Note: This article was first written in Chinese on October 27, 2020 and translated into English in 2022.
I did a lot of immature things in graduate school. Now looking back on it, I would like to share the lessons regarding how to best work with professors. These reflections are all based on my personal experiences and those of my friends. Please feel free to share your thoughts as well.
1. Consulting with advisor
If you already have a scholarship or hold a Research/Teaching Assistant position but you want to look for other “side jobs” unrelated to your research, it is best to discuss it with your advisor first. I recommend this because it is not easy for students to manage time with too much on their plate. Biting off more than you can chew tends to delay your graduation or current research. By talking to your advisor about the things you want to pursue, they can offer you advice on the best course of action to take.
To give an example, when I was pursuing my PhD, a professor in the business school was looking for assistance with data analysis. I was quite confident in my abilities to do this type of work and applied for the position without consulting with my advisor. He eventually found out my side job because the business school required my department head’s signature to process a payment and my advisor just so happened to be the department head in charge of approving my pay. My only choice after that was to explain myself to him. My advisor asked me whether this job was temporary or long-term, and he was understanding and did approve my salary.
I was fortunate that the RA job only required one-time support on data analysis, so I was able to return my focus to research without falling too behind. From this, I learned that I had been too ambitious with my goals. Next time, if I were to come across any potential “opportunities,” I should first discuss them with my advisor and then make a decision based on my academic workload and future career plans.
2. Writing down your research idea
It is great to have research ideas, but we shouldn’t constantly change our minds. When advisors offer constructive criticism for a research proposal, we should take time to think about how we can incorporate their suggestions to improve the research design as opposed to changing our research question the moment a flaw is pointed out. If it is possible to improve the proposal, then how should that be done? What we should avoid doing is changing our research topic at the first sight of criticism.
When I was choosing my dissertation topic, I had meetings with my advisor every week and I reported my progress to him. We soon fell into a cycle where I would propose my idea, he would point out some questions for me to think about, and I would come back the following week with a brand new idea. When this had gone on long enough, my advisor said something along the lines of:
“You come to see me each week and propose a research topic. I tell you what challenges you may face if you decide to pursue this topic. I raise questions about your proposed topic, but they aren’t meant to discourage you from moving forward with the topic because it’s no good; rather, I intend to help you improve your research idea. But if every time I raise questions, you change to an entirely new topic; then there is no point in meeting every week because it is a waste of our time. I suggest you write down your ideas and address the following points in a few paragraphs: What is my research question? Why is this topic worth investigating? What data may be appropriate? What challenges may I face? Writing these down can help you organize your thoughts.”
After hearing his words, I felt quite ashamed. I had been changing my dissertation topic so frequently that even though we met often to discuss my work, I was making no progress on identifying a good research question. After our conversation on that day, I organized my research idea into some paragraphs and followed my advisor’s advice to sort out my idea. I soon found my dissertation topic.
3. Preparing questions before meetings
Before meeting with your advisor, prepare questions.
When I was in grad school, I set up weekly meetings with my advisor, to keep myself accountable and prevent myself from procrastinating. One time, when I walked into my advisor's office and he asked me, “What would you like to discuss this week?” I then realized that I had nothing new to discuss with him. He told me with a smile, “Next time if you have nothing to discuss with me, just tell my secretary or send me an email to cancel our meeting. Don’t feel bad; I have plenty of other things to do.”
Through that experience, I have learned that students need to have a proactive attitude when meeting with their advisor. In particular, if students meet with their advisor to discuss their own research, they cannot assume that their advisor knows what progress they have made because advisors have no such obligations. To have productive discussions, students need to regularly keep track of the problems they run into and go into meetings with questions prepared beforehand.
4. Informing professors in advance
Professors have busy schedules so you should inform them in advance if you need help.
A reliable friend of mine told me that she was once immature when interacting with her advisor. Her advisor responded very quickly to emails and students’ needs. However, one time she contacted her advisor so last minute, so her advisor made it clear to her, “I know I reply quickly to emails but not that quickly. Please tell me ahead of time if you need my support.”
A friend of mine who works at a university in China told me stories of students who would frantically ask professors for signatures or even recommendation letters on a weekend and require them by Monday. Students should not treat their professors as 24/7 customer service workers. Professors do not owe students all their time, so please be respectful and considerate when making requests.
