The Sassy Scientist – Masterful Mentoring

The Sassy Scientist – Masterful Mentoring

As frustrating as it seems every once in a while, Dara is confident still that his student will prevail and work out their troubles somehow. He contemplates his options, and seeks help to discern the correct approach:

I am disappointed that my PhD student is going in circles. How shall I put pressure on them to finally get results?

Dear Dara,

Ah yes. The ol’ disappointing student. Life’s not all beer and skittles, as you’ve now experienced. Scientific life definitely isn’t. Not for you, and not for them. Have you even considered that for them it’s probably frustrating too? Are you sure you want to put pressure on them? You don’t want your student to end up like Georgia, do you? Not every student appreciates the stick, but rather fossicks to unveil that carrot. That carrot being scientific advancements, of course, and in practice some kind of results that’ll lead to a paper.

As I’m sure you’ve articulated to them: genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration. Now, we as scientists are lucky in that we usually consider ourselves fairly smart, so we’ve got that one percent covered. Otherwise we wouldn’t have even bothered with academia, notwithstanding the intoxicating jocundity of juxtaposing those two letters to your name brings. So it’s most common that the issue resides in that latter part of our genius: the perspiration. A journey of a thousand miles starts with a first step, and the scientific journey is not a quick-‘n’-smooth hyperloop ride; that road of knowledge is paved with uneven cobblestones, is riddled with potholes and there’s a pile of doodoo every other furlong. The only option to reach that post of excellence at the end is a display of resilience, perseverance and imagination. The never-ending graft inspires dexterity and ‘astute’ shortcuts. Haste makes waste though. Moreover, you run a whopping risk for irreparable time loss by forcing the issue. Don’t you think it’s wiser to get them out of that tailspin by simply breaking the circle? Make use of the small steps they have made, even when they’re baby steps.

More haste, less speed: you’ll have to deal with what your student is able to produce. Many a little makes a mickle. Enough is enough. Whereas that mickle may not be of the dimensions you foresaw – well, let’s say hoped for – it is quite unfair to bestow your frustrations upon your student solely. Let’s dust that mirror off and take a long hard look. Maybe they’ve been unable to break the chain because you’re part of it. So it may well be time to reinvent yourself too. And the research; can’t you come up with a lateral line of investigation? Or a new suite of variables to test perhaps? Necessity is the mother of invention, as they say. One issue that underlies many frustrations between students and supervisors is communication. Have you even communicated your frustrations explicitly? In a constructive, reflective and fair manner I hope. There’s no point in seeking conflict without setting your sights on finding a solution. That solution may also simply be based on exercising patience. A lot of patience. Let them work. Let them go around in circles, find that little loophole and burst right through it. They’ve learned a lot, and so have you. It’s just a matter of putting in the hours. No rest for the wicked. And we’re all pretty wicked ’round these parts.

Yours truly,

The Sassy Scientist

PS: This post was written as a graft.

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I am currently employed at a first tier research institute where I am continuously working with the greatest minds to further our understanding of the solid Earth system. Whether it is mantle or lithosphere structure and dynamics, solid Earth rheology parameters, earthquake processes, integrating observations with model predictions or inversions: you have read a paper of mine. Even if you are working on a topic I haven’t mentioned here, I still know everything about it. Do you have any problems in your research career? I have already experienced them. Do you struggle with your work-life balance? Been there, done that. Nowadays, I have only one hobby: helping you out by answering the most poignant questions in geodynamics, research and life. I am waiting for you right here. Get inspired.

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