Working Effectively With Me as Your Research Advisor
July 2017 (perspective of an assistant professor)
Here are some practical tips for working effectively with me if I'm your research advisor. Some of these tips may also apply to working with other professors, but no guarantees! I'm qualified to speak only about my own personal work habits and preferences, not anyone else's.
At the time of writing (July 2017), I've been serving as a research advisor to students for four years – one as a postdoc and three as an assistant professor. So far, I've advised over 25 students from diverse backgrounds and published around 20 papers with my students (almost everything from 2014 onward). Even though I'm still early in my faculty career, I've gained enough experience to know what works (and doesn't work!) for me in terms of advising style. I can't guarantee that my style is “good” by any external metric, but I do know it's how I personally like to work! And I'm probably not going to change much in the next few years :)
The target audience for this article is my own students. I want to give you a set of tips for working effectively with me, given my own personality and work habits. I've developed these from experimenting with what has and has not worked well for me with 25+ students over the past four years. These observations don't necessarily apply to all professors; I just know that they apply to me. Here we go!
Get a sense of my time constraints
As a professor, I have to continually balance at least eight sources of work that compete for my time:
Your interactions with me fall into the “Research advising” slot, which is super important to me, but unfortunately it's competing with all these other sources of work. You also share that slot with the three to five other students whom I'm usually advising. Thus, your goal is to figure out how to work most effectively with me given the limited time we have together. The rest of this article gives tips to help you achieve this goal.
Acknowledge my biases, but take me on good faith
As your research advisor, I cannot be an impartial party in our interactions. No matter how much I try, there will always be an imbalanced dynamic between us since I may be providing your paycheck, future recommendation letters, job referrals, and advocacy on your behalf in navigating departmental matters.
You should rightly be skeptical when reading this entire document due to the inherent lack of objectivity of an advisor addressing their own students. Skepticism and questioning are good, but what I ask of you is that you take my words on good faith. Otherwise there's no real path forward, and we're better off parting ways. Beware of premature cynicism.
Get on my critical path
I (like everyone else!) tend to prioritize projects that are on my critical path. This article provides relevant details: Whose Critical Path Are You On? How do you know what's on my critical path at the moment? Glad you asked! This leads me to the next tip ...
Ask me questions
Seriously, please just ask! For instance, want to know what's on my critical path? Just ask. I like to communicate very openly with my students (but see the important points below about privacy).
Even if you think your question is mundane or trivial, just ask! Don't get stuck on something for days just because you're afraid of asking me for help or clarification. Chances are, I've seen that exact problem before or can refer you to someone who has. If something is annoying, painful, or just plain sucks, ask me about it. And if you think that something will make your life easier or more productive, just ask.
There can be great value in spending time figuring things out on your own or grinding it out, but many students err on the side of keeping quiet and then end up wasting a lot of time and getting demoralized. If I really want you to figure something out on your own, then I'll tell you when you ask. Again, just ask!
... but prepare to hear “No” as a response
One side-effect of me making it really, really easy for my students to ask me questions is that I tend to say “No” a lot. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't ask. (See the previous tip!)
Please don't take “No” responses as a personal judgment against you; I'm just responding to your specific question or request. If you want, I'll try my best to give a rationale for why I said “No.”
Don't try to be a mindreader
On a related note, don't try to speculate about what I'm thinking; instead, ask me. Chances are, if you try to speculate, then your mental model of my mind will be off to some degree; the longer you wait before asking, the more it will diverge from reality.
An even more counterproductive pattern I've observed amongst some students is a group of them gossiping with each other to speculate on what their advisor might be thinking or feeling ... that just amplifies misconceptions. Again, please just ask!
Work Hard, and Be Easy to Work With
I really like this piece of advice from Conan O'Brien: “Work hard, and be easy to work with.” All of my successful students have exhibited these traits. Watch these two videos for details:
Work Pace and Weekly Schedule
I believe in working hard (see above), but I definitely don't think working hard means working non-stop 24/7 without adequate rest. That's a surefire recipe for burnout and disillusionment.
My best students have worked consistently at a disciplined but sustainable pace, which leaves them enough energy to work really hard right before paper submission deadlines. You'll probably have 1 to 3 of these deadlines per year, so the few weeks before each are when you'll need the most energy.
