work relationships

Hazards of Graduate School Success

Today I want to pass on some personal insight and advice for students who will be entering graduate school in the future, or who are already there.

This isn’t advice on how to succeed in graduate school. You can ignore this advice and still develop a successful career. But if you take it to heart and keep it in mind in the future, it could have tremendously beneficial consequences for the kinds of relationships you have with peers and colleagues.

I was fortunate to receive the same advice when I was in graduate school, many years ago. It came as a rather cryptic comment from my masters supervisor. At first I did not fully understand what he was trying to convey, but it became clear as time went by. I’ve thought about his words many times over the past 30 years, as I’ve witnessed the relevance of his advice playing out time after time.

Before I tell you what he said, a bit of context is necessary…  It was a few days before I would be moving to a different city and university to pursue a PhD in a different laboratory, and of course that meant with a different supervisor. I had enjoyed my time as a masters student and got along very well with my supervisor. He knew my main reason for moving was because I was interested in a different area of research than what I had been doing for my masters thesis. Moreover, instead of being the only graduate student in a small lab, like I had been during my masters, I would now be part of a larger research group, with several other graduate students working and training together under the supervision of a well-funded and somewhat well-known principal investigator (of course, this person would be my supervisor for the PhD). Within the same facility there were also a few other high-powered labs headed by prominent researchers. Frankly, my new destination was a more exciting research environment than the setting for my masters degree. My long-term goal was a career in research, so my masters supervisor knew the move would probably be good for me.

Coincidentally, my masters supervisor had recently visited the place and met my soon-to-be PhD supervisor. I think this encounter may have compelled him to give me the following advice. I’ll explain why later, after I tell you what he said.

We were having lunch together. Following a lull in our conversation, during which he gazed into the distance, looking especially thoughtful – he turned to me and said:

“Dave, don’t become an asshole.”

That’s all he said. Then he gazed ahead again, silent…

Now, he didn’t say, “don’t be an asshole”, which would have implied that he thought I was already one. That would have been devastating. He was clearly trying to convey a deeper message.

I must have looked puzzled, so he went on to say something about there being a lot of successful researchers who are assholes. He tried to clarify with some examples of professors in our department who were widely renowned for their research and whom he did not think were assholes. (You see, he was a classy guy, so he didn’t name anyone he thought was an asshole; but there was no doubt he could name a few if he had to). The professors he identified as good regular folks had been among his colleagues for many years, so he had come to know them fairly well. Of course, he had also learned which of his colleagues were despicable in one way or another, but he was respectful enough to avoid identifying them while making his point. It wasn’t necessary. And he wasn’t an asshole.

I don’t recall exactly how the conversation ended, but I know I didn’t ask him at any point just why he was telling me this. I was in my mid-twenties, so it was not news to me that some people are wonderful, while others are more or less contemptible. The real puzzle was just why he felt the need to bring it up. I assumed it had something to do with my upcoming move. But I didn’t understand how, exactly.

With time comes clarity

I didn’t think about it for a long time, but I never totally forgot about the weird advice: Don’t become an asshole. What was my previous graduate supervisor really trying to tell me? At some point – it was probably a couple of years into my PhD – it all started to make sense.

I recalled that my previous supervisor had met my current supervisor not long before our lunchtime conversation. These two men had very different personalities. Luckily for me, both were very supportive and dedicated to their students, and both of them positively influenced my development as an academic researcher and scholar. But they were altogether different characters.

My masters supervisor did not have a big-name reputation for his research, but he was an excellent scientist and a productive researcher. He was highly respected and well liked by people who knew him. He was friendly, but a serious and somewhat quiet man, free from vanity and pretentiousness. My PhD supervisor, on the other hand, was a jovial man with a tendency to be braggadocious, and the latter trait definitely annoyed some people. I personally got used to it, as I saw past that shortcoming and noticed his many good qualities. I liked him anyway, but other people would sort of roll their eyes when his name came up. He wanted very much to be respected and admired by his peers and colleagues, and he had many accomplishments to be proud of, but his ceaseless boasting about them was what most people would notice and remember about him. It wasn’t a good impression.

So, was this where my masters supervisor’s strange advice had come from. Had he been warning me not to turn into the type of a-hole he believed my PhD supervisor typified? I can’t say for sure, but I decided a long time ago that this is probably what was going through his mind. Whatever the truth may be, this assumption has helped me to notice certain prevalent features of a typical graduate school environment can negatively influence a person’s character and demeanour.

