Graduate minions vs masterminds

The other day I overheard an academic tell an upcoming graduate student that they should pick a PhD project by finding an advisor who already had a project set up and who had funding and that they should do research where the funding was rather than where their interests lay. This was so totally contrary to my PhD experience it left me reeling.

When I did my PhD I had a specific thing I wanted to investigate – in my case the status of an as yet unstudied population of dolphins in a very disturbed habitat –  I really wanted  to know more about the behaviour and ecology of these animals, the biggest threats to them, whether they might survive and what could be done to help conserve them.  It was a project that important to me. I wrote up my own research proposal and found a senior academic who submitted the proposal for funding for me. I got advice and help along the way, but the project was my creation and fueled by my curiosity and passion. My current graduate students are all very similar. They have projects that they are really passionate about and interested in, and I view it as my role to help facilitate this intellectual curiosity and passion to find out more.

But this becoming increasingly rare. In the biological sciences it is almost becoming standard that graduate students are given a pre-prepared, pre-packaged project, and although they may be taught techniques along the way, they are basically researching the ideas, and carrying out the orders, of a senior academic. It’s not their idea nor project and they are essentially being a technician for a senior researcher. They are being a minion, rather than the mastermind of a project.

The university and funding system is increasingly being set up for this sort of pre-packaged graduate research.  Senior, established labs tend to get the lion’s share of the funding. Deans reward and praise the big labs that steadily bring in high and steady overheads, and the graduate students working on the specialty of that lab manager. The system supports and rewards a slow incremental increase in knowledge by senior people – why solve a problem when it means your funding will disappear? The system rarely aids young innovative, enthusiastic, outside the box thinkers, who might have some new and truly innovative ideas.

Graduate students at my university are relatively lucky in that we have many undergraduate classes that require teaching assistants, and so there’s a steady stream of funding to cover a basic level of tuition and living expenses. This gives students the freedom to work on their own ideas and projects – additional funding may be needed, but a big proportion of the cost if doing research (salary and tuition) are covered. But if you are in an institution that doesn’t have that sort if infrastructure and flexibility, that doesn’t have a huge endowment with supportive grants for graduate students’ own projects, increasingly your only hope of doing a PhD is by riding on someone else’s coat tails and being a minion on someone else’s project. As governmental funding increasingly becomes more restricted and based on political interests, the funding for innovative research will be be harder and harder to get. Moreover, the way things are going, government funds research fund will increasingly be going to certain areas of healthcare and military research. There will be little left for other fields.

So what could be done? Perhaps instead of spending research overheads on yet another deputy- assistant-vice Dean, Universities could be setting aside funds to build up trust funds to support innovative graduate students with interesting projects. Let’s aid graduate students that have interesting ideas, who are independent thinkers, that are passionate and who have intellectual curiosity, and who may be pushing the boundaries of research. Let’s not force these young academics to drop their ideas and passion to become minions on someone else’s project, but give them the support so that they can be academic masterminds.

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  1. Even if a graduate student shows up with enough maturity to have a well-formed project in mind, they may not have enough understanding of funding mechanisms to even realize that they should seek out a mentor to help them develop a proposal. I think departments could devise formal mechanism to encourage and mentor students who show up with good ideas. The key thing is to let them know that the path you took is exists as an option and then to match the student up with a competent and willing mentor. I think most departments simply place a student in whichever lab has funding at the time.

    • Certainly that’s what we try to do. I’m working with a student at the moment to submit their project to NSF. We often go for non traditional sources of funding in our lab too – e.g. partnering with NGOs and kickstarter campaigns. But I think part of an advisor’s job to to help a student realize what they want to do. Sometimes their projects are not logistically possible within the framework of a PhD, but you can work with them to produce something that is feasible.