'Dear Forums ...': My Former Student Is Now My Boss!

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Questions …

My Predecessor Won’t Let Go. Help! Q (from alleyoxenfree): What would you do about a colleague who can't seem to step down from a position, even after the dean has moved them out of it? I was asked to take over as grad director of a small program. The previous director is a very senior, tenured person with a poor track record of attracting good students, doing paperwork in a timely fashion, and retaining the good students we get. Initially, our interaction was very friendly.

However, now that the handover of the duties is upon us, this person is continuing to take meetings as grad director, introduce themselves as such in meetings, somehow get copied on private emails, and work their campus connections to "check up" on what the committee and I are doing to rehab the program.

Will Senior X tire of this game? Should the dean ask X to butt out? Is this just a cross I (and those working with me) must bear for the indefinite future?

… and Answers

Hiring a Grad Student to Work in My Lab. I’m excited that there is a grad student applying to work in my STEM lab. I’m an assistant professor, and my senior faculty mentors have told me that the first research trainees in my lab are the most critical to my career. I’m very interested in having a Ph.D. student, but I want to make sure this person is hardworking and a good fit.

So far, everything looks great on paper -- the applicant is excellent academically and has a little research experience in an unrelated STEM area, and good letters of recommendation. The applicant is scheduled to visit the university next month for an interview and a tour.

What should I look for when I meet with the applicant? Any thoughts on questions to ask or red flags to watch out for? I want to solicit feedback about the applicant from grad students in different labs. Any idea what they should look for, or what students generally say to other students?

A (from diffyq): I'm only in my second year in a STEM field at an R1, but I've been thinking about this lately, too. My field is quantitative and theoretical, so there's almost no grunt work to do. Here's what I look for:

(1) Intellectual independence. Can they describe what they find exciting about recent research in some area? What questions interest them? What sorts of questions can they imagine working on for several years? I want to see creativity and independence from the get-go, because there's no guarantee it will spontaneously appear later.

(2) Hunger/Ambition. If they haven't read my papers and papers on topics they're interested in by the time they interview, that’s a red flag. I especially look for people who've taken advantage of past research opportunities and actually published things.

(3) Collegiality. They need to be genuinely nice and not remotely creepy. I try to have them meet as many people as possible. I ask the grad students whom they've met if the applicant spent the whole time talking about himself or herself or genuinely wanted to learn about others' research. I watch out for students coming from labs of notoriously smug or jerky PIs.

You know the old adage about doing the job you want to have? I look for people who are mature enough to know what they're getting into and have effectively started doing the work. Most applicants aren't ready.

Keep in mind that looks on paper can be deceiving. I had one applicant fresh from a top UK university with top marks and perfect GRE scores. He was a maths major, but while interviewing, showed no clear intellectual engagement in my research program. I had another applicant from a rural part of a developing country who said he'd been teaching himself math on the side. However, he had two manuscripts in press from his master’s and could beautifully describe the recent evolution of my field. He didn't have a very focused interest in my research, but his curiosity was obvious. I admitted both students. The UK guy turned me down for what was basically a professional doctoral degree at a school in the Boston area. His feedback sheet said he valued academic reputation over research opportunities. The other guy has flourished in my lab and is generating brilliant hypotheses right and left.

A (from eigen): I'd want more than just “a little research experience,” honestly, especially for a first grad student. I’d want someone who can hit the ground running, and I'd take someone with less 'flashy' research experience but more time in the lab. Techniques can be learned; the attitude and experiences that come from years of experience are harder to acquire.

I think intellectual independence, and a willingness and ability to figure things out on their own are important.

Since they'll also likely be helping to train your next generation of grad students, someone who (as mentioned) is collegial, but also likes helping people and/or teaching would be a huge plus, I’d think.

A (from juillet): I’m now a postdoc, but I can answer the question about what grad students say to other students/prospective students, since I was quite involved in that kind of thing in my grad department. Prospectives almost universally ask what it's like to work with the PI. Current students are almost always neutral to positive, while still being honest and straightforward. I’ve had friends who’ve had terrible experiences with their adviser, yet still managed to be diplomatic when answering that question. Since you don't have any current Ph.D. students, the grad students are going to give the prospective secondhand impressions of you. I, therefore, recommend you be very straightforward with the prospective about your working and advising style. That way, he can weigh what you say against the secondhand information he may hear.