Hazards of success?

The way we interact with other people largely determines whether they will have a positive impression of us, a negative one, or a neutral one. We tend to like people who treat us fairly and with mutual respect. A few other traits help, too, like friendliness and benevolence, for example.

But all of us know people who we do not consider likeable or admirable – such as, people who treat others unfairly or disrespectfully. We do not like those who demean us, who are arrogant or haughty. By most people’s standards, those who frequently and persistently display these traits are contemptible assholes. We perceive it as being part of their character.

Contemptible individuals can be found in all sectors of society, so should we expect the academic research world to be any different? I don’t think so. But the issue isn’t that people like this can be found in the halls of academia. The real point I want to make – and maybe this is what my masters supervisor was thinking – is that success in an academic research environment can change some people, and when this occurs, the change is often for the worse.

Success brings confidence, but in some people, confidence turns into arrogance.

One thing that frustrates us about people who think too highly of themselves is their relative disrespect for others who they consider inferior (which is most of us). We hate their obvious disdain for our averageness, especially because we know they are really no better than us, and their personal successes are usually at least as much due to circumstances as to intrinsic individual greatness. Even when we recognize that someone really does possess great ability within some domain, we all know this is just a part of who they really are. Discovering that this person is also pompous ass tends to eliminate any respect we might have had for them based on their accomplishments.

I suspect that most readers perceive, like I do, that there is a correlation between how much fame and success people achieve and how self-important and condescending they tend to behave. Of course, it’s not a perfect correlation, and many good men and women retain their best virtues despite an ascent to fame and recognition. Not everyone becomes an asshole, and no one changes that way on purpose. And yes, some are assholes long before they achieve success and notoriety. But there are also some who only become so after operating in an enabling environment or context for a while. I believe graduate school can be like this for many students, especially at the doctoral level. I’ve seen evidence of it many times.

Don’t let success go to your head

One typical pattern involves early-career notoriety, resulting from some important finding that comes out of their graduate or postdoctoral research and which generated a notable buzz within the community of researchers who study the same subject. For at least a short time, their work becomes widely known and followed by others. They might speak at important conferences, participate in symposia, or receive invitations to give lectures at universities or research institutes. They may become known, at least within their field of expertise, as a ‘rising star’. All the attention is very rewarding (for most people), and therefore readily accepted. Most people who experience this type of early-career notoriety will want to keep it going, but doing so can become the main motivational driving force for the remainder of many people’s academic or professional careers.

Inevitably, most of the so-called rising stars (albeit not all of them) begin to believe their own hype. I’ve seen this pattern of events play out numerous times with bright young men and women during my long career. It also describes how the early stages of my own research career unfolded. So you could say, I’ve been there and done that.

Having confidence because of your previous achievements is good, but letting the attention generated by those achievements go to your head is not.

I’ve tried to follow my masters supervisor’ sage advice throughout my career. I’m not the one to say how well I’ve done at it, but I can honestly say that I’ve tried. But today the advice isn’t for me. It’s for you, dear reader.

In the long run, most people will ignore your professional achievements and base opinions of you on your personal demeanour and character. I hope you have success in graduate school and accomplish your career objectives. Along the way, remember where you came from, and don’t let praise and achievements spoil your character.

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How joining a students association can help you get the most out of your bachelor’s degree (Part 1)

Posted January 12, 2017 — My last post was the first in a short series I have planned for the first few weeks of 2017. The aim is to motivate college and university students who worry about potential career paths to do something about it. To gather the resources and assistance necessary to garner the best information and insight available.

The first step, as always, is simple and not particularly original: Consult the career-counselling services available at your institution. You might find the answers you need, or at least get much closer. But you might not. This is somewhat understandable, as you cannot expect to get all the time, attention, and personalized advice you want from a career counsellor who also has a schedule of appointments with other clients. Not only that, but despite what many students mistakenly assume, career counsellors are typically not industry specialists. This means that while they may be very helpful in getting you started with the process of researching different career options, they often lack the special insights of a true “insider.” By insider, I mean someone who actually has a career in an area of interest to you.

Many insiders were once undergraduate college or university students themselves, who somehow progressed from that stage in their life to later having a fulfilling career. The more insiders you talk with about how they did it, the more you realize that there is no typical, standard route to career success from undergraduate school. Just as importantly, the more you learn about the diverse experiences of industry insiders, the easier it is to appreciate the full range of career options that are potentially accessible to you, and to plot a potential path for yourself.

