Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Useless Moneybags

Every once in a while, someone makes a statement in a comment about how their advisor "doesn't do anything". In some cases, there is the added description that an advisor "doesn't do anything except get grants". I find these comments fascinating, but not necessarily in a good way. I am sure I have written about this before, but since I was thinking about the phenomenon recently as I was sitting suspended over an ocean, I am writing about it again now.

I am sure there are exceptions -- of course I don't know how things work in other fields or at other institutions other than ones with which I am closely associated -- but I think in many cases, this comment displays a misconception about the definition of "anything" in a research context. [This is where the young and perhaps not-so-young say to their advisors (but perhaps not aloud): "But that's your fault because you are supposed to teach us what you do". Yes, that's true to some extent, although it's a rather lame reason for remaining ignorant over the entire course of a graduate program, as I've discussed before.]

In any case, I know that the Do-Nothing (except provide grants) Advisors are believed to exist, and that is why many of us learn during fascinating and mandatory Research Ethics workshops that just providing the money for a research project is not sufficient justification for us to be a co-author on the resulting papers. And yet, I always wonder: But what if the research was our IDEA? Doesn't that count?

Today, what I want to know is how many readers have said or thought that their advisor doesn't (or didn't) do anything, meaning in this case that the advisor doesn't (or didn't) do any research (whether it was true or not)? If anyone leaves a comment confessing to having this thought/belief, it would also be helpful to know the academic discipline involved. In my field, it's relatively easy for me to do some actual research myself, but in other fields or in other research group configurations, it may be more difficult for an advisor to do this. Hence, additional information may be important for exploring and understanding this phenomenon.

There may be various modes of thought that feed into such a view. One that I imagine is common goes something like this:

- because you and other students ± postdocs, techs etc. are the ones actually generating data, you are the ones doing the real work, and your advisor is therefore "not doing anything".

But I hope it is more complex than that, and not an indication of a lack of appreciation for the value of ideas -- the ideas that can lead to a successful proposal and therefore a grant, the ideas for overcoming obstacles that may arise during the data-gathering stages, and the ideas that come once the data (or whatever) are obtained and it's time to think about the results, understand them, discuss them, interpret them, and thereby generate new ideas.

If a grad student who thinks their advisor doesn't do anything is in a situation in which they (the student) had some ideas that formed the core of a grant proposal that they largely wrote (perhaps with some help with the logistics of writing/submitting a proposal), got the grant (perhaps with their advisor's name on it), carried out the research largely independently (perhaps after learning some key techniques from someone other than the advisor), made the most significant interpretations, and wrote the papers, then go ahead and say it: your advisor didn't do much, if anything.

Otherwise, I think it is a strange and incorrect thing to say.


Anonymous said...

I have seen a lot of students thinking this way.

The most recent is when I was a co-author in a situation with an advisor and his student, who were working on a separate part of the paper (than mine). The advisor explained how to do a certain piece of analysis to his student for the n-th time, and the student still failed to do it properly. The paper deadline being close, the advisor finally gave up and did the whole analysis himself. This prompted the student to say -- "Ah good, finally my advisor is doing some work! He doesn't really do anything!"

I found the whole episode surreal. If this were my student, he would have been immediately fired.

Anonymous said...

I've seen many times something similar to the comment by Anonymous 12:30, in which a student will have no clue about something after being given ample opportunity to express an opinion, then the advisor will say "How about such-and-such"? and the student will say "Yeah, that's what I was thinking", and then it magically becomes the student's idea. People get all worked up about professors *using* students and their ideas, but mostly I see the opposite. Well, that's our job, but students should be less delusional about the contributions of advisors to the key ideas of the student's research.

bob said...

I have certainly seen a lot of students that are fairly clueless in this regard. But, the discussion often comes up in discussions of authorship (as in your ethics training) where I think the sentiment is correct. Providing resources and an intellectual milieu probably aren't sufficient reasons to be a co-author on a paper. Otherwise, why not put the chair (who got the donations for the new building and helped shaped the research orientation of the department) on all your papers?

Anonymous said...