Prospectives tend to be more relaxed around grad students and will say more, partially because the grad students are closer to them in status, and partially because they often don't realize that grad students are essentially interviewing them, too, and that grad student input matters. I've talked with prospectives about career goals--e.g., whether they want to go into academia or pursue nonacademic research. We've also discussed research interests. They generally ask about the atmosphere of the department--what the other professors are like, what the classes are like, whether people are collegial or combative, that sort of thing.

Some prospectives have revealed the other places they are applying to and where my department stands on the list, as well as what's most important in terms of attracting them to a program (e.g., they have family in the area of Program B, or Program C offered them a much bigger stipend). While they never ask me not to share that information with the PI, I do feel icky revealing it--especially since I'm fairly certain that they share it with me expecting that I won't tell my PI everything. I do, however, distill their confidences down to the information I think is important for my PI to consider without revealing specifics (e.g., I've told my PI that I don't think Applicant X would come to the program if accepted; or, conversely, that I think we are Applicant Y's top choice program).

A (from saramago): I'll add 2 things to the excellent advice you’ve received thus far:

First, trust your instincts. Are you getting any internal hint that there’s something slightly unsettling about talking to them? You don't need to love your grad students, but you do need to like them, at least somewhat. I've had 15 grad students and 5 honors' students. Three of them were problematic. And you know what? I’d sensed that something was off upon first meeting with them, but ignored my feeling for different reasons. If you're not sure that you'll be reasonably pleased to see this person almost every day for the next 5 years, that may be a red flag.

Second, I respectfully disagree with what your mentors told you about the critical importance of these first few students for your career. Yes, they’re important. But they're not critical, and any single one will not change your career.

My Former Student Is Now My Boss! Years ago, I began working as an adjunct in a small department that had 6 or 7 full-time people and a few adjuncts. Out of kindness, we used to hire one of our students to do simple office work for a little extra cash. Over the years, the full-time positions disappeared one by one and were replaced by multiple adjuncts. Meanwhile, the student worker positions multiplied (because someone had to do the paperwork and other tasks that the full-time chairs used to do). Today we have 4 student worker positions, 30 adjuncts, and no full-timers.

Recently, the upper admin of this state school decided to promote one of the student workers to a full-time employee. This person is basically an administrator in charge of our department, since, again, there are no other full-timers. No adjuncts were even considered for this position.

So, now a former student, with a bachelor's degree, is basically my boss. She makes as much as a new professor -- about two to three times my salary, has full benefits, a retirement plan, etc.

Can you believe this? Oh, the pain …

A (from lucero): That's insane! How could they put a recent grad in charge of adjuncts, who have more experience?

A (from polly_mer): Because adjuncts won't/don't do all that paperwork and overhead. We had a similar situation recently. It turned out no one found adjuncts for courses in one area because no one was responsible for doing so. So, an administrative assistant (recent alumna) was tasked with calling people the day after classes started to find adjuncts.

Given what adjuncts are paid, they can't also be expected to do paperwork, whereas paying someone enough money that they can be held accountable for scheduling and paperwork means those things will get done.

As someone who is now doing scheduling, I can tell you that it can be much more complicated than simply saying, "We always teach N sections of 101. When would you like to teach your 2 sections?" For a service department, ensuring that all needs are met while keeping sections nearly full, instead of half empty, and coordinating with other departments can be like trying to solve a complicated logic puzzle. Assigning classrooms can be another puzzle.

A (from lucero): Well, if it were me, I would NOT hire a recent grad to administer a program that is full of adjuncts who have been there for years. That’s a recipe for tension and resentment. Faculty talk about "fit" all the time when they hire tenure-track people. Would you hire someone that you thought everybody would resent and that would hurt the morale of your department faculty? Of course you wouldn’t. If I were running that place, I would have at least advertised the job and considered any adjunct who applied.

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