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We are having Visit Days soon, and we (current grads) are expected to have one-on-one conversations with visiting students with research interests closest to ours. One typical question we get, "How is Prof. X? What is it like working with them?".

As a current grad, I can see the names of the visiting students along with the professors who are their top choices for advisor, and several students have listed two professors I've tried to work with in the past (they had been my top choices when I joined this university).

These professors are great researchers, but, in my opinion, not good at all as advisors. I am not going into details because that'll end up being a rant, which isn't the point here. But my view is strongly shared by all my group peers who had, at some point, tried to work with these professors (due to their fame as researchers).

Because nobody had warned me before I started working with these professors, I ended up wasting two years in grad school, in my opinion, a very, very high price to pay. I would like to be very honest with the visiting students. At the same time, my field is quite close-knit, with all top professors collaborating with those at other places. If these visiting students end up not joining us, I'd not want them to remember me as the person who bad-mouthed these famous researchers.

How can I honestly answer questions about these professors without coming across as bitter (which I admittedly still am)? If I just state the facts, well, even those are going to be coloured by my viewpoint, and will therefore be biased.

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    By "honest," do you mean "no holds barred," or are you willing to distill the information down to key points based on the facts? (Personally, I think a good approach here probably has you not saying anything to the prospective candidates that you wouldn't also say in front of those you are speaking of in their absence.) – Mad Jack Feb 4 '18 at 23:42
  • Related - academia.stackexchange.com/questions/82887/… - and my answer there is relevant to your own experience. You need to be totally honest, as you're potentially talking about years of someone's life. – Bob Tway Feb 5 '18 at 17:04
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    "I am not going into details because that'll end up being a rant" not necessarily true. I know some people about who I could say "they will not be perfect advisors, you will need to do a lot on your own, that's a known risk". That is not the same as "they are not good advisors, cos' trying to date every student". Details might matter and guide how to disclose – Oct18 is day of silence on SE Feb 5 '18 at 20:08

11 Answers 11

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Provide the information needed but do it with positive remarks. Avoid negative statements and anything that would be embarrassing if quoted in public. Example:

  1. Prof. X has an ambitious research program. This group attracts students who come in with extensive prior research experience.

  2. Prof. Y is much sought after as an invited speaker. Due to his/her conference travel commitments, s/he tends to attract students with a high degree of self-sufficiency.

  3. Prof. Z is a relatively recent arrival in the department. S/he provides a solid training in lab techniques and a strong suit is guiding students in defining their research question.

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    @convexityftw - It's so hard to predict when someone is going to repeat something you've said to the person you'd least expect. // In music school there were some big name professors who spent a few days in residence (on campus) every month or two. Their students would be completely on their own between campus stints. That worked for some students but I really benefited from weekly lessons with my teacher (not such a big name, but a wonderful teacher). – aparente001 Feb 5 '18 at 4:20
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    From experience, this doesn't work. Think of the following question: "What can you tell me about Prof. X?" - you can't contrast him to Prof's Y and Z. Also, disagree avoiding negative statements entirely. – einpoklum Feb 5 '18 at 8:20
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    “Avoid negative statements” — I disagree, I believe this is very counter-productive advice. Unfortunately I therefore have to downvote. Avoiding negative statements, where appropriate, is deceptive and exacerbates the problem that OP wants to solve. Be charitable, but don’t sugar-coat. – Konrad Rudolph Feb 5 '18 at 11:27
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    @JacobRaihle This is completely untrue. If you ask me about X, Y, and Z, and I give you the provided soundbites for all three you should take away that X is ambitious (==expects a lot, more than the others), Y is absent a lot, and Z is not very established. If I give you a brief rundown like this, what I choose to talk about should in itself give you all the info that you need. – xLeitix Feb 5 '18 at 11:51
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    @xLeitix Yes, that was the point. The contrast with other professors makes it clear, but it only works if you bring up other professors to contrast against (as such, I would recommend doing just that whether or not you are asked to). – Jacob Raihle Feb 5 '18 at 11:58
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First of all you should decide whether you want to convey any negative information, factual or otherwise, about these faculty members. You are certainly not obligated to discuss the issue at all. You could for instance contrive not to be present for this part of the Visit Day, or you could show up and say "I'm sorry, but I don't have anything to contribute in response to that question. Maybe you should ask someone else."

In my opinion though, absenting some very clear and serious negative consequences for you, you should provide feedback on your experience, because as you say,

Because nobody had warned me before I started working with these professors, I ended up wasting two years in grad school, in my opinion, a very, very high price to pay.

You go on to write

I would like to be very honest with the visiting students. At the same time, my field is quite close-knit, with all top professors collaborating with those at other places. If these visiting students end up not joining us, I'd not want them to remember me as the person who bad-mouthed these famous researchers.

Telling the truth about your own experiences is not "bad-mouthing" anyone.