I don't care where you work or when you work. I trust you to find the right balance for yourself to make consistent progress on your research while giving yourself both the time and space to live a healthy life. In practice, most students tend to work in our lab space because it's easier to stay motivated when you're around other students in lab, but do whatever is best for you.
My only expectation in terms of your work schedule is that you're available on reasonable notice for meetings. This means being reasonably responsive to emails and being able to come to the lab (or on Skype) for meetings. You'll need to be flexible in terms of meeting times to fit with my (often unpredictable) schedule. But unless we have an urgent deadline, I won't hold meetings on nights or weekends.
Take guilt-free breaks and vacations
One of the best parts of being a Ph.D. student is the tremendous amount of flexibility you have in how you spend your time. Trust me, you'll never again have this much flexibility (except when you're retired!). Unfortunately, this lack of structure can lead to a feeling that one ought to be working all the time, or feeling guilty when one isn't working on research. First, acknowledge that this is a very normal feeling, so don't feel guilty for even feeling this way! Second, I strongly encourage students to take guilt-free breaks and vacations on a regular basis.
Please coordinate with me about when you plan to be on break, and I'll make sure to note that on my calendar so that I don't communicate with you about research at those times.
Get comfortable with varying project pace
During certain time periods, we will be progressing at a low-key, relaxed, and moderate pace on your project, and during other times (especially near paper submission deadlines!) the pace will speed up considerably. That's perfectly normal, so get comfortable with it. I concurrently manage multiple student projects, so not every project will be progressing at a rapid pace all the time.
Specifically, I tend to prioritize projects with impending paper submission deadlines that are coming up soon.
Again, it's normal not to feel super-duper-productive during certain slow weeks, and that's OK. Not all projects run full steam ahead 100% of the time. The most important thing is that you keep moving forward (see the next tip) even during the more low-key times in your project, keep me in the loop on your progress, and be ready to increase the intensity level when needed.
This guide isn't about research strategy, but I'll say just one thing about it: Keep moving. If you're actively working on a project (i.e., not on vacation) and spend more than a few days not doing anything concrete related to it, then you're stuck. It's critical that you talk to me immediately so that I can help you get unstuck ASAP. I won't blame you for being stuck. There's no shame in being stuck; it happens to everyone. It's my job to get you unstuck.
Joel Spolsky's Fire And Motion eloquently sums up keep moving:
In infantry battles, [the general] told us, there is only one strategy: Fire and Motion. You move towards the enemy while firing your weapon. The firing forces him to keep his head down so he can't fire at you. (That's what the soldiers mean when they shout "cover me." It means, "fire at our enemy so he has to duck and can't fire at me while I run across this street, here." It works.) The motion allows you to conquer territory and get closer to your enemy, where your shots are much more likely to hit their target. If you're not moving, the enemy gets to decide what happens, which is not a good thing. If you're not firing, the enemy will fire at you, pinning you down.
Most of the unsuccessful students I've observed fail not because they're not smart or hardworking, but because they get stuck for extended periods of time and grow demoralized. Keep moving.
One possible objection to this seemingly-simple strategy is, “but how do I constantly keep moving? I can't have a brilliant research-worthy insight every day! Should I just stare blankly at the wall brainstorming until a moment of true insight strikes me?” No, keep moving. Professor John Regehr has a great answer in his provocatively-named blog post (emphasis mine):
Phil vividly describes the sinking feeling that he was just doing grunt work, not research. This feeling is extremely common, as is the actual fact of doing grunt work. In systemsy areas of [Computer Science] there's just no way to avoid building lots of stuff, fixing broken crap that other students (or, worse, professors) have built, running repetitive experiments that are hard to fully automate, etc. But here's the thing: doing research isn't like having sex where you might suddenly say to yourself: "Hey, I'm doing it!" Rather, most of the time, the research comes out only in hindsight. You look back over a year or three of hard work and say: What was interesting about what we did there? What did we do and learn that was new? If you can't find anything then you're screwed, but usually this only happens when the project was poorly conceived in the first place.
The "but I'm not doing research" problem comes up so often that I have a little canned speech about it that boils down to: "Work hard and trust me." Really, this is the only way forward, because consciously trying to do research every day just makes no sense when you're working on a large software system. Students who fail to heed this advice risk getting stuck in a kind of research paralysis where they stop making progress. I'm not saying that "Aha!" moments don't exist. They do, and they’re great. But their importance is greatly overstated in narratives about research breakthroughs. For one thing, nine out of ten of these moments results in a useless or non-novel insight. For another, these moments are only possible because of all the preceding hard work. So who's to say that the grunt work isn't part of the research process too?