My situation was exactly like the last one you described, in which the advisor really didn't do much. At my graduate institution, it was fairly common for a students' financial support to come entirely from independent fellowships, institutional support, or research grants written by the students. The variety of funding enabled me to pursue my own research ideas, and this was normal at my institution. The advisors mainly provide guidance and facilities, not ideas or funding. When I describe this situation to people from other institutions, however, they invariably assume I am one of those delusional students you describe. Of course now I have a better idea of how things work in most places and understand the mis-perception.

EliRabett said...

There are some companion pieces to this post at Crooked Timber (one and two) which could benefit from cross commenting

Whoosh said...

I think, for a student (at least for a younger one) its quite difficult to really understand that a paper needs much more than just a good dataset to be publishable. The concept of having new ideas, which you can't find in a textbook, and the value of that for your work, is something one has to experience first. For a student a professor is often someone who knows pretty much "everything" and it can be quite frustrating if they then "refuse to help".
Of course there are students who should know better and just don't - or maybe they are just very frustrated, that they can't figure out the whole problem by them self. But I'd say the majority of the students get it after a while and start taking over the responsibility for the success of their project.

Anonymous said...

But what if the research was our IDEA? Doesn't that count?

That is, I think, the crux of the matter. If you just gave someone money, but did not contribute to the research intellectually in any way, you would essentially be an administrator. You would not expect to be included as a coauthor.

If you gave minimal intellectual input to a student's paper, but did not provide any money and were not the student's adviser, you probably also would not expect to be included as a coauthor.

If you suggested to someone who was not your advisee or collaborator (maybe someone you were chatting with at a conference) that a certain topic might be interesting to study, and they subsequently published a paper on it, you would not expect to be included as a co-author.

In other words, the fact that you provided money, resources, a milieu, or even had the idea for the research are clearly NOT reasons that, by themselves, justify co-authorship. If you gave the project "legitimacy" by signing off on it as an adviser, I personally don't think that should change things.

Anyway, I think a lot of these problems can be avoided by an upfront discussion about the roles of various people involved in a research project, which might be especially important for new grad students who don't yet understand the academic system and culture.

Lauren said...

My advisor doesn't do any benchwork. We're a very large microbiology lab (~30 grad students, postdocs, senior scientists, assistant research professors, plus an unquantified army of undergrads), and there isn't space or need for him to carry out an experiment himself. I don't think that means he does nothing, however. He suggests projects, arranges collaborations, gives feedback, and helps us write papers and apply for fellowships.

ks said...

My (super wonderful) Ph.D. advisor was very careful to be transparent with what he does most days. He took the students out for lunches in which he helped to teach us about the grant-writing process, and made sure to include us in writing paper revisions, response letters, etc. Although he didn't physically do most of the research (we're in biomedical science, it's rather intensive benchwork), and in most cases didn't know how the new equipment worked if he wanted to do his own research, it was very clear that he did stuff.

My postdoc advisor, on the other hand, always has her door shut, unless she's not actually in the office. Given that she's not doing benchwork either, and she seems to have chosen not to involve people in what she does day-to-day - I can see how undergrads and/or grad students who aren't that familiar with what an advisor does might feel like she doesn't do anything. If you don't see it, it doesn't happen - right?

Jen said...

I have an independent fellowship, as do others in my research group. But once in a blue moon my professor will get a grant... that he uses for his 2 companies.

I've never had a research group meeting with him and my peers (I'm in my last year) and have presented at conferences my professor was at and he never even stopped by. And later that week, had the nerve to ask what I presented on. My own professor doesn't know what I'm doing with my research or meet with any of his students.

Every now and then, it's fair to say "my advisor doesn't do anything."

Anonymous said...

I never thought this about my advisor, even though he rarely made an appearance in the lab.

One of my grad students evidently thinks I am a do-nothing. I recently read a proposal that he wrote describing how he developed his project completely independently with no input from anyone. !! And how many hours did I put into this piece of crap? Give me a break.

And this idea of PIs "just" providing resources? I don't understand how a PI could write a successful proposal and not make a major intellectual contribution to the project. In developing it, refining it, understanding its strengths and weaknesses.

