Dr. Mom, My Adventures as a Mommy-Scientist

Discussion of my journey from grad school to postdoc to tenure with two kids, a husband, (and a bit of breast cancer) in tow.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Is it ever okay to have tons of students?

I have been thinking a lot lately about the way that academia works. In general, it seems that grants are funded based on a number of factors, but merit of the idea is extremely important. Hypothetically, lets say that I am awesome and come up with tons of fabulous ideas. Hypothetically, I am also a fabulous grant writer and I get many of my ideas funded necessitating an extremely large lab (~ 20+ students and postdocs).

I have always felt negatively about labs of this size. It seems that the PI is not really mentoring the students, but rather the senior students/postdocs are mentoring the younger students. And that really isn't the point of grad school is it? But more recently I have been seeing this question from the other side of the fence. If I were so fabulous that I had tons of great ideas, and people were willing to fund them, shouldn't I proceed with their execution? And if that requires a large body of students in my lab, even if I am not mentoring them directly, is that okay? What do you think?

[Keep in mind this is an entirely hypothetical argument, and while I hope that I am a successful proposal writer, I am in no way delusional enough to think that I will be funding 20+ lab members any time soon.]

6 Comments:

At 5:47 PM , Blogger FemaleCSGradStudent said...

Hm. I read this and I thought of the exact professor in my own department who has an army of students, a ton of money, and probably hasn't seen a line of code since the disco era.

He's not a bad guy, he has great ideas, but it's well understood that if a student wants feedback on her thesis, she has to sit in his office and read it to him. I'm sure he has a lot of good career advice, but not a lot of good advice about sentence structure in a paper abstract.

Here's the thing. No single advisor can be the perfect mentor for any student. Students are as varied as professors, and have different needs in terms of mentoring. My own advisor has great advice on research, but I go to another mentor if I want advice on work-life balance.

While I'm not answering the question as to whether or not it's "okay" to have tons of students, I make a related point. Rather than trying to become a perfect mentor for every student, I would suggest to help students get in contact with greater numbers of faculty, so that they have more opportunity for mentors. Perhaps this means making a PhD committee early. Perhaps it means something like what the Dept. of Math at University of Southern CA does, assiging mentor triplets at the begining of the academic year.

I hope this helps.

 
At 6:35 PM , Blogger EthidiumBromide said...

I'm a second year oncology PhD student and I went through the same debate when I was attempting to decide on a thesis lab. There are several very large labs in this deparment, with 10 or so graduate students per mentor. I chose to not even rotate through one of these labs, because I didn't like the idea of going even weeks without having a conversation with my advisor.
The fact that I received one-on-one attention with the advisor from one of my rotations is what drew me to actually commit to his lab. While I was learning new techniques, he actually came to the bench and taught me himself. I really liked having an advisor that still enjoys doing bench research, as opposed to other undergraduate research experiences where I never saw PIs even pick up a pipette.
While I am sure that there are individuals who can manage having a larger number of graduate students, I personally would avoid such a lab out of fear of slipping under the bridge and not getting the best training possible. Post-docs are an incredibly valuable research for actual bench technique and those in my lab have been nothing but helpful in my training. However, when it comes to discussing project ideas, future directions, etc, I feel as though I learn more from the PI of my lab, which requires him to set time aside to help me. The post-docs often do not have as much grant writing or paper writing experience, especially those who just graduated with a PhD, and isn't the point to receive the training from those with the most experience who can teach you what works and what doesn't?
Perhaps, if you wind up with lots of grant money and great ideas, it would be better to start with more post-docs and lab technicians and maintain a smaller number of graduate students. My current lab functions this way -- several post-docs, lots of lab techs, a few undergrads, but only two PhD students right now. This way, the post-docs can help out the technicians and the undergrads who carry out the bulk of the research, and the PI is free to do the best mentoring possible for the two PhD students. Another options if you wind up with a large number of students is to ensure that they wind up with members on their thesis committee who do not have graduate students. A few of the students in the huge labs have done this and are able to use the members of their thesis committee for bouncing off ideas, discussing results, planning new experiments, etc., without taking up all the time of their mentors.
Good luck with starting up the lab, and I hope that things go so well that you will have to make this decision someday.

 
At 6:42 PM , Blogger ScienceWoman said...

Again from the perspective a student - just because you have a small number of students doesn't mean that you will necessarily be hands on mentor. My advisor currently has two students and is frequently gone on extended trips. I can go months without talking to him. Sometimes this is good. Sometimes it isn't. When he's not around, I actually wish there were more students/postdocs to get help from, bounce ideas off, collaborate with.

I guess my answer is: It depends on what sort of mentor you want to be.

For me (if I ever get there), I would say the right number of students is something around 5 (2 MS, 3 PhD) and one post-doc. This seems like the sort of number where I could reasonably devote time to each student but there would also be a lab group feel. But I'm just making this up.

 
At 12:56 AM , Anonymous immunokid said...

I used to be in a lab with 40+ members, but I think it actually worked, because there were a number of senior postdocs who were able to basically run their own projects and have their own students, while the PI just brought in the grants and kept the group cohesive. I very rarely spoke to the PI, but the postdoc I worked with was a great mentor.

 
At 4:34 PM , Blogger PhD Mom said...

Thanks guys. I appreciate all your insight. Female Cs grad I think you are right that it takes a village to mentor a student. I had several important mentors that served different roles and even now there are different people that I would email to ask about research vs. teaching vs. administration questions. This is an important point.

Disgruntled Julie is also good to point out that postdocs and senior grad students are often lacking in some of the 'career direction' experience that a PI provides. I am glad that you found such a good mentor.

and science women is also correct that a small lab does not necessarily = good mentor, but I do think it increases the chances.

 
At 8:51 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm with femalecsgradstudent -- there can be advantages either way.

I worked as an undergrad in a lab with 25 students of all ranks. Going months without anything approaching mentoring from the PI was normal, and this resulted in a self-selected body of students who thrived on being left alone. It worked -- lots of useful work was produced, lots of students got opportunities they were happy with.

It did not work so well for certain things -- I got no feedback from the PI at all on my senior honors thesis, but by then, through working in his lab, I'd made contact with others with expertise to give me the feedback I needed.

 

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