Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Post #4 Know your Advisor and Department Chair - My PhD Process: How I Survived a PhD in the Biological Sciences and Succeeded Afterward

Post #4 is all about getting to know your professor and department chair. Most everything I have seen in the "self-help" graduate school category is about getting to know your mentor/advisor.

A few examples:

Rackham Graduate School - University of Michigan
Graduate School - University of Washington
Science Magazine and another

This is a very important topic. No question, your advisor is going to own your career (and most of your life) for 4+ years, and will definitely have an influence afterward. What gets forgotten though, is the effect of the department chair.

Let's talk about the advisor position first.

When starting at a graduate school, it has become common to have a set amount of time (for PhDs usually your first year) to rotate in a number of labs in order to get a feel for how you work, get to know professors, and eventually pick your dissertation lab. At Pittsburgh, for the M.S. program, I was allowed to rotate with two faculty members. At Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science (RFUMS), for the Ph.D. program, I was allowed to rotate with three faculty members (and in some cases they made allowances to rotate with four).

These rotations are crucial. Depending on the size of your department, and how many faculty are available to chose from, you should already have narrowed down your list, even before you arrived. When I arrived at RFUMS, I had two faculty in mind, a Kaposi's Sarcoma-Associated Herpesvirus (KSHV) researcher, and a hepatitis C virus (HCV) researcher. When I arrived I became interested in two other researchers that I eventually rotated with (Epstein-Barr virus and Alzheimer's/gene therapy/lentiviral vectors). There were plenty of differences between them which I will discuss below.

If you have questions, use the comments section below! 

A couple initial factors to consider:
  • Age - Age can be very important. Younger faculty are typically not going to be tenured, they are going to have a lot to prove. This can manifest itself in a positive way where the mentor works hard, is responsible, is very active in their field applying for grants, publishing, attending meetings, and generally trying to establish themselves. It can also manifest itself negatively when they loose all sense of balance, take everything too seriously, and develop a inferiority complex. Guess which one is more common? Older faculty can suffer from a plethora of issues as well. Not staying current with the research field, or the current big names. Older faculty sometimes get so far down their own rabbit hole that they lose sight of the field of research as a whole. They can be far less compassionate (e.g. "back in my day we did everything by hand and stayed overnight to run PCR and only went home once every three days and it was over a mountain guarded by trolls and it was usually snowing...") Often times older faculty will be more stable, and predictable which can be at the very least adjusted for.
    • My best advice is to aim for the middle if you can.
      • Find someone established in the field, not too established (30+ years is probably a little on the long side), but someone who has either already obtained tenure, or is very close.
      • Someone who is well published and connected to or at least knows some of the big names in the field. This will be helpful for collaborations, reagents, and if eventually you decide to do a postdoc it will give you some good options. 
      • Someone who hasn't had so many graduate students and postdocs already that they won't even remember your name, but also has experience and won't make all their management/mentor mistakes on you
  • Advisor status within the field - This can be important for further development, if you want to do a postdoc, or if you plan on staying in the field. However, I think the more important effect of advisor status is during your PhD. Think about how much easier it makes research, development, reagent procurement, publishing, grant getting, etc. if your advisor has some pull. It is almost inevitable that you are going to need advice, or reagents from outside your lab, and it helps to have a good relationship with the people that have them. Does your advisor go to/encourage attendance at meetings? Does your advisor act as an editor for a major journal? Does your advisor sit on funding boards? Does your advisor have a media (social or otherwise) presence?   
  • Gender of advisor - I have worked for two females and two males (two females during undergrad, a male for my MS, and a male for my PhD. I intend this point to be more of a self-analysis point to consider. Do you work better with men or women? Does it matter? I personally don't think that I work better or worse with a specific gender. Some things are different, but I have had success with supervisors of both genders. Understanding and communication is key. 
  • Ethnicity of advisor - This is yet another question you should be asking yourself. I would argue that ethnicity doesn't matter, but understanding and acceptance of differences do. What I mean by that, is if you have an advisor of a different ethnicity and they are unaccepting of your cultural traditions, that can result in problems. Many different cultures and ethnicities have different holidays, belief systems, and without understanding, can result in large differences between people. Unfortunately, many faculty aren't the most understanding. One of the other students in my PhD class once told me, her mother had told her not to work for a woman, or an Indian. She was both a woman, and an Indian. Everyone has an opinion, and I firmly believe it has more to do with acceptance and understanding, however, not everyone is accepting and understanding. So I think it is worth considering these situations.
  • Makeup of lab group - It isn't just your advisor that can make your life hell (or great?), the makeup of the lab is also very important. Is it just you in the lab? Is it a diverse group of techs, postdocs, and other graduate students? Is it homogeneous and you don't fit in? Is it angry? Is it collegiate? These are things that hopefully you can figure out while you are doing your rotations. The lab I worked in while doing my MS in Pittsburgh had an established technician, and three PhDs at different levels in their careers. My PhD lab was me, one technician (three different people during the five years I was there) and toward the end of my PhD, an incredibly inexperienced postdoc. I won't say that one situation was better or worse, because most of the reasons would be subjective. However, from a productivity standpoint, having to be the go-to-guy when it comes to new assay development, training all new staff and personnel, at times having to fill the technician position, or to be your own technician can be stressful and result in a drag on your research. Be careful! The other thing to be very wary of is personalities. If you do work in a lab with multiple people, then be wary of multiple personalities. Many words have been written on this subject (e.g. here and here). I won't discuss it any further in this post, but if people are interested I can cover it at a later time.
  • Tenure status of advisor - Imagine you have the choice between two jobs. The first job is one where you could be fired at any given time (you would be given at least six months notice) based on your perceived productivity. The other job is one where (from what I have observed) you can do and say just about anything you want (or as little as you want) and still continue to keep your position. This is the difference tenure makes. Imagine knowing that your job is safe and enjoying the freedom that comes with security
    • Tenure is a hard topic for me. On one hand, I understand how hard it is to be a young scientist, fighting for grant funding, struggling to publish, with the tenure board hanging over your head at all times. On the other hand, too many tenured faculty I have interacted with are absolutely worthless. I wouldn't want a few bad apples I have observed to justify getting rid of tenure, but the fact remains, there are too many tenured faculty who are not contributing.
  • Funding status of advisor - This one is pretty easy. The more funding, the better. Ideally, the funding will outlast your time as a PhD. Ideally, the funding is coming from multiple sources, for multiple projects. This is a question you definitely want to ask before you join a lab though. Or even before that, before you decided to matriculate to a school or department. 
  • Publications of advisor - There can be a case made for "the more the better", but I don't entirely believe that to be true. Quality is equally as important as quantity. What qualifies as quality is very subjective. But, when I look at a researcher that only publishes in one specific journal (e.g. publishing entirely in Virology, PLoS, etc.), I question how good the research actually is. However, faculty that don't publish very often, but only shoot for Nature, Science, etc. are high risk. A mix of high-impact factor, open-source, and focused journal publications should be the goal.
  • Work schedule and expectations - One of the faculty members in the microbiology department at RFUMS worked at a minimum, 12 hour days during the weekday. He would arrive usually between 9-10am and was usually in his office until 10-11pm. He didn't keep quite those hours on the weekend, but he was usually in at least a small portion of the weekend. Was he more productive than other researchers? No. Were his students and staff more productive? No. Were they expected to be in the lab when he was? Absolutely. This is a huge issue when it comes to advisor/student relations; schedule and time commitment. Inevitably, both you and your advisor think you know the best use of your time. Make sure to work out very early what the expectations are, what your advisor's work schedule is like, expectations they have for you, etc. On the opposite end of the spectrum from the above story, I also knew a faculty member in the neuroscience department at RFUMS that would come in on the weekend to do his students cell culture. Ugh...
Alright, so I think that wraps up the section on advisors. There are a lot of variables to consider, and some carry more weight than others. But let's talk about it! 