There are some things to be mindful of if you wish to ask for recommendation letters. Outside of seeking permission, I have colleagues who require their students to share all their related documents at least one month before the deadline. Overall, when it comes to writing recommendation letters, every professor has different requirements and preferences. Therefore, for students, the best course of action is to do your part ahead of time and communicate with professors sooner rather than later.
To give an example, when I was on the job market, I was applying for many jobs, so I sorted those jobs by the due date for recommendation letters. For schools with October due dates, I would send my professors a list of schools in mid-September and include their associated links for submissions of recommendation letters. If a deadline was around the corner but in the application system, I had not yet seen recommendation letters submitted, I would send a follow-up email to remind the professor(s).
When I was a student, I was extremely grateful for the support that my professors provided to me. To thank them, I figured the best thing I could do was to make it easier for them to support me.
5. Taking feedback seriously
When you receive revision suggestions from your advisor, you should take time to reflect and make corresponding changes. Furthermore, you should strive to not make the same mistakes.
A friend once told me that when she was supervising MA students’ theses, she would make many annotated suggestions on their drafts. However, when students turned in the next version of their drafts, there were no tracked changes, so she did not know what changes were made to the papers. When she spent time comparing the previous version to the current one, she found out that the issues she had raised were still present. My friend said, “I had no idea if the student didn’t make the changes because they disagreed with my comments or if they agreed but just didn’t know how to address them. Or could it be that they were simply unwilling to take any suggestions at all?”
In graduate school, when I was quite doubtful of my academic career, one professor said to me, “I truly believe you have potential because you take criticisms well and you know how to improve your work based on the criticisms.” She found that some students were unwilling to listen to critiques, and others listened but couldn’t seem to address the critiques to improve their paper. Thus, taking criticism well and knowing how to revise our paper based on the criticism are extremely valuable research skills.
These are all the examples I could think of from the top of my head. If you have other opinions or thoughts, please feel free to share them.
Last, I would like to say that if you (especially those still in school) feel that you have done any of the immature things mentioned in the article, don’t feel as if it is the end of the world. None of this is meant to say if these mistakes are made, then our relationship with our advisor is ruined. All professors want the best for their students. If we can learn from these experiences, reflect, improve, and grow, then that is what makes the biggest difference.
Here is the link to the original article in Chinese: "和教授共事，哪些雷区不要踩？." The author, Yue Qian, would like to thank Evalina Liu for her assistance with translations from Chinese to English.
Note: This article was first written in Chinese on November 13, 2020 and translated into English in 2022.
This week, a collaborator and I completed a minor “revise & resubmit” in two days; in the last two weeks, another collaborator and I wrote in sprints and finished a high-quality literature review of over 5,000 words. While working on these research projects, I felt sincerely grateful for all my awesome collaborators. Therefore, I couldn't help but write an article to share what I’ve learned from them.
1. Be reliable
I've tried writing sprints this year with several collaborators, and it's pretty cool! Generally speaking, after I finish a draft, I send it to my collaborator, and my collaborator will edit it as soon as possible, and send it back to me, and we repeat the process a couple of times. I found that through this collaborative approach, we were able to complete both the first draft and the final polished draft within a short time.
Sprint writing has a lot of benefits. For example, when working on a project, if my collaborators and I put it on hold for a while, it always takes a while to recall what we did last time and then plan what to do next. However, sprint writing is like running a relay in which collaborators pass the baton to each other and let the ideas flow logically. As a result, we not only efficiently write up an article but also substantially improve the article with multiple rounds of back-and-forth revisions.
If we have to take time off to deal with personal circumstances, such as recovering from sickness or taking care of children, my collaborators and I usually communicate in advance to make sure that both parties are on the same page. For example, they may tell me “I can only make changes up till this part today. I will leave the rest to you, and come back tomorrow to follow up on your edits.” In another instance, I was not productive in a particular week, so my collaborator did her part first and sent it over. The next week, she had other things to do, so she didn’t work on our project. Instead, I revised what she wrote, added the parts I was responsible for writing, and then sent it back to her. Later, she said to me, "How amazing it is to have a coauthor who you can really depend on!! Thanks for pushing the paper forward." Of course, this kind of dependence is not one person's unilateral effort, but everyone's concerted endeavors can develop a synergy.
