How Not to Mentor Your Students

By Julianne Dalcanton | October 10, 2012 11:42 pm

As a vigorous defender of “work-life” balance, I am compelled to weigh in on the recent circulation of a letter sent to the graduate students in a “well regarded astronomy program”. The lengthy (10-point) letter was a summary of the department’s internal review of grad student performance, along with additional information and guidance. Such a review is not an unusual occurrence, nor is there typically any interest in publicizing routine intradepartmental correspondence.

However, what made the letter notable was that put in writing clear confirmation of pretty much every fear that students have about how they’re viewed and what they’re expected to sacrifice for “success”. On one level, it’s perhaps good to have this all out in the open, rather than having a secret set of criteria that students are never told about.  However, the criteria listed are, frankly, kind of nuts.  Kelle Cruz at AstroBetter and Ethan Siegal have gone through some of the highlights, with most of the outrage coming in response to the implication that failure to work 80-100 hours a week (or simply to not want to work 80-100 hours a week) was a sign that scientific research might not be for you.

Putting aside the fact that I’m highly doubtful that most faculty were actually pulling off sustained 80-100 hour work weeks even in their halcyon grad student days (90 hours a week is roughly 13 hours of work a day, every day — i.e., getting in at 9am, leaving at 11pm, every day, assuming 2 half-hour meal breaks — puh-leeeze), and ignoring the many points in the letter that others have addressed with well-deserved ranty vigor, I find myself agog at how far off the mark the letter is simply as a management tool. The letter was clearly intended to be helpful, but never in the history of modern academic life has anyone been goaded into success by a 10 point email.

So, if generic scolding is out, how is a department to deal with the fact that, inevitably, some graduate students will not be as engaged with their research as they might be, some will be engaged but not productive, and some will indeed failing to invest much time in their education? Failing to “put their heart and souls” into research can indeed be a symptom, but the most effective treatment depends on the underlying illness. The key is therefore why an individual student falls in these categories, and naturally, there will be no universal answer. From student to student, the reasons will be radically different, and successful mentoring and training should be focused on helping the student to identify their particular obstacle and figure out the solution. It’s hard, time intensive, and takes tact and perception. It is also fundamentally more nuanced that the original letter’s prescription for success: “Be more like me”.


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