And for all those bitter grad students out there spending hours in the lab: You should ask yourself if you could be replaced by an undergrad RA at $9/hour. Yes? Then you are not pulling your weight, and you probably don't deserve authorship even if it is your dissertation research.

Anonymous said...

My advisor DID stuff.

However, I maintained then and I still maintain now that she was incapable of being productive or doing anything that required hard work and focus.

She could:
-spends hours in meetings
-spend hours reading papers/books (so that she could show people how smart she was by knowing everything)
-spend hours discussing our research with us or sometimes hanging out in the lab to watch/advise/assist

She could even spend hours reviewing manuscripts (she loves criticizing others).

However, she could not make time to WRITE a paper... she can plan a paper, think of ideas, and jot down some sloppy sentences... and spend hours making figures in Photoshop... but to actually spend the many focused hours to get it done? No way.

She also could barely make time to properly edit/revise a paper written by someone else (e.g., me). Revising a full paper (that was well done - and ended up being published in an excellent journal with a majority original content by me) took on the order of a year (no other papers were written in this time... and maybe one proposal was written... and her teaching load was only 50% the usual... so these are not excuses).

The only thing that would ever cause her to get anything done was an impending deadline (e.g., a grant proposal deadline, the last day of a given period for making manuscript revisions, her tenure package submission). This would mean she would finish a paper or proposal or whatever THE DAY BEFORE and stay up all night. And then submit it a couple of days or a week late with some sort of excuse about her kid being sick (this could be an okay excuse, but she used it on average once a week, so it really turned into a 'boy who cried wolf' situation).

She was also a psychopath (I am very confident in my diagnosis). In case the reader is not familiar with the personality disorder, this means: manipulative, delusions of grandeur, power hungry, thrill seeking, usually highly intelligent, having great difficulties with performing mundane tasks, complete shirking of responsibilities, tendency to pathological lying, etc.

The point of this story... even though it's pretty unrelated to the main theme of this post... is that AS A STUDENT, I was very frustrated that the other professors did not believe me when I tried to explain how insane and unproductive and incapable of working my advisor really was and many of them just chalked it up to me being a naive student who didn't appreciate all the *HARD WORK* she was doing behind the scenes (and I think I did, mostly). I am still quite resentful of her.

Anonymous said...

There are plenty of advisors out there who don't really do anything- or worse, who do something soemtimes and it's something bad.

Example: I suggest an idea for a paper (from data gathered during my diss work, supported by grants I took the lead on writing). S/he belittles the idea, then in the same breath insists s/he should be first author (but of course I will do all the work and the "not so great" idea is all mine).

How about advisors who are totally reliant on their students to run their own projects? To the point where they have no grants of their own, only grants that are obtained with students to support their dissertations (like a NSF DDIG)? That enters the dangerous ground of misuse of students and conflict of interest.

I'm envious of those who haven't seen how bad an advising situation can really get and how little some advisors really do.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post. My advisor could potentially be one of those who QUOTE does nothing. I'm in ecology and our main field site is a 45-minute drive away. My advisor does not do field work -- he doesn't have the time. (He wishes he did!) He comes up with lots of ideas and writes grants. The research itself is implemented at the field site by an army of technicians overseen by a research coordinator (who reports to my advisor). He does analyses. He writes papers. Interestingly, the people actually gathering the data (field technicians and research coordinator) are never authors on the papers. My advisor believes that one must have an intellectual contribution to be an author.

Anonymous said...

My experience is similar to what Anonymous 04:15 is describing. As a graduate student in a cognitive psychology program I get a considerable part of my funding from my program rather than directly from my advisor. For various reasons, the grants that she received are quite general, and students are largely free to pursue their own research ideas, as long as they fit within the subfield that the advisor is interested in. Her contribution to a given project may range from substantial to absolutely nil: in many cases the students work entirely on their own. Perhaps this kind of situation is more common in non-Big Science disciplines like psychology.

Anonymous said...

If a manuscript could not exist without a particular person, then that person should be an author.

So, if a manuscript resulted from a paid grad student, working on an idea developed, proposed, and funded by a PI, then that PI should most definitely be an author, in my opinion.

So, I don't understand why providing funding (in that scenario) does not warrant an authorship?

plam said...

