Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Grad students != drones

A major difference I notice between graduate students and my friends who work in industry is that there is a significant sense of pride and ownership taken by the latter group with their work. This could be for a variety of reasons, including higher monetary compensation, the real-world potential of their work, and motivation provided by their employers.

On the other hand, a natural curiosity (apart from the promise of a degree) would ideally drive a graduate student to perform quality research, but I find that this is sometimes not the case. Many graduate students feel that they are forced into their projects solely because it furthers the career of their advisor. A student-advisor relationship grounded in this sentiment leads the student to do just enough work to graduate, but does not provide enough motivation for the student to fully realize the potential of their work. Some ownership in the project is needed.

How can a mutually beneficial environment be created within an academic setting? I think advisors should think hard about this issue since they stand to benefit greatly from an increase in the quality of their students' research. I don't think that the prospect of earning an advanced degree is enough to establish such an environment; graduate students need to see their research as something beyond a means to graduate if science is truly going to progress.

Some things that advisors do that remove the sense of ownership from their graduate students' work include
  1. having their graduate students attempt numerous "impossible" experiments in the hope that one might actually work;
  2. writing the journal papers on the projects themselves;
  3. delaying the graduation of senior students for their experience in the lab;
  4. and frequently deferring communication and guidance to post-docs.