Tuesday, February 27, 2007

How to Pick a Group - Part 2

In Part 1 of How to Pick a Group I described my first graduate adviser. In this part, I'll describe my second and current graduate adviser and research group.

Newbie is an apt name for him because he is not only my new adviser, he's a brand new professor. Some graduate students cringe when I even mention this and say that's my first mistake: joining a brand new, not tenured adviser. Regardless, let me continue. Newbie is hardcore. He was a stellar 70 hours a week graduate student and he's still a 70 hours a week professor. He's hands on. He comes into the lab or our offices whenever he's bored of what he's doing or stuck on writing grants, or whatever, and walks around and asks us what we're doing and talks about whatever is on his mind. When I first talked to him about joining his group, I tried to ask all the right questions (btw, the question to ask grad students in Part 1 are not necessarily questions you would ask professors). Specifically, I asked him what his management style was (I was looking for hands on but, of course, not overbearing), I asked him if he would mandate certain work hours (I had heard he worked crazy hours when he was a student), I told him my issues with the first adviser (diplomatically of course). He said he would be hands on, but would treat all students with respect - "not like slaves", he would not expect us to work certain hours - "people work on their own schedule" but that he would evaluate our performance on a task or output basis, and he told me that he would be very different from my previous adviser. "Excellent!" I thought.

So how has it been? Well this one is not cut-and-dry, it's been somewhere between excellent and terrible. Or rather, I should say, it oscillates between the two. The excellent part is that he is, indeed, hands on. He is more enthusiastic about my research project than even I am at times. That's awesome. He is incredibly accessible and helpful. There are only a couple other students in our group, so we really get to take advantage of this attention which won't last forever. The terrible part is that he can be overbearing and overly demanding. Specifically, the "people work on their own schedule" mantra slowly morphed, over the course of a few months, to "If you don't get all your tasks done by the end of the week, you have to work as many hours a week as I do. Last week I worked 70 hours. Keep that in mind." What are these tasks? They are research tasks he assigns us at the start of each week. That idea is awesome. It's like your adviser is helping you do a GTD weekly review. Now in practice, the tasks are rarely, if ever, a set that you can get done in a week. In your own GTD system, that's fine, that's why you have a next actions list, you just do them as soon as you can. With the above rule, however, it means you are expected to work 70 hours that week. 70 hours when you're being that kid and telling your friends how much you've worked is one thing. 70 hours when your adviser demands it is another thing. And 70 hours when your adviser specifically told you he wouldn't demand hours is out of control.

So what did we do? We went and talked to him (being able to help shape group culture falls in the awesome category by the way). We cited our complaints specifically and within 5 to 10 minutes into the conversation, he eliminated the rule. Now we get the GTD task list, without the crap attached to it. He simply tells us to stop slacking if we start slacking on our tasks. So how much do we actually work now? Probably between 50 to 60 hours a week. But it feels one hell of a lot better because when you have interesting results and you feel energetic, putting in 65-70 hours that week doesn't feel like much, because the next week when it's time to go on a ski trip for the weekend, you can cut it back to 50.

He can still at times be overbearing and do things that make you shake your head like schedule meetings with you that start at 9pm. And still when he comes into the lab on the weekends, he asks if your other labmates are here yet. That's annoying. But he compromised on the main rules, the guidance and help with the research is awesome, and I'm willing to put up with the crap to get the good stuff. Here is my tips summary for newbie (some of these are for when you've already joined, but are important nonetheless.):

  • Ask your prospective adviser direct questions about management style so that you have some leverage if you need to complain later.
  • Don't be afraid to tell your adviser you're burning out.
  • Keep in mind that if other people say that this guy/gal is hardcore, even if they don't seem so in a 5 minute conversation, they probably are.
  • Tell the adviser what you want from the group.
  • Ask the grad students about the adviser's management style and compare to the adviser's description. Pay close attention to the differences and try your best to deduce whether the adviser seems in touch with the group or not. Try to find one that is.
  • Once in the group, communicate communicate communicate early on. This will set the precedent and let both sides know how the other is feeling and what the other wants.
Sound like advice for a marriage? Yeah, that's not a coincidence.

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