Being on sabbatical means that I had recent occasion to be much more involved with some research than usual---a paper submission ate up my whole last week, pretty much, while my student, who is a coauthor on the paper, was busy teaching the course that I usually teach. But I can see that my normal level of involvement would be much lower.

In this case I made significant changes to the code that we used to produce results, which my student originally produced. Normally I'd just talk to the student and get (sort of) an idea of how the stuff works. Actually doing it gave me a much more specific idea of how it worked in this case.

I still think that "high-level suggestions" are a useful contribution to a paper, but I can see that they don't look quite as much like doing the work as writing the code and collecting the data. I would probably have ended up writing significant parts of the text anyway though.

NonUS FSP said...

"guidance and facilities, not ideas or funding"

Perhaps you can expand on how "guidance" is different from "ideas"?

Anonymous said...

My situation as a graduate student was very much like the last one you described. Yet, I wouldn't say my graduate advisor did nothing. He helped me find opportunities for funding, introduced me to people who taught me techniques (and helped convinced them to work with me), provided access to equipment he had purchased, gave me guidance on navigating politics, allowed me to use his name on proposals when needed, offering up his good name and credibility, etc. How can that be nothing?

Alex said...

If a Moneybag is useless, I'd like to look into ways to become as useless as possible.

Anonymous said...

Anon 4:15, when you say "guidance and facilities", what kind of guidance do you mean? I am just curious.

Anonymous said...

I did largely fund my own research off grants, I worked in a different system (but similar questions as my advisor) and had to develop that system independently. I wrote my papers pretty independently, etc. Still the idea that my advisor "didn't do anything" would be crazy!! Deeply crazy. I may have purchased my supplies and paid for my travel but who built that lab and provided all the major infrastructure? My advisor. Who talked with me about the literature and gave me feedback on proposals/talks/papers and generally shaped my intellectual development in the field? My advisor. Who attracted all the fantastic grad students and postdocs that I got to interact with in the lab? My advisor. My advisor perceives me as 'very independent' and I probably am but I would be nowhere without him. Let's see if my grad students feel the same way...

Anonymous said...

no delusions here. my grad advisor really did do nothing, except provide me with full freedom and an endless stream of money for research, conferences, etc. (for which I am very grateful!). Also in my experience this is not an uncommon type of advisorial style.

I conceptualized problems, did the research, wrote papers, published and presented them, all with the help of other graduate students and undergrad assistants. I met my advisor maybe couple times a quarter to fill him in. He diligently attempted to help when I was stuck, but it ended up not being helpful. Feedback on drafts consisted mainly of proofreading for grammar/spelling.

I didn't write the grants that got the money but I have no idea what was in those grants and if my work overlapped at all with them.

Anonymous said...

Who says every winning grant proposal even contains an idea? Many are written by committee and have everything except an idea.

I give significant comments, suggestions on approaching their problems, and pointers to literature to many of my colleagues (often more than their own advisers and employers). But I do not expect them to make me a coauthor. More importantly they do even consider my help as earning me co-authorship; they'll put my name in the acknowledgments somewhere. However, they will not think twice about putting their advisers name on papers for far less.

When we get insights for our work from reading a paper, what do we do? Do we (feel obliged to) make the paper's authors coauthors or do we cite them and move on? Could a student not cite his adviser's proposal if the "idea" came from there (which is always done in the acknowledgments)?

For coauthorship, I set engagement as the standard, not some vague notion called an "idea".

Anonymous said...

I know of a case where a supervisor gave a first year grad student a well chewed on morsel he had been working on himself, as a way for the new student to cut his teeth. This wasn't "go and work on problem X" type of advice, but a much more explicit "if you take technique X against problem Y and the combine it with method Z you'll likely get an answer".

The approach worked, and the paper was published, quite naturally, under joint authorship. Imagine my shock when a few years later the student told a group of us that his supervisor had done "no work whatsoever" in the paper. I was familiar with the case and was aghast at the naivete of the student.

Anonymous said...

Maybe the "professor does nothing" situation can happen at the highly ranked schools where the graduate students are stellar. But here in the lower ranked (although still research 1) schools....I literally cannot trust my graduate students to analyze data properly. They go into lab and collect a lot of data, but they don't think deeply about it, can't see trends, don't study the literature to figure out what the data means, and can't determine what experiments their results indicate they should do next.

