Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Advisors should allow students to make conclusions from their work

There is a problem in my mind concerning ownership of the message of an academic work. By message I mean the presentation of the conclusions and impact that the work may have on its field. The demarcation of duties between a student and his or her advisor is typically as follows: the student does the manual labor that goes into a project, writes the bulk of the manuscript, makes the graphs, and in general does the "dirty work." Advisors provide the ideas and problems, offer guidance when the student is having difficulties, and provide the lab space and equipment that the student needs.

So who exactly should have more of a say in selling the work? Advisors (in my opinion) often overreach with their conclusions due to a misunderstanding of the details of the work and the need to acquire grant money. On the other hand, students typically undersell the work since they are too concerned about the accuracy of the details, even if the big picture remains correct. Furthermore, the research usually correlates with the advisor's career work, not the student's.

Though I am biased, I'm inclined to side with the students since it is more in line with the scientific spirit. Students will more often argue honestly for their work and let their peers decide its value. It's also crushing to a student's morale if they are shut down by their advisor in this part of the process. Providing students with little-to-no say on the presentation will make them feel as if their creative faculties are unwanted and that they are simply performing mechanically. I think this problem stems from academia commonly being viewed by advisors as a career, not as a means to pursue science.

Note: This post is based partly on a discussion I've had with fellow students recently. All of us were complaining that we spend large amounts of time writing the drafts of manuscripts only to have the introduction and conclusions completely rewritten by the advisors. One friend quipped, "If the advisor wanted it written his way all along, why didn't he write it in the first place?"