If you have questions, use the comments section below! 

Briefly, I want to close out by discussing department chairs. As I mentioned above, I feel like most "graduate school self help" is geared toward relationships with your advisor, but fails to address the chair of your department. If your advisor is stressed, more than likely, you are going to be stressed.

I have noticed over my 12 year stay in higher education, that the department has a personality, and that personality is most often dictated by the chair. Ask any management or administrative person and they will tell you that stress, anxiety, anger, all trickle down to subordinates. I have seen department chairs that are caring, and do extremely well at managing faculty and students. I have also seen some that have massive inferiority complexes, micromanage everyone around them, and throw tantrums when the food and beverage isn't correct for a meeting. Imagine being a faculty member working for someone like that? It would be extremely stressful (as if it wasn't a stressful career already). So if the faculty are that stressed, it is going to more often than not, trickle down to you as a student or postdoc.

My PhD advisor would leave early sometimes (he had small children, family obligations, etc.) and he would leave his computer and lights on, office door open, and would just tell me to shut everything off and close the door when I left. He did that specifically because he didn't want to deal with the abuse from the chair for leaving early. I have a lot of stories like that, faculty, postdocs, and other students in the department all had stories of dealing with the chair. Keep in mind, it isn't just your advisor that can make things better or worse.

I encourage everyone to use the comments section below! 
  • Lance D. Presser has a PhD in microbiology and immunology and is a public health laboratorian.
  • Hire Lance for any of your microbiology, virology, teaching, editing, grant writing, or public health consulting needs.
  • Follow Lance @ldpsci


  1. This article is so good for building a brilliant CV. Its Career Advisor is so good.

  2. Thank you. And thanks for the Career Advisor link!