I'm very much earning that asterisk next to my name on the paper.

EscapedWestOfTheBigMuddy said...

My graduate adviser and post-doc bosses have all spent less time doing actual physics than me. They did after all have to get those grants and cover their teaching and service loads.

But they were consistently available to provide experience, to act as knowledgeable sounding boards (more valuable than it sounds), to ask the right questions (hat tip to anon 03:05) and to have the contacts with the people who could put us on the right track and generally were particularly expert in some part of the process that us peons were putting together and executing.

That led to endless jokes about how little "real" work the professors did, but no one was suggesting that they hadn't done their part towards authorship.

Of course, particle physics is Big Science (tm), so maybe things are different in my field.

Anonymous said...

nonUS FSP - There are many kinds of guidance, some of which have nothing to do with scientific ideas. For example, the advisor may provide guidance along the lines of "you should talk to so-and-so who knows about that stuff," or "you should try and publish in X journal," or "good experiments are successful because blah." Advisors can share the benefit of their experience without sharing intellectual capital that would be worthy of authorship.

Anonymous said...

personally, I (a recently finished master's student with no intention of going into academia) find it a really bizarre thing to say, too. although there were definitely things that annoyed me about my advisor, I never felt that he "didn't do anything." he did a ton of stuff! he always had tons of projects going on with other people that were unrelated to mine or his other grad student's, plus he did a lot of "innovative teaching techniques" type stuff, which I thought was very cool of him (and he definitely didn't "have to" do that kind of thing, he was about 20 years past getting tenure... he just likes it.)

Old Biddy said...

Chemist here. In all the groups I've been in, the PI does little or no labwork but contributes to the big picture goals (or provides them), the discussions and everything else. Perhaps the culture varies from discipline to discipline, but I haven't witnessed too many comments about the PI not contributing anything except money.
It can get a bit fuzzier when there are collaborations and shared students. Sometimes a PI will insist on being on all the papers his/her student is on, even if no financial support was provided by said PI and the paper did not touch on any of the collaborative research. In that case, it's a pretty sleazy thing to do.
I do like the following criteria of one of the other commenters and plan to use it if I find myself involved in coauthorship discussion.

If a manuscript could not exist without a particular person, then that person should be an author.

Anonymous said...

As a new faculty member, i often lamented the fact that my time in the lab was limited or nonexistent. Two of my students offered up plenty of good natured joking, mostly along the lines that I did nothing anymore.

One week i was out due to an unexpected work related trip and the two students had to fill in for me, with tasks such as paperwork and navigating some departmental politics. After i got back, their comment was "good god, how do you do this all day? It's exhausting!"

I had to laugh.

Anonymous said...

I am pretty sure Anonymous at 9:16 AM is a (sexist) psychopath himself.

Talk about delusions of grandeur...

It's students like him that make advising a nightmare.

Anonymous said...

I think the problem is that many of the commenters here who can't believe advisors 'do nothing' had advisors who did something. I've seen several advisors who do nothing. The worst incident was the student that was supporting himself on TAs who could not get a meeting with his advisor, could not get him to reply to emails, and who eventually sent his MS thesis to his committee because of the deadline, despite the fact that the advisor had not reviewed it. Then, when the student went on to win some award for this research, which the advisor had no involvement in, the advisor suddenly got excited and wanted the student to stay on for his PhD. Of course, by that point, the student had no intention of ever working with his advisor again.

While I would say there are a lot of students who may not understand that guidance and facilities is a big part of helping a student, there are also advisors out there who really don't do anything.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't go as far as to say my advisor does nothing. We've had lots of discussions, both on my work, and on the field in general, and he gives good feedback on my talks, high-level thoughts on where my work fits into the field, etc.

But I'm funded fully by TAships and department grants (including for conference travel), and generate my own ideas and write the entire paper myself. He gets to see a copy of it before it gets submitted, since his name is on it, but he rarely gives feedback, and he hasn't listed our joint work on his CV or webpage. To some extent, I like that I have the freedom to come up with my own ideas, but more advising and more than a casual interest in my research would be much appreciated.

