Working Effectively With Me as Your Research Advisor
July 2017 (assistant professor)
Here are some practical tips for working effectively with me if I'm your research advisor. Some of these tips may also apply to working with other professors, but no guarantees! I'm qualified to speak only about my own personal work habits and preferences, not anyone else's.
At the time of writing (July 2017), I've been serving as a research advisor to students for four years – one as a postdoc and three as an assistant professor. So far, I've advised over 25 students from diverse backgrounds and published around 20 papers with my students (almost everything from 2014 onward). Even though I'm still early in my faculty career, I've gained enough experience to know what works (and doesn't work!) for me in terms of advising style. I can't guarantee that my style is “good” by any external metric, but I do know it's how I personally like to work! And I'm probably not going to change much in the next few years :)
The target audience for this article is my own students. I want to give you a set of tips for working effectively with me, given my own personality and work habits. I've developed these from experimenting with what has and has not worked well for me with 25+ students over the past four years. These observations don't necessarily apply to all professors; I just know that they apply to me. Here we go!
Understand how I have to split my time
As a professor, I have to continually balance at least eight sources of work that compete for my time and attention:
(This list was adapted from Why academics feel overworked.)
Your interactions with me fall under the “Research advising” slot, which is super super important to me, but the harsh reality is that it's competing with all of those other sources of work. To be even more bleak, you share that slot with the three to five other students whom I usually advise at any given moment.
Thus, your goal is to figure out how to work most effectively with me given the limited time that we have together. The rest of this article provides concrete tips to help you achieve this goal.
Get and stay on my critical path
I (like everyone else!) tend to prioritize projects that are on my critical path. Thus, you will have a much easier time if you get and stay on my critical path. This article provides the relevant details: Whose Critical Path Are You On?
How do you know what's on my critical path at the moment? Glad you asked! This leads me to the next tip ...
Ask me questions
Seriously, please just ask! For instance, want to know what's on my critical path? Just ask. I like to communicate very openly with my students (but see the important points below about privacy).
Even if you think your question is mundane or trivial, just ask! Don't get stuck on something for days just because you're afraid of asking me for help or clarification. Chances are, I've seen that exact problem before or can refer you to someone who has. If something is annoying, painful, or just plain sucks, ask me about it. And if you think that something will make your life easier or more productive, just ask.
There can be great value in spending time figuring things out on your own or grinding it out, but many students err on the side of keeping quiet and then end up wasting a lot of time and getting demoralized. If I really want you to figure something out on your own, then I'll tell you when you ask. Again, just ask!
... but prepare to hear “No” as a response
One side-effect of me making it really, really easy for my students to ask me questions is that I tend to say “No” a lot. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't ask. (See the previous tip!)
Please don't take “No” responses as a personal judgment against you; I'm just responding to your specific question or request. If you want, I'll try my best to give a rationale for why I said “No.”
Don't try to be a mindreader
On a related note, don't try to speculate about what I'm thinking; instead, ask me. Chances are, if you try to speculate, then your mental model of my mind will be off to some degree; the longer you wait before asking, the more it will diverge from reality.
An even more counterproductive pattern I've observed amongst some students is a group of them gossiping with each other to speculate on what their advisor might be thinking or feeling ... that simply amplifies misconceptions. Again, please just ask :)
Work Hard, and Be Easy to Work With
I really like this piece of advice from Conan O'Brien: “Work hard, and be easy to work with.” All of my successful students have exhibited these traits. (Many of my unsuccessful ones have not.)
Watch these two videos for details:
Learn to filter suggestions
When I get excited about your project, I often spew out a ton of wild ideas and suggestions and will also send you lots and lots of things to read or mull over. Learn to filter suggestions appropriately and not to take everything I say to mean “you must do this NOW!” Read Filtering for more details.
However, there will be times when I ask you to do something very specific by a certain deadline (e.g., “Please send me these new graphs by Monday night”), and in those cases it's important to get those tasks done well and on time. Learn to differentiate between speculative suggestions (Filtering) and must-do requests.
Work wherever and whenever you want, but be available for meetings
I don't care where you work or when you work. I trust you to find the right balance for yourself to make consistent progress on your research while giving yourself both the time and space to live a healthy life. In practice, most students tend to work in our lab space because it's easier to stay motivated when you're around other students in lab, but do whatever is best for you.
My only expectation is that you're available on reasonable notice for meetings. This means being reasonably responsive to emails and being able to come to the lab (or on Skype) for meetings. You'll need to be very flexible in terms of meeting times to fit with my (often unpredictable) schedule. But unless we have an urgent deadline, I won't hold meetings on nights or weekends.