Sometimes I'm afraid that I would procrastinate and delay things, so I set a deadline for myself. For example, instead of saying "I'll reply to you as soon as possible," I would say, "I'll look at it and reply before Wednesday." I do so because I find that saying "as soon as possible" doesn’t mean the project is on my to-do list and it may end up being put on hold for various reasons. However, if I promise myself a deadline and keep myself accountable by telling my collaborators about my plans, I can make sure that I'm responsible for the project. I also have collaborators who clearly explain their arrangements and plans. For instance, they let me know that they are preoccupied, so they may not be able to participate in a project, and they will join if other opportunities arise in the future.
In short, reliable collaborators inspire us to become more trustworthy and committed members of a research team 😁
2. Be intellectually stimulating
I often ask questions to spark discussions with collaborators, and I am very grateful for their constructive suggestions. Collaboration, in many cases, is being able to discuss with someone when you get stuck or feel uncertain about something. After all, two heads are better than one.
In emails and Word documents, I raise questions if I am unsure about certain things. I appreciate how genuine and sincere my collaborators are in responding to my questions. They share their ideas or potential solutions, and they are usually quick and thoughtful. I always feel more motivated and driven after reading comments and suggestions from my collaborators. Their replies also help me think more deeply to gain a better understanding of our projects. I often feel cheerful because I have acquired new skills from these projects.
In collaborative research projects, intellectually challenging and stimulating dialogues are one of the most enjoyable aspects of collaboration. It is not uncommon that my collaborators disagree with me and challenge me. For instance, they point out that:
Here is what I feel most grateful for: when collaborators express their disagreement, they usually come up with a plan that they think is feasible, and then we would consider it and discuss the next steps together. This kind of back-and-forth questioning and discussion makes research better.
3. Be organized
My collaborators are all very well-organized persons, and I have learned a lot from them. In email exchanges, many of my collaborators give me an outline of what they have done and also tell me what needs to be done next. They are my role models and motivate me to be more organized.
Once, a collaborator sent me a structured email that I still remember to this day (see the image below). When I saw it, I thought, "I need to learn from her!" She laid out very concisely what she did based on our discussion, then pointed out what I needed to do and what I should pay attention to, and also specified what we may need to do together in the next stage. Last, she ended the email with affirmation - "Go, team!" and "Thanks!". After I read the email, I was influenced by her optimism and positive energy.
4. Establishing good authorship practices
Co-first authorship has become increasingly popular in academia, but how to order author names amongst those who contribute equally is a rather awkward topic. While the default practice is normally to list co-first authors alphabetically by last name, it might come off as a little bit unfair to those with last names late in the alphabet. Academics with last names further back in the alphabetical order may find it difficult to voice out their potential concerns about always being the last person on the author list. The situation can be even trickier if there are differences in rank or seniority between the collaborators. If an author with a later alphabet surname is of lower rank or seniority, the author may not know how to voice out their concern without being viewed as aggressive; by contrast, if it is the party of higher rank or seniority who proposes to change the order of names, it might come across as abusing their power. In these situations, it may be a good idea if the party with the first alphabetical surname takes the initiative to propose some solutions that they could accept.
One time, a collaborator took the initiative to tell me, “Yue, this time your name should be listed before mine”. Although his last name technically goes before mine, he said that his name was listed first last time when we worked together, so this time mine should be listed first. I was really moved by his consideration and thoughtfulness 😭
I have seen other mutually agreed-upon practices. If two or more people are long-term collaborators and are co-first authors on multiple papers, it may be reasonable to rotate the order of the names. For example, this time, A is listed first, and next time, B is listed first, even when all the articles indicate that the authors contribute equally. I also know of collaborators who flip a coin to decide whose name appears first on the paper.
Many long-term collaborators put themselves in each other’s shoes, and treat each other as partners and friends. We strive to be fair, friendly, and ethical in handling situations that arise in collaboration.
Well, that's it for today's sharing. Please feel free to leave a comment for discussion😊 I wish you all can connect with trustworthy and reliable collaborators!
Here is the link to the original article in Chinese: "我从我的合作者身上学到的美好品质." The author, Yue Qian, would like to thank Ally Cheng for her assistance with translations from Chinese to English.