Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Useless Moneybags

Every once in a while, someone makes a statement in a comment about how their advisor "doesn't do anything". In some cases, there is the added description that an advisor "doesn't do anything except get grants". I find these comments fascinating, but not necessarily in a good way. I am sure I have written about this before, but since I was thinking about the phenomenon recently as I was sitting suspended over an ocean, I am writing about it again now.

I am sure there are exceptions -- of course I don't know how things work in other fields or at other institutions other than ones with which I am closely associated -- but I think in many cases, this comment displays a misconception about the definition of "anything" in a research context. [This is where the young and perhaps not-so-young say to their advisors (but perhaps not aloud): "But that's your fault because you are supposed to teach us what you do". Yes, that's true to some extent, although it's a rather lame reason for remaining ignorant over the entire course of a graduate program, as I've discussed before.]

In any case, I know that the Do-Nothing (except provide grants) Advisors are believed to exist, and that is why many of us learn during fascinating and mandatory Research Ethics workshops that just providing the money for a research project is not sufficient justification for us to be a co-author on the resulting papers. And yet, I always wonder: But what if the research was our IDEA? Doesn't that count?

Today, what I want to know is how many readers have said or thought that their advisor doesn't (or didn't) do anything, meaning in this case that the advisor doesn't (or didn't) do any research (whether it was true or not)? If anyone leaves a comment confessing to having this thought/belief, it would also be helpful to know the academic discipline involved. In my field, it's relatively easy for me to do some actual research myself, but in other fields or in other research group configurations, it may be more difficult for an advisor to do this. Hence, additional information may be important for exploring and understanding this phenomenon.

There may be various modes of thought that feed into such a view. One that I imagine is common goes something like this:

- because you and other students ± postdocs, techs etc. are the ones actually generating data, you are the ones doing the real work, and your advisor is therefore "not doing anything".

But I hope it is more complex than that, and not an indication of a lack of appreciation for the value of ideas -- the ideas that can lead to a successful proposal and therefore a grant, the ideas for overcoming obstacles that may arise during the data-gathering stages, and the ideas that come once the data (or whatever) are obtained and it's time to think about the results, understand them, discuss them, interpret them, and thereby generate new ideas.

If a grad student who thinks their advisor doesn't do anything is in a situation in which they (the student) had some ideas that formed the core of a grant proposal that they largely wrote (perhaps with some help with the logistics of writing/submitting a proposal), got the grant (perhaps with their advisor's name on it), carried out the research largely independently (perhaps after learning some key techniques from someone other than the advisor), made the most significant interpretations, and wrote the papers, then go ahead and say it: your advisor didn't do much, if anything.

Otherwise, I think it is a strange and incorrect thing to say.

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