For my own take on these ideas, watch PG Vlog #41 - The Spark / Don't Break the Chain
Bring something to talk about at our meetings
These three videos reiterate keep moving and culminate in the idea of always bringing something concrete to talk about at our meetings:
Learn to filter suggestions
When I get excited about your project, I often spew out a ton of wild ideas and suggestions and will also send you lots and lots of things to read or mull over. Learn to filter suggestions appropriately and not to take everything I say to mean “you must do this NOW!” Read Filtering for more details.
However, there will be times when I ask you to do something very specific by a certain deadline (e.g., “Please send me these new graphs by Monday night”), and in those cases it's important to get those tasks done well and on time (see my no-late policy).
Again, learn to differentiate between speculative suggestions (Filtering) and must-do requests.
Unless there is a dire emergency, if I ask you to do something by a certain date and time, then I need it to be done by that time.
If you're not 100% happy with the quality of your work as the deadline approaches, it's fine to give me a mostly-finished draft rather than nothing so that I can at least look at it and figure out how best to adapt. Something is better than nothing.
The reason I set hard deadlines is because other people and tasks depend on you meeting these deadlines. If you're late on delivering something, that will push a bunch of other tasks back and force me to scramble to reshuffle a cascade of other dependencies that you're probably not aware of.
Complaining vs. doing ratio
Keep your complaining vs. doing ratio as low as possible. It's totally OK to rant and gripe from time to time (everyone does it!), but make sure you're taking meaningful action on your work (keep moving!) while you're venting. That means if you're not doing much at the moment or otherwise stuck at an impasse, then don't spend your energies on complaining. Instead, channel your efforts toward building up your own project's momentum.
(Important: By “complaining” I mean the usual low-grade gripes and negative gossip. If you have serious complaints about substantive issues such as working conditions, harassment, discrimination, personal hardships, and other such issues, definitely bring them up with me, our department's graduate advisor, or the department chair.)
Avoid Infectious Negativity
Negativity is infectious. I understand that there will be times when you feel negative about research, teaching, or academia in general; I've gone through plenty of those low times myself.
I'm always happy to work with you to overcome these challenges and to try to make things better. But I don't have patience for anyone spreading unwarranted negativity to their labmates and bringing them down as well. Positivity is so precious and also so easily overtaken by infectious negativity. Please do not unravel the hard work that your labmates undergo to maintain their positivity in the presence of the many challenges that they're also facing.
Don't compare yourself to other students
I try hard to treat all of my students fairly, but that often doesn't mean treating everyone identically. Different students at different stages of their careers need differing amounts and kinds of advisor attention. And when someone has an impending project deadline, I will naturally shift my attention to prioritize it. Moreover, everyone's personality is different and meshes differently with mine, so the ways we interact will differ.
Bottom line: If I commit to working with you, that means that I'm making a commitment to fairness. But don't directly compare yourself to other students, especially in what kinds of interactions they have with me. You often don't know the full context and details of what your labmates need from me at any given time.
More broadly, students publish papers at different times and at different rates, and that's OK! This isn't a race; you're not in direct competition with your peers. Celebrate each other's victories!
Finally, don't compare yourself to your peers at other universities either. There will always be highly-visible outliers who seem to publish a gazillion papers or win a gazillion awards. Don't sweat it. You do your thing, and they'll do theirs. The research pie is big enough for all of us to have a delicious slice :)
Don't succumb to premature cynicism
Cynicism is not only infectious but can also severely hold you back from achieving your professional goals, especially early on in your career. Watch this video for more details:
A good general policy (not just when working with me, but for all interpersonal interactions!) is that everything should be assumed to be private unless it is publicly accessible.
For instance, I like to communicate very openly with my students, but I also trust that all of our conversations (e.g., emails, phone calls, in-person) are kept private. Otherwise it's very easy for misunderstandings to spread like the telephone game. If I want something to be public, I will likely write about it on this website (or elsewhere online), and you can share its URL with anyone.
Unpublished paper drafts should be assumed to be private. We sometimes share our drafts with colleagues to get their feedback, and our colleagues will share drafts with us. But enforcing privacy by default is a good way to go, since even if someone is OK with us seeing a document, they may not want it being shared more widely. When in doubt, ask me.