The career counsellors may be able point you in the direction of career-related books and web resources, but those sources of information fall short in terms of actual usefulness compared to the special insights, tips, and strategies that you can get from someone who has had success in getting from where you are now to the kind of place you would like to be yourself someday.  Even after getting everything you can from your school’s career counselling services, you are likely to still have many questions and much uncertainty — and flashes of anxiety — over your future.

My advice to students who find themselves in the situation I just described is to take matters into their own hands. To fill those information gaps that are left unfilled by career counsellors or academic advisors, or even the best career-related books or websites. If you are a student who needs help with this process, the main points I hope to make for you today is that you don’t have to do it alone. There are many many other students in the same boat as you. You probably pass some of them in the hallways at school every day. If even a small group of you can get together and coordinate some efforts, you can get the insiders’ insights you need.

The following guest-commentary was written by someone who has experienced first-hand the benefits of working with other students. She is Samantha Briand, and she has been the president of the Concordia University Psychology Association for the past two years. She comments on some of the benefits she has personally experienced, but also to the widespread lack of initiative displayed by the vast majority of students. I hope her words will inspire and help compel you to action.

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If you’ve ever wondered how someone can be a full-time university student AND work 40 hours a week, ask any student rep. The young men and women who decide to join student associations do so for free and of their own volition. But how can anyone be crazy enough to sacrifice their time, sweat and money for a bunch of students they don’t know, you may ask? Spend days and nights planning and promoting events they’ll be too busy to enjoy? Well, the answer is simple…

Because someone has to.

I ran unopposed as President of the Concordia Undergraduate Psychology Association (CUPA) for two years in a row, as did many of the executives on our 2015 and 2016 teams. Although we all decided to run for different reasons, most of us agreed that we wanted to make a difference in the lives of students and CUPA was our best way to do that. With each event, our presence on campus grew and we were over the moon when our first ever winter getaway sold out in less than 8 hours. People came up to us and thanked us for all our hard work, and told us what a difference our events had made in their lives. Some people even made friends that they’ve kept to this very day. We made that possible. CUPA made that possible. And it’s those moments that make it all worth it. But I can never stop myself from thinking, what would happen if I chose not to be a part of my student association. If I decided that my time was better spent studying or making money. Then who would take my place? Considering that I ran unopposed…twice… I would say no one. And since that is the case for more than half of the people on my current executive team, there wouldn’t be enough people to even justify having a student association if we decided not to run. So, all of those students who benefitted from our events would just have to deal with it. They would lose all of the opportunities that CUPA can provide, all because I want more time to sit around and watch Netflix all day? It is a sacrifice we make willingly, because we know that our efforts can make a difference. That CUPA is bigger than us, as cheesy as I may risk sounding. But please don’t feel bad for us, because we would gladly make the same choice time and time again. As hard as it may be, we love what we do and we’re happy to do it. So, if you’re looking for a way to make your university experience more than just a quest for a decent GPA; or if you want to meet a bunch of strangers who will grow to become some of your best friends, then I urge you to join your student association. There is no better way to pay it forward than by giving your time to others. And if you’ve got it all figured out already, then this is your chance to share that knowledge and wisdom with younger students. And if you don’t, then hey, join the club! As a 2017 graduate, I can tell you how proud I am of what CUPA has accomplished over the past 2 years and I hope to leave it in good hands. So I challenge you.

I challenge you to take a leap of faith.

To spread yourself too thin.

To bite of more than you can chew.

Why? 

Because you might just surprise yourself.

Best of luck, 

Samantha Briand

President 2015 – 2017

Concordia Undergraduate Psychology Association
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I am grateful to Samantha for passing along these words of wisdom. Not everyone has her level of energy and enthusiasm, and many students have important extracurricular activities or other commitments that limit their ability to spend as much time as Samantha has organizing useful activities for the benefit of hundreds of student peers. But, you don’t need to have her level of enthusiasm or dedicate as much time and effort as she has. That’s the whole point of working with others toward a common goal — just like student associations are able to do. Still, you have to get off your ass and show some initiative.

There are additional benefits to getting involved with your student association beyond those pointed out by Samantha in her guest-commentary. I believe some of those benefits will likely play out for her over the coming years, in ways that enhance her early career development. I will explain in my next post.

Letters of Recommendation for Graduate School: Who Are the Best Sources?

