only because they have established juniors (faculty or otherwise) under them to take up the slack!

I also agree with msphd to a certain extent, there is a real risk associated with growing your lab too fast, but there's enormous pressure on you to do so!

If I only knew then what I know now....

By physicschic (not verified) on 14 Oct 2009 #permalink

Hi, I don't know whether this applies to your scenario, but our company was suffering the "meeting drain" - wherein we would be asked to attend meeting after meeting - only to sit there for an hour or two - even though the part that was relevant to us would typically be a 2-3 minute portion of that meeting.

This usually involved the other party asking us a "where are we on this project?" I/we would reply "I don't know - we're still waiting for you to action the points that we agreed you would action *at the previous meeting*" and that would be that.

So we adopted the most appropriate solution to avoid being sucked into the tea-and-biscuit time wasting routine: We stopped agreeing to meetings.

We gave up meetings and got on with the actual work itself.

When asked to attend a meeting we ask what the meeting is for, we explain, sorry - we don't need to attend that meeting as you've just provided the information that we require, here is our response (or we'll email a response later) and explain that we wont be attending as it no longer appears necessary.

It's great to get work done.

I agree with bytecode, you really need to take a look at what the meetings you attend are good for. If they don't add value to your work why are you there?

It isn't the same as a lab, I guess, but we have multiple projects (strategy changes, new trains being built, additions etc) ongoing as well as having to maintain the plant (it's a very large LNG plant) and keep it operating.

It does come down to saying NO! and meaning it, though I do explain why.

I leave my reportees to manage their groups, with the occasional foray to stop non-value added or low priority (in my opinion) activities.

I'll fight for training budgets for them, map out career plans to try and match their aspirations, keep friendly with the powers that be to help defend and raise the profile of my department etc.

I also, of course, assign work.

I won't molly coddle them; they're big boys and girls (my three graduate engineer trainees are ladies, as are two out of my three direct reportees).

Doesn't mean that I'm not suffering death by a thousand cuts in terms of the amount of work I have to do but killing off the meetings saved so much time and with little if any loss in effectiveness.

By Chris' Wills (not verified) on 17 Oct 2009 #permalink