Tuesday, March 10, 2009


The other day I ran across a recent journal article that was relevant to one of my grad students, so I forwarded it to her in case she had not seen it already.

Several days later she came by my office to discuss a few points in the paper, and she began by saying, "This paper was a disappointment . . . the objectives were fairly routine, and only a small part of the paper is what I would consider any kind of real contribution to the literature, and in that part, I think their methodology was somewhat flawed. They could have done a lot better with the data they had."

I nearly cried, I was so proud of her. Even a year ago, she would never have considered voicing criticism of published work. She has long had sort of a confidence problem with her own work, in terms of being able to stand up for her decisions under constructive criticism, and she had kind of an expert-complex where she assumed everybody else knew more than she did about her research, and about everything else. (Once, very early in her research career with me, I mentioned something about reviewing a manuscript for a particular journal and she was stunned . . . she said, "I assumed that manuscript reviewers were all crusty old men who have been doing these research things for a long, long time.")

Some of her hangup has been just her personality, but I don't doubt that a lot of it is her particular religious and cultural background. She's from a certain foreign country and religious minority where acknowledging your expertise, especially if you are a woman, and criticizing another's work, even constructively and with sound science/engineering reasoning, is inappropriate behavior. A couple of years ago we had a very frank conversation about my concern that she was holding herself back from doing her best work, and she described to me the culture clash that had been going on in her head over how to reconcile her view of her role and appropriate behavior in society with her role as an expert in her research career.

I have never had this specific struggle, but I do understand the struggle to find an internal consistency in your attitudes and philosophy on life. Particularly as a very new assistant professor, I felt some of this type of friction, and so she and I talked about trying to develop a sense of self that didn't make you feel like you were abandoning your values and background, but still meant that you could use your talents and education to have a positive impact on the world through your work.

In general I find advising grad students really challenging, and not something that I am good at. But when you get to see an individual's growth as a person and as a researcher and you feel like maybe you contributed to that in even a small way, it's very satisfying.