Keep moving, and always bring something to talk about at our meetings
Keep moving. If you're actively working on a project (i.e., not on vacation) and spend more than a few days not doing anything concrete related to it, then you're stuck. It's critical that you talk to me immediately so that I can help you get unstuck ASAP. I won't blame you for being stuck; there's no shame in being stuck; it happens to everyone. It's my job as your advisor to get you unstuck. Joel Spolsky's article Fire And Motion sums up this strategy well:
In infantry battles, [the general] told us, there is only one strategy: Fire and Motion. You move towards the enemy while firing your weapon. The firing forces him to keep his head down so he can't fire at you. (That's what the soldiers mean when they shout "cover me." It means, "fire at our enemy so he has to duck and can't fire at me while I run across this street, here." It works.) The motion allows you to conquer territory and get closer to your enemy, where your shots are much more likely to hit their target. If you're not moving, the enemy gets to decide what happens, which is not a good thing. If you're not firing, the enemy will fire at you, pinning you down.
Most of the unsuccessful students I've observed fail not because they're not smart or hardworking, but because they get stuck for extended periods of time and grow demoralized. Keep moving.
One possible objection to this seemingly-simple strategy is, “but how do I constantly keep moving? I can't have a brilliant research-worthy insight every day! Should I just stare blankly at the wall brainstorming until a moment of true insight strikes me?” No, keep moving. Professor John Regehr has a great answer in his provocatively-named blog post (emphasis mine):
Phil vividly describes the sinking feeling that he was just doing grunt work, not research. This feeling is extremely common, as is the actual fact of doing grunt work. In systemsy areas of [Computer Science] there's just no way to avoid building lots of stuff, fixing broken crap that other students (or, worse, professors) have built, running repetitive experiments that are hard to fully automate, etc. But here's the thing: doing research isn't like having sex where you might suddenly say to yourself: "Hey, I'm doing it!" Rather, most of the time, the research comes out only in hindsight. You look back over a year or three of hard work and say: What was interesting about what we did there? What did we do and learn that was new? If you can't find anything then you're screwed, but usually this only happens when the project was poorly conceived in the first place.
The "but I'm not doing research" problem comes up so often that I have a little canned speech about it that boils down to: "Work hard and trust me." Really, this is the only way forward, because consciously trying to do research every day just makes no sense when you're working on a large software system. Students who fail to heed this advice risk getting stuck in a kind of research paralysis where they stop making progress. I'm not saying that "Aha!" moments don't exist. They do, and they’re great. But their importance is greatly overstated in narratives about research breakthroughs. For one thing, nine out of ten of these moments results in a useless or non-novel insight. For another, these moments are only possible because of all the preceding hard work. So who's to say that the grunt work isn't part of the research process too?
Finally, this lecture – Advice for first-year Ph.D. students –sums up my “keep moving” philosophy of doing research. Watch the three most relevant parts below, which culminate in the idea of always bringing something concrete to talk about at our research meetings.
Part 1: The One-Dimensional Model of Research
Part 2: The N-Dimensional Model of Research
Part 3: My Main Tip for Productive Meetings with Your Research Advisor
A good general policy (not just when working with me, but for all interpersonal interactions!) is that everything should be assumed to be private unless it is publicly accessible.
For instance, I like to communicate very openly with my students, but I also trust that all of our conversations (e.g., emails, phone calls, in-person) are kept private. Otherwise it's very easy for misunderstandings to spread like the telephone game. If I want something to be public, I will likely write about it on this website (or elsewhere online), and you can share its URL with anyone.
For a more academic example, unpublished paper drafts should be assumed to be private. We frequently share our drafts with colleagues to get feedback, and our colleagues will share drafts with us, but enforcing privacy by default is a good way to go, since even if someone is OK with us seeing a document, they may not want it being shared more broadly. When in doubt, ask me!
Of course, anything that people can find publicly on the web (or elsewhere) is already public, so it's fine to freely share knowledge about what you've found online while working on your research.
If you can't talk to me, then talk to our graduate advisor or a professional counselor
Finally, I hope that you can talk to me openly about your concerns, but I totally understand that there might be situations when you don't feel comfortable doing so.
In those cases, I highly recommend that you talk to the department's graduate advisor (currently Beverley Walton for cognitive science), since it's their job to be an advocate for students. If you're an undergrad, the grad advisor can still be a good starting point of contact since they know about research group dynamics. I also recommend talking to a professional counselor or therapist if necessary. These are all the right people to talk to since they understand how to protect student privacy and rights, and they also do not have direct conflicts-of-interest with faculty such as myself. (In contrast, it may be hard to talk to other faculty or students about certain issues, since they might not be able to be totally impartial due to their working relationships with me. You could be putting them in an awkward position without knowing it.)
Appendix: What it's like to work in my lab
Although each project is different, here's how the usual flow of a research project works in my lab:
(Adapted from Interested in joining my research lab?)
Last modified: 2017-07-11