In terms of talking about your own research projects with others, feel free to do so whenever you're comfortable. But if you sense a potential conflict-of-interest or other situation where it may be awkward to talk about your current work with someone, then either talk about an older project of yours or do whatever else feels most comfortable to you.
Of course, anything that people can find publicly on the web (or elsewhere) is already public, so it's fine to freely share knowledge about what you've found online while working on your research.
Make a personal website ... NOW!
If you don't have a personal website yet, make one ASAP! You can host it for free on university servers or on GitHub. It doesn't need to be fancy at all: just put your basic academic info up there.
It's much much much easier for me to refer you to professional opportunities or for potential employers to forward your information along internally when they can simply send a URL. LinkedIn or other sites can be a pain since viewers might need to log in to see all of your info. See below:
Recommendation letters or committee meetings
If you need me to write recommendation letters or other supporting documents on your behalf (even if it seems like something that should be “quick” to do), I will need at least 3 weeks of advanced notice. If you're in the process of scheduling committee meetings, major presentations, thesis defenses, etc., please do the scheduling at least 6 weeks in advance. It's very hard to get multiple professors scheduled to meet at a certain time, so do not underestimate the tremendous effort this takes. Finally, once a time has been set, do not reschedule unless there is an emergency.
Make internship plans early
If you're interested in doing summer internships, please let me know well ahead of time since: 1) you'll probably want to start applying at the beginning of the prior fall term, 2) I may be able to help you get internships if your research is relevant to what my industry colleagues work on, 3) I need to plan ahead for how many students I can realistically fund in the summer, 4) whether you go on internship or not will affect my project planning strategy with you throughout the year, and 5) there may be student visa issues that take time to work out.
I'm happy to recommend students for internships, scholarships, jobs, and other professional opportunities. But we need to work together to make sure that the timing and strategy of these recommendations can maximize the chances of success. One thing I've seen some students do is “jump the gun” and cold-email people about jobs too early and/or without proper context. Instead, please let me know what interests you, and I'll work with you to make the proper professional introductions when the timing is right.
Navigating the unspoken rules of academia
A more general point related to the above cold-email issue is that academia is filled with tons of unspoken rules, norms, and conventions that are often really hard for students to understand. I certainly didn't understand most of this stuff back when I was a student! That's why it's really important to ask me questions (don't be shy about asking!) when something is unclear to you or just doesn't feel quite right. Chances are, there's a reasonable explanation, but without having more experience in the field, it won't be at all clear upfront.
If you can't talk to me, then talk to our graduate advisor or a professional counselor
Finally, I hope that you can talk to me openly about your concerns, but I totally understand that there might be situations when you don't feel comfortable doing so.
In those cases, I highly recommend that you talk to your department's staff graduate advisor, since it's their job to be an advocate for students. If you're an undergrad, the graduate advisor can still be a good starting point of contact since they know about research group dynamics. I also recommend talking to a professional counselor or therapist if necessary. These are all the right people to talk to since they understand how to protect student privacy and rights, and they also do not have direct conflicts-of-interest with faculty such as myself.
(Note that it's sometimes hard to talk to other faculty or students about certain issues, since they might not be able to be unbiased due to their working relationships with me. You could also be putting them in an uncomfortable position without knowing it.)
Appendix A: My orientation for new Ph.D. students
Welcome to grad school! First read this short article: When do you graduate with a Ph.D.?
Then check out these two videos:
Professor Jean Yang's blog post, The Genius Fallacy. Key excerpt from this post (emphasis mine):
What I have learned is that discipline and the ability to persevere are equally, if not more, important to success than being able to look like a smart person in meetings. All of the superstars I've known have worked harder--and often faced more obstacles, in part due to the high volume of work--than other people, despite how much it might look like they are flying from one brilliant result to another from the outside. Because of this, I now want students who accept that life is hard and that they are going to fail. I want students who accept that sometimes work is going to feel like it's going to nowhere, to the point that they wish they were catastrophically failing instead because then at least something would be happening. While confidence might signal resilience and a formidable intellect might decrease the number of obstacles, the main differentiator between a star and simply a smart person is the ability to keep showing up when things do not go well.
Appendix B: What it's like to work in my lab
Although each project is different, here's how the usual flow of a research project works in my lab:
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Last modified: 2018-12-11