Anonymous said...

I think a fundamental problem in research organization is, we do not think of the PI's role as a managerial or leadership role, which is not fair to measure directly in terms of how many paragraphs go into a technical paper etc. My advisor and I always had great synergy where his main contribution was positive and constructive criticism as well as some nice ideas that helped me push forward in my own independent thoughts. He made it quite clear when he started out that I have to learn to think and conduct research independently and his job was to be an active listener, and that he is available to provide guidance as and when needed.

I think it also depends on the advisor-advisee relationship. Since my Phd advisor was a young tenure-track guy, practically in the same age group as us students in his research lab, we had a very democratic relationship where we could openly discuss contributions. We even had open and honest discussions about the work the PI does to bring in the funding, why formulating the vision is important, and why the grad student, advisor, postdoc and visiting student all have their unique roles and contributions. Ultimately I think it is how the group culture is developed, and I do think this is where the advisor, being the manager, must play a key role to flesh out the expectations for contribution.

In short, I NEVER though my advisor does nothing, even though he was not actively writing code with us, or had separate sections in a paper. HIs contributions were obvious and evident, and critical to our work, but we all clearly understood he was not the oldest student in the group.

Anonymous said...

My advisor is an early tenure-track professor. Last thing I think is that he does not do anything -- on the contrary, I mostly wonder how on earth he gets so much work done.

I did notice that many undergrads do not realize how busy professors are, and how much they work. For example, we had undergrads in our lab believe our grant was the only one our adviser was leading, when its one of four ...

Anonymous said...

"I am pretty sure Anonymous at 9:16 AM is a (sexist) psychopath himself.

Talk about delusions of grandeur...

It's students like him that make advising a nightmare."

Dear Anon 7:20 PM:

I too was annoyed by Anon 9:16 AM. But the fact that he criticizes his female professor does not automatically make him "sexist", you know?

Anonymous said...

"... and spend hours making figures in Photoshop... "

Taking raw data, and going through the intellectual process of turning that into a story, in the form of n effective figures, is easy busy work and doesn't count as a real contribution?

I realize the person who wrote this had a much longer laundry list of issues, many of which seemed pretty valid, but as someone who has spent weeks doing the above, I couldn't help but notice this.

Mark P

Anonymous said...

I'm currently a student in Computer Science. And I'm one of the many students that claim my advisor doesn't do anything, based on a couple of my observations.

(1) To the best of my knowldege, my advisor does not have any grant money. If they do, I and my other labmate do not see any of it.

(2) To the best of my knowledge, my advisor has not authored or co-authored a paper in about a decaed.

(3) As far as I know, there are two PhD students under my advisor, me and my labmate. We hear rumor that there are more, but they've not been given access to/told about our office space, so we assume they don't actualy exist or have switched advisors.

(4) Between my labmate and I, we've generated the ideas for our papers and funded our trips entirely on our own, and paied for our own computers. Our advisor often doesn't know about this until after the event.

(5) we believe our office space went unused for a few years, but no other students exist to confirm/deny this.

I sincerly hope my experience is something of an anamoly, but we do exist. I desperately wish I had a "do nothing" advisor that shared ideas and acquired, or at least applied for, grants. I'd with the post and agree that being able to create interesting, novel, and workable ideas requires more appreciation as it's often the hardest task in research, or so I've found.

Anonymous said...

As both a grad student and a post-doc, I've never expected my advisors to be working with me in the lab and I've never resented their names on my papers. I have, however, expected them to offer some mentorship in addition to the money. My graduate advisor did a poor job in the mentoring department. I got my PhD, yeah, but somehow all I learned was how to be a good little drone. Fortunately, my post-doc advisor takes the mentoring more seriously. And, even more fortunately, I have a totally awesome labmate who decided to befriend me. I learned more about being a scientist in three days of working with him than I did in 5.5 years of grad school.

EliRabett said...

Anon 12:44:00 PM why did you pick your advisor?? If you had a choice 1-3 looks like an epic fail.

Helen Huntingdon said...

I once had an advisor who often fit the description of "doing nothing" but providing resources.