It is now November, and if you are facing graduate-school applications deadlines anytime between mid-December and early February, it’s time to get serious about arranging for your letters of recommendation. As with the other components of a grad-school application, there are many pitfalls that must be avoided, and my goal with today’s post is to help you avoid some of them. The focus here will be on one key question: Who should be asked to provide a letter of recommendation?

College or university professors who know the student well are nearly always the most appropriate sources for letters of recommendation to support a graduate-school application. If an application requires three letters of recommendation, then it is usually best if all three letters are from professors. There are exceptions in some fields, however, and all applicants should make sure they know what is normal in their field of study. For example, someone applying to a master’s program in counseling psychology or social work should have a letter from someone who has supervised his or her volunteer work in some type of support or helping capacity. Also, some programs have special expectations when it comes to the sources for letters of recommendation, so it’s important to carefully read all instructions. For example, some clinical psychology programs ask for at least one letter from a source like that which I just described, but many do not; if they don’t specify, then all of the letters should come from professors.

The source of a letter (i.e., the “referee”) can influence it’s effectiveness in at least two ways: First, referees are expected to indicate in their letters the capacity in which they have known the student, and they should be able to demonstrate that they know the student well enough, and in an appropriate capacity, that would enable them to evaluate him or her on several relevant dimensions. A professor who taught a student in a junior-level course would be expected to have little insight into his or her true potential, whereas a professor for a senior-level course, who gave the student a very good grade for substantial written work, or for oral presentations, might be a better judge. If the student is in an Honors program with a thesis requirement, the thesis supervisor or the director of the Honors program should be in the best position to provide a comprehensive evaluation

A mistake many people make is to assume they need letters from someone who can testify that they are very smart and capable of very good academic performance. Transcripts and standardized test scores already serve that purpose, and letters of recommendation need to evaluate the applicant on dimensions that are actually more relevant to success in graduate school than a person’s scholarly abilities.

Another factor that can influence the effectiveness of a letter of recommendation is the credibility of the referee, which is related to several different factors. As already mentioned, your referees will probably be asked to indicate how long they have known you. If they have only known you for a few months, some people will assume that they probably don’t know you very well. The referee’s credibility is also related to how much academic experience he or she has; that is, how long this person has been around, and therefore, how much experience he or she has at assessing the potential of students for success in grad school. All else being equal, professors with several years of experience are generally viewed as being more highly referees. Compared to a junior faculty member who has been a professor for only a year or two, senior faculty members will have more experience writing letters of recommendation, and therefore, they may do a better job of it (although there is no guarantee of this).

Be careful not to assume too much about someone’s relevant experience from the amount of gray hair they possess. Age alone is not a reliable a predictor of how much relevant experience a potential referee has at evaluating potential graduate students and writing letters of recommendation.

It’s possible to make reasonable inferences, however, from considering a professor’s academic rank, because this is influenced, at least in part, by how long someone has been employed at a particular institution. Some colleges and universities hire part-time faculty to teach undergraduate courses on a temporary contractual basis; they may, or may not, be given the rank of adjunct professor. Regardless of how experienced (or old) a teacher for one of your introductory-level courses appears, it’s important to keep in mind that your letters for grad school should be written by people who have experience at supervising their own graduate students, and who are, therefore, more likely to know what should be in it. Full-time professors who teach and conduct research are the most likely to have the right types of experience.

Newly-hired, full-time faculty members usually have the rank of assistant professor. After a few years, most are promoted to associate professor; this promotion may be accompanied by granting of tenure. Promotion to (full) professor usually comes after several more years of strong research, teaching, and service. One can assume that an associate professor or full professor has a significant amount of experience at writing letters of recommendation for grad-school applicants.

The academic rank of a referee, while important, is still secondary to what that person has to say about you. Accordingly, the professor who knows you best will usually be your most important referee, even if that person is a junior faculty member or even a part-time instructor. One exception to this is if you are applying to a research-oriented graduate program — university and college teachers who are not active researchers are not be the best referees for evaluating your research potential.

There are obviously many important things to consider when deciding whom to ask for a letter of recommendation, beyond just a potential referee’s credibility. You have to ask people who know the right things about you! Here are some of the dimensions on which you should expect to be evaluated:

ability to work with others
ability to work alone
communication skills (both oral and written)
creativity
dedication and persistence
independence
industriousness
initiative
intellectual ability
integrity
judgment
leadership
maturity
organizational skills
originality
teaching potential
social skills

Now that you know what kinds of things are discussed in a letter of recommendation for graduate school, do you feel confident that you can get the letters of recommendation you need? Anyone out there have a question about selecting potential referees?