Monday, February 13, 2012

Looking at matters from the other side of the fence

A friend of mine was telling me how he felt bad because he thought he'd disappointed his thesis advisor by not staying in academia. I think he means more than just a passing professional disappointment.

My partner has just been assigned several masters students is working with them to come with problems. I'm finding myself reminding him that the traits that he wanted in an advisor are not necessarily the traits that work well when advising the generic student, and that a masters student's goals are different than a PhD candidate's.

As a grad student, certainly in the early stages, I thought of my advisor as something akin to an academic deity of the ancient Greek variety. He had his unique temperament, but was great and powerful. By the end of my experience, he'd humanized quite a bit in my eyes, though I still have a great deal of respect for him. I understand my friend's urge to want to please his advisor. His advisor is his mentor and his guide, and a genuinely nice person. Of course he wants to make this person happy.

But (correct me if I'm wrong, wise readers) a good (ideal) advisor approaches his students with a certain detachment. After all, this is a professional relationship. The emotional attachment to the student's work should go about as far as one's emotional attachment to the research in general. If they choose to become friends with a student, that's beyond the scope of the professional relationship.

On the other hand, watching my partner navigate the path to advising students successfully, I'm realizing how much the shortcomings of advisers are due to the fact that, in spite their academic prowess, they are human beings. The quirks that make up one's life and research through landing that first TT position do not disappear with the appearance of a student. In fact, they probably get further ingrained the older one gets. Everything in the previous paragraph is like solving freshman physics problems assuming a spherical cow.


  1. I also think that some emotional detachment should be involved. The problem is when you have more than one student and you want to treat them fairly. It's better to be detached from everybody than to be closer to some than to others...

    Of course, this is easier said than done.

  2. My experience has been that most advisors are not disappointed when their students leave academia for industry. If anything, they are unhappy when students decide to stick it out in academics, and then burn out from the pressures of the tenure track; this sort of thing always makes the advisor wonder if they pushed the student too hard, or did something wrong.

  3. I am personally happy that my students can find jobs that actually utilize their skills, I don't care if it's a postdoc, industry, national labs... If they are happy with the work, all the better! We academics often fail to remember that jobs are supposed to sustain us first...