But it would never have occurred to me to think he wasn't making a vital contribution. I was told quite firmly that I was never to think about money, only my research, and he would provide. That's not an easy promise to deliver on, and he worked tirelessly to do so for all of us in his group. Endless, wearisome scare-up-money tasks we did not want to do, he drove himself to do. Sometimes we didn't see much of him, because he was out getting us resources.

I vaguely recall setting a couple other students straight on whether he "did nothing", but then I was fresh off having to raise funds myself for a major project and tended to notice all the clues that gave away just what he was doing and how much of it.

David S said...

Ideas are cheap; everyone has a great idea for some new research, but actually executing the idea is the real challenge. So it depends how much the professor is involved in expediting the execution. That doesn't mean that they have to actually run an analysis or pour chemicals into a test tube, but I think they do have to be actively involved in solving the problems that come up along the way.

It's like the President saying that we should go to Mars. Nice idea, but he doesn't get any credit for it from me unless he's actually involved in planning it in detail and running it... even if he does provide $10Bn to fund it.

Anonymous said...

David S, a fundable idea in science is more than "let's go to Mars". For a proposal to get funded the PI has to flesh out a great many details of how things will get done, what the likely problems are, how they will be overcome etc. So there is a significant intellectual component to getting federal funding for research.

Having said that, I agree that once the funds are there a good, involved PI will be there to troubleshoot with students, think about overcoming technical obstacles and provide help or resources to get help, will be involved in the analysis and paper writing, and will coach students and postdocs involved in how to best present the work in the big picture context.

Anonymous said...

David S, you realize that the kind of ideas FSP is talking about are not "go sequence the human genome", right? These are the kind of ideas generated from knowing the literature inside out, from years of experience at benchwork, and probably months of thinking about the problem.

So -- no, such ideas are _not_ cheap.

Anonymous said...

i feel bad that my advisor doesn't introduce me to visitors our lab has. He has introduced master students, people that are not even grad students, yet he doesn't introduce me (even tho we have research papers together where I am the first author-so I have interesting projects to show) Is this normal? I feel very very very bad when this happens. because it makes me feel as if my work is worthless :(i don't know what to do. He doesn't even acknowledge that I am his student when he brings visitors. Should I change advisors? I feel really depressed :(

AnonymousPostdoc1 said...

Wow, lots of comments. This issue must definitely strike a chord for many folks.

For FSP--
I am in biomedical sciences. My PI is an M.D. He does surgeries.

There are times when I admit that he is not a "useless moneybag" in that he operates on patients, and with their consent, their excised tissues provide valuable resource to our research.

But I'm afraid that's only a minority of the time. There are many projects that our lab is involved where he really doesn't do anything.

He obviously doesn't write the papers, let alone edit or provide feedback. His students and postdocs do. He wouldn't know how to. As for grant writing, he doesn't do them either. He has his postdocs do them. Ideas? He does not generate them. His postdocs do. All he does is sign the papers. Oh, there is one thing he does. He presents the final report to the funding agency....but with presentation slides that his postdocs have made entirely.

And yes, I now can think of one other thing he does. He holds meetings where he always insults his students and postdocs publicly. He insults them personally. He insults their efforts. He mocks their data. Never a positive, constructive criticism. Always negative. This is his way of contributing.

Why did I join this lab? Didn't know better from the outside. And for many students, they unfortunately didn't have an alternative. It was either him or change field/school entirely. He was the "best" that they could get. My heart goes out to them.

FSP, I appreciate you raising these questions in this post. And I am also sympathetic to you in the assessment that many students who say their advisor "doesn't do anything" are often unfounded. They are often merely their expression of frustration (who doesn't have them in grad school?) as well as a misunderstanding of the role of an advisor and his/her contribution in a publication.

Yet there are cases, like the one I have tried to describe, that warrant the statement valid. I simply hope that my experience is not the norm. I'd be curious to hear from you at a later post regarding a summary of the data you collected on this topic.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 10:42, have an open, frank discussion with your advisor, asking why you never seem to meet visitors. It's possible it's intentional, or not, but you should always feel that you can ask your PI about issues relating to your science career.