Bits and Behavior
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Bits and Behavior

So many paths, such unclear priorities

Competing priorities in doctoral student advising

One of the lifelong challenges of being a tenure-track professor at a research university is learning to successfully advise doctoral students. As I’ve written about earlier, I find this one of the most enriching and challenging parts of my job as a professor. And by no means do I think I’ve mastered it.

But in reflecting more on the challenges of advising, I’ve begun to wonder more about why it is challenging—not because I don’t believe it is, but because getting to the heart of what causes a challenge often helps me overcome it.

Of course, if you’ve ever advised a doctoral student, there are lots of obvious reasons that come to mind. There’s a lot for doctoral students to learn. We’re often advising many of them. We don’t have enough time. Students don’t have enough time. And at least in some disciplines, like my home discipline of computing, learning to advise is something that we do alongside learning to do many other things (teaching, fundraising, administration, managing, etc.), and so the fact is that we’re just not good at it for a while, let alone great.

But it’s not these situational factors I’m interested it. It’s the more fundamental factors, the ones that would still persist, even with infinite time and resources to learn to be a great advisor, and infinite time to finish a Ph.D.

Here’s is my current theory on why doctoral student advising is so challenging. A doctoral education is defined by an inescapable tension between five competing priorities:

  • A student’s curiosity (and their advisor’s)
  • A student’s career (and their advisor’s)
  • A student’s desire for impact (and their advisor’s)
  • A students’ desire to learn (and their advisor’s responsibility to evaluate)
  • A students’ need for financial support (and their advisors’ need to find it)

Sometimes, the tensions lie within one of these concerns between a student and their advisor(s). For example, students and advisors can be curious about different things. Their career goals may be in tension (a student wants to pursue industry, an advisor wants them to pursue academia). Their desire for impact may vary, with a student wanting more impact than discovery, and an advisor wanting more discovery than impact. I think these tensions are likely typical to any form of apprenticeship. And how to resolve these interpersonal tensions are some of the first skills advisors have to learn.

That said, the tensions I find more fundamentally challenging are the tensions between these areas of concern, especially when those tensions lie within a student themselves. Consider, for example, tensions between career and curiosity. If a doctoral student is in grad school for 4–6 years, how much of that time should be spent fully leveraging the intellectual freedom that comes with academia and how much should be spent doing activities that will advance their career (publishing, presenting, networking, etc.)? Every day in those many years the same tension arises. Should the student go down an interesting side path, or instead race toward that conference deadline? Should the student deepen their confidence in some preliminary results or proceed with publishing? Industrialized notions of “academic productivity” and more Renaissance notions of curiosity-driven discovery are irreconcilable. Advising a student who commits to any extreme—all curiosity, all career, or even indecision between the two—is very challenging to advise.

Another common tension is between curiosity and impact. When a student makes a discovery and publishes it, how much time should they spend sharing it with the world? Is publishing enough? Should they give invited talks about it? Should they write a blog post? Should they attend a trade show? Should they take a 3-year leave and do a startup, and potentially never return? When students are existentially passionate about impact, that can be in tension with being curious at all—who cares what‘s true, what matters is that we do something about it, a student might say. And when a student only cares about curiosity, they might hardly publish, let alone tell the broader public about their discoveries. Neither of those behaviors, if practices consistently over a career, are desirable from a societal perspective.

And then, of course, there are direct tensions between learning and financial support. Many students find themselves in research assistantships that don’t provide them the skills they want, don’t develop their interests, and don’t advance their dissertation work. And even when they do, advisors have a responsibility as stewards of (typically) public money to ensure that students’ work adequately meets the requirements and expectations of funding, even when it’s in direct conflict with a students’ learning, curiosity, or career. What a student wants to master and what a funder wants to investigate are often in direct conflict.

All of these pairwise (or more) interacting tensions can make it exceptionally challenging to answer even simple student questions:

  • What should I do next?
  • Should I publish this now or later?
  • Should I go to this conference?
  • Should I teach this class?
  • Should I get more data?
  • Which journal should I submit to?

The never-ending stream of decisions involved in discovery require a some exceptional clarity of priorities. This is probably why academics so often reduce their practice to simple maxims like publish or perish. What these rules of conduct do is imply a priority of concerns: career and funding first, curiosity, learning, and impact last. Other strategies include simply ignoring particular concerns: don’t raise funding, don’t try to have impact, don’t learn any new research skills, ignore your curiosity. I think many faculty, and many doctoral students, find themselves necessarily making these simplifying moves just to make decision making tractable.

A few brave academics also deviate from the academic priority norms. One of my former mentors, Randy Pausch (rest in peace), was notable for putting impact before anything else. That meant he didn’t publish a lot and he wasn’t raising the most money. But his career worked out anyway: universities like Carnegie Mellon valued this impact as much as they valued discovery.

When it comes to doctoral student advising, then, I find it essential to have very frank conversations with new doctoral students about their own priorities. Out of curiosity, career, impact, learning, and financial support, where is their biggest need? Do they have enough financial support to be curious? What kind of career do they want? What do they want to learn and are they okay with that delaying the pursuit of their curiosities and careers? Until I can help them sort these out, I find it challenging to help them make any of the other lower-level decisions that arise day to day.

While this highly individualized form of advising respects students’ humanity and lives, it does have downsides. It results in students in my lab being quite aware that their peers have different priorities. That can erode a sense of shared culture and priorities, amplifying the inherent nature of doctoral studies as an individual, isolating journey. And raising these big questions about priorities can be paralyzing to some students. Sometimes the right thing to do is “try on” some priorities and see how they feel, and changing them if they feel wrong. I try to mitigate these problems by helping doctoral students see each other less as teammates and more as travel partners, helping and supporting each other on their ambling journeys toward the unknown.

Part of why I approach advising this way, even given its added challenges, is that I just can’t personally stomach the ethics of advising students other ways. I don’t want to use students, I don’t want them to feel used, I don’t want to impose upon them my own priorities, and I don’t want them to be ignorant of other ways to prioritize their decisions in academia. More fundamentally, I believe that a diversity of priorities in academia is at the heart of discovery: we need some people chasing money, some people chasing butterflies, some people churning out papers, some people mastering skills, and some people changing the world. And we need all academics to be free to shift their priorities when the want to or the world needs them to. Educating doctoral students about these competing priorities is the only way to ensure academia has this diversity.

Do you think my theory of why advising is hard is right? What factors did I miss? Do you find my implicit critique of the dominant norms in advising insulting and offensive? Tell me more!



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