Nature Chemistry | The Sceptical Chymist

Materials Girl: Expectations

Posted on behalf of Materials Girl

In discussions with various professors, I’ve noticed that researchers seek out an interesting range of qualities for their minions – aka: grad students. One absolutely required creativity and out-of-the-box thinking. The next expected independence and strategizing, while insisting that he himself was not the greatest of researchers (he’s amazing and brilliant).

Another said that inherent intelligence and academic background were irrelevant – he just wanted his students to work hard. (This was not too concerning. That is, until I was told that the HR lady received complaints from a different prof who was displeased that his students didn’t come in every weekend… Uhh…) My own advisor never asked for my experience or qualifications, being seemingly content with the fact that I was excited to be in the lab and willing to try anything.

So then, what other characteristics are required? Which are the most important, and to what branches of study?


  1. Report this comment

    Valentin Ananikov said:

    Only one characteristic really matters: ability to achieve high quality results.

    In organic chemistry, grad. student research resulting in 3-4 strong papers annually (IF >= 3-5, each) will be for sure considered as a good one (independently of creativity, the way of thinking, amount of time spend in the lab, etc.).

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    Materials Girl said:

    Valentin – That seems like a worthy goal, but is it fair to judge students on what they cannot necessarily control?

    Sometimes chemistry just doesn’t work or doesn’t go quickly, no matter how much you’re doing. Or are you a subscriber of the idea that research WILL work as long as enough effort/though is put in?

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    Physchim62 said:

    Each “boss” is different and, as far as you’re able, you should try to choose the one you want to work for. When you’re entering as a new grad student, nobody knows what you’re worth (least of all yourself!): a good boss will take that into account and try to get the best out of you, whatever that is. But, of course, you don’t know if your future boss will be good or bad! Some of them have been criminally bad (i.e, now serving prison sentences), some are good beyond the call of duty, most come somewhere in between (such is life).

    Of the hundred or so PhD students I’ve known, the ones I’ve respected the most are those who have taken their projects as a personal challenge, a bit like a high-class athlete. In this, I disagree completely with my colleague above. Results are important, because without results you will never write your thesis, but respect from your peers is more important still.

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    Neil said:

    FemaleScienceProfessor has some good posts about the advisor-grad student relationship on (such as that might contain useful advice – and provide a good insight on how it works from the other side.

    Valentin’s points are probably accurate, but only in retrospect: no-one knows if you’ll be producing 3-4 strong papers annually until you’ve been a grad student for a couple of years.

    I don’t think any advisor would be upset with students showing enthusiasm and hard work – so long as they have the base-line of knowledge/expertise to prevent lab disasters!