Responsibility for versus responsibility to

I received some advice from an established biochemist via a friend in regards to the stress related to advising graduate students.  See, of the new tasks in the past year, graduate advising has been the most stressful for me.  I feel this weight of a person’s career in my hands.  What if I pick the wrong problems?  What if wreck their confidence?

But the advice lifted a weight off my shoulders: you are not responsible for your students, you are responsible to your students.  You don’t have control over whether your students engross themselves in their work, whether they read papers beyond the ones you explicitly say to “read this”, whether they will really focus on their research – you can’t be expected to be responsible for this.  However, you can read and edit their writing, suggest papers and books to read, introduce them to your colleagues, teach them.

It was a simple change in propositions, but it made a big difference for me.

On a somewhat related note, I’m planning on taking up Matt Welsh’s advice on evaluating grad students.  He advocates setting goals on a quarterly basis and remarking on how well those goals were met.  I think this will work well for concrete items such as writing up a paper for which proofs have already been established and completing qualifiers, but how should we set goals for work that may or may not be possible (ie. “settle this conjecture”)?

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2 thoughts on “Responsibility for versus responsibility to

  1. pepper

    That’s a good way of thinking about responsibility. I’ve been in the situation where I suggested an approach to a problem that I was working on with a student and the student was quite negative about the approach. This annoyed me, and so I just worked very hard myself to show that it actually worked. Partly I was motivated by sense of responsibility to make the project work, otherwise I’d look bad–suggesting approaches that don’t work, etc. However, the whole outcome of the situation has left me feeling as if I took too much responsibility for the project, and that has a downside as well.

  2. Student

    I’m a graduate student, and was working on a project with an adviser for over 2 years during my undergraduate studies. Unlike Pepper, I had an opposite problem. My advisor and I worked on a project for 2 years (including summers), and we ran into a problem that was going to invalidate the 2 years worth of work.

    For about 4-5 months, we tried many different approaches to tackle the problem. However, during this period, my advisor was super busy with his other commitments and personal life. He would forget the results and approaches that were obtained the week(s) before, and he would suggest me to repeat the same simulations over again with small changes in the parameters. He wasn’t able to provide justifications on why the small changes would make any difference.

    At one point, I suggested that we tried something that was drastically different. I came in the meeting with promising preliminary results, and I expressed a lot of interests in the new approach that I thought was interesting and fundamental that could easily be added to the original goal.

    Unfortunately, my advisor acknowledged that the new approach would take a lot of effort (probably another year) and suggested me to modify a few small changes in the simulations/experients. I graduated college before finishing the project.

    When I was working on this project, I felt like at one point my advisor wasn’t putting in any effort for us to move forward. Most of our meetings were spent on reminding what had happened last week and the months before more than discussing new ideas and problems. For my advisor, time and commitment management was clearly a problem.

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