Saturday, November 30, 2013

is there something like a "perfect supervisor"?

When I think back about myself as an undergrad and a grad student and how I perceived more senior people around me, I'd say that a lot of them appeared to me as authorities. Authorities in a sense that I would take their opinions serious and I'd respect the time they'd take for me as well as their knowledge and experience in general. When I'd been given a task by them I'd try to complete it in a timely and satisfactorily manner. Authoritarian people were my professors, my direct undergrad and PhD supervisors, other more senior people in the faculty, collaborative partners of our group,.... . For most of them I had and still have deep respect even from a personal point of view. For some of them I had not much respect regarding to their general character, but still for their scientific expertise and experience. Recalling the behavior of my fellow students back then I'd say most of them shared a similar view on what makes a person an authority and how to behave in that context. In that sense we were a very homogeneous group and I never had the impression that our professor treated some of us different to the others.
Looking at myself now, a few years out of my PhD and after having supervised a bunch of students, I wonder if I am perceived as an authority by them - or not at all. What I didn't like as student were people who tried to build their authority on "impeccable knowledge". People who'd never admit a mistake or a gap in knowledge and who had a talent to make you feel crappy if your own knowledge is not as flawless as theirs. I think this behavior stops real learning and inhibits good research, which is never flawless, and I never wanted to become like that. 
However, some my students seem to demand this kind of behavior. They seem to expect that I have to know everything about their research topics even before they have done a single experiment and they express their disappointment when I don't. I can see my "score" on their respect scale drop significantly in that case and it rises again when I appear "knowledgeable enough". This seems to be a constant and very tiring game and they play it not only with me but with everybody from student to professor level - sometimes more, sometimes less obvious. Instead of working together on an interesting project acknowledging each others abilities and experience I feel like I am under constant surveillance and rated against some imaginary "perfect" supervisor. The only way out seems to be to play the impeccable supervisor. But that would be tiring as well and against everything I'd like to be as a supervisor. So, how to be an authority in this case without pretending to be someone I am not?
I am convinced that the way you decided to lead your group has to fit your personality. But I am convinced as well that to do so you have to be able to choose the students you want to work with to avoid major personality clashes. At the moment I can't choose the students I work with and most likely it will take a few more years until I can if at all. And even then it'll always happen that the expectations of a student don't fit with your style of heading your group. Some people seem to be naturally authoritarian not matter what kind of situation they are put into or what kind of people they have to deal with - unfortunately I'm not. 
So how can I deal with a group of very diverse students with very diverse expectations about what a good supervisor should be like? How much personalized care does every student need, how much do the students have to adapt to the supervisor I am and how can we still work together to improve our scientific output? How much distance is necessary and how much interest in each other beyond the research? How can I keep everybody motivated if what motivates them is so different and often not even clear to them?

Monday, November 18, 2013

if in doubt leave it out?

The topic is: manuscript writing with students.
Manuscript writing with students can be a breeze but mostly it is not. Which is of course because there is a lot of learning involved, not only for the students about "how to write a paper" but as well for me about "how to explain to this student how to write a paper". Depending on their background and experience it can be quite a challenge to explain why a section flows better this way compared to the other - esp because I'm not a native English speaker as well. My favorite discussions at the moment evolve around the statement "but this is how you would say it in Chinese" - yes, well,.... still it doesn't make sense in English.
However, one issue that has nothing to do with language or writing style has crossed my way more often recently. In the beginning of my collaborative-writing-career I thought it was just connected to a specific person but it seems to be a more general phenomena than this. When I comment on a manuscript written by a student - can be one of my students or one from a collaborative group - it happens quite often, that instead of addressing my comments the corresponding sections are just deleted without any further statement. This is easy to recognize if the changes are still visible, but often I get a completely "clean" draft and I have to compare it side by side with the former version to find the bits and pieces which were changed. Often the comments that belong to deleted sections were questions, because I didn't understand what the student wanted to say with a certain statement. So re-phrasing would have been more helpful than deleting. Being aware that my statistics are not good enough I'd say that it is mostly Asian students who prefer deleting over explaining and re-phrasing. Do you know if this is really a cultural thing or is it just coincidence that I got this impression? 
My own students got much better in discussing their manuscripts and it just happens occasionally that they try to avoid the re-phrasing - I guess, mostly when they are sick and tired of working on manuscript draft 10+. But it needed a bunch of discussions and explanations with them about this topic. However, I wonder how to deal with students from other groups I'm collaborating with. Do I have some "educational responsibilities" there as well or would I just mess up my collaborators terrain?

Friday, November 15, 2013

where is the progress?

This is the question I ask myself every day since a few weeks. I'm working on a big project proposal which I want to have finished before the little one takes its first glimpse of the outside world. It is my top priority and I spend a lot of time on it, not only during "working hours". The rough plan for the project is there - already since a few months - but since then it seems I am not progressing at all. Parts of the project are a bit outside of my general expertise, so I'm reading a lot of papers to get a solid literature background, but for some reason this does not help my project idea to grow. When I did my PhD I thought that reading 3 papers per day is just as much as I could intake - this number has increased significantly and I got a lot better in deciding if a paper is worth reading in full length or not. So besides from my general displeasure when I realize that I printed out a bunch of papers from the same set of authors and they all show exactly the same stuff, sometimes even with exactly the same wording, I'd say my reading evolves very well - just not the project.
So what is all the time spend on reading worth if I can peal a good project out of it? My head says it is still progress and the turning point will come, but emotionally it is deeply frustrating that I can't see obvious progress steps and that I can't tick entries on my to-do list, because none of them is really finished yet and will not be finished until the stuff is handed in. And the weeks fly by *whoosh* - there seems to be no significant time between Monday and Friday and all my effort to get started on the project early on (and I got started early on!) went down the drain already months ago. Can somebody please drop a bag of motivation and confidence at our door?

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

finally, the announcement

Just about 3 months after the expected announcement date are the result of this years ARC round finally published (ok, "already" last Friday). Would be interesting to know how many people won't accept their grants, because they have already moved on with their life, maybe to a different university or maybe even away from this weird place.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

PMPS 2013

Even though we had a lot of political hick-ups during the past few months and even though the new government has not been able yet to announce the outcomes of the Fellowships and Grant applications in the ARC system of this year, they managed to hold the annual dinner for the Prime Minister's Prize for Science award. On the one hand this is a bit cynical as researchers all over Australia don't know yet - at the beginning of November - if they will have funding for their students or even a position for themselves from January on, because the political situation holds up the announcement. But on the other hand some very impressive (and quite young) personalities were honored with the various prizes this year and it is important to give this appropriate space and attention as well.

Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year, Associate Professor Angela Moles from UNSW
Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year, Associate Professor Andrea Morello from UNSW
Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Primary Schools: Mr Richard Johnson from the Rostrata Primary School in Perth
Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools: Ms Sarah Chapman from the Townsville State High School

 Congratulations to all of you and your impressive achievements in  teaching and research!