How can I honestly answer questions about these professors without coming across as bitter (which I admittedly still am)? If I just state the facts, well, even those are going to be coloured by my viewpoint, and will therefore be biased.

I suggest that you plan out what you will say, or could say, in advance. Indeed you should concentrate on factual information. You should also remind them that this is just your own experience, and that others' experiences might be different. This should encourage the visitors to seek out information from others, which is good.

I also don't think "bias" is the right word. Your answer to the question "What's it like to work with Professor X?" is inherently about your feelings on the matter. If you had a negative experience, then that's the correct answer to the question as far as you can provide. It doesn't mean that others will have the same experience -- and again, you can emphasize that in your response -- but it is your take on the situation.

What is the alternative? Dishonestly describe your experiences and thereby lure further students into bad experiences? That's not helpful to anyone.

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    I like this answer, and would emphasize "concentrate on factual information." Your experience is a fact, even if your perception of it is colored. "I started working with Dr. Einstein my first two years here, but didn't have a good relationship with him and produced relatively nothing. I've been more productive since then with Dr. Fermi." - in a statement like this, you aren't saying Dr. Einstein is a bad advisor, you are only stating your experience. Good advisor relationships are usually about fit - it shouldn't offend anyone to share that you didn't fit. – Bryan Krause Feb 6 '18 at 23:57
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This profile is actually pretty common in academia, and those professors typically know that they're not good advisors because they're not interested in being advisors.

Keeping that in mind, your statement can be informative and accurate while not being derogatory:

Prof. X is a great researcher, with many publications in top-tier journals. He has a very busy schedule, and cannot dedicate much time to advising. He can only supervise highly motivated and autonomous students who aren't expecting to see him more than once every 6 months.

  • It gets your point across.
  • It makes it clear for the students if their profile would fit.
  • Prof. X will be thankful for you not to send students in need of much supervision.
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How can I honestly answer questions about these professors without coming across as bitter (which I admittedly still am)?

By explaining what happened to you, and perhaps to other people, and sticking to the facts - rather than providing your conclusion about those Professors' character. (And note that the way events made you feel is also a fact.) Let the person asking you reach their own conclusions.

Also, by qualifying your answer with a mention of other people who have had better experience with these Professors, whom the person asking you the question might also consult.

However ... be advised that not embellishing and not being ultra-positive will often be perceived as disloyal bad-mouthing, by certain people. Honesty has its price and no good deed goes unpunished - in many institutions.

  • Thanks for such a thoughtful response. Yes, as someone who is just starting out in my field (and also being originally from a country where "respecting one's seniors/elders" is a thing), I can't bring myself to criticize anyone senior without feeling terribly guilty - even if I, with full honesty, believe in that criticism. – convexityftw Feb 6 '18 at 21:30
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    @convexityftw: I say go for it anyway. You should feel more guilty about giving visitors a less-than-honest impression. I know I do. – einpoklum Feb 6 '18 at 23:49
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There is a fine line where you can be factual and yet not bitter or come over an badmouthing/backstabbing.

A key aspect is to be clear whose experience you are talking about, rather than asserting a generality that is always true for all people.

  • "People like him for his clarity of thought, but for me, he was a hard professor to work for.
  • "I found that I was left more on my own resources than I would have liked. It might have been just right for someone else though. It depends how you prefer your teaching"
  • "For some students who need to feel nurtured, its less good a choice. For others who need to feel pushed, its an excellent choice".
  • "It depends what you want in a professor. If you want X then you might prefer prof X. If you want Y then prof Y might be a good choice".

No professor or personality trait is universally good/right or bad/wrong for everyone.

So instead of judging and opinioning your professors, try instead to describe what kind of person would be a good fit or poor fit, and let them decide which fits them.

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I assume the purpose of this event is to provide useful information for incoming students. Presumably, you have been asked to participate because someone thinks you can provide some worthwhile advice. It would be surprising if you were chosen to participate with no knowledge that you took a somewhat indirect route in your own career.

I would say your obligations are to share information you think will be helpful and relevant. Perhaps your primary message might be about what eventually worked well for you and what contributed to your success. You might also acknowledge that personalities of advisers and students come into play. Some students need different kinds of technical and emotional support than others. So you can urge students to consider these factors in choosing an adviser.

One objective way to measure the success of various advisers would be to look into the number of successful interactions with students and the quality of the resulting work. You can encourage prospective students to look at the output from each professor under consideration and judge for themselves. You might also suggest the importance of an initial discussion between prospective adviser and student where mutual expectations are frankly discussed.

I think it would be OK to say that some of your own interactions with advisers in the department have been unsatisfactory, and to point out how in retrospect these mismatches might have been avoided. You should try to focus on the needs of the particular individual students you are trying to help. To be most effective, you should decide in advance what specific personal misadventures it would be useful to mention and which would be best to avoid. You have an obligation to give information you think will be helpful, not an obligation to give your life history.

Finally, on the chance that any of your unsatisfactory interactions with advisers resulted from actual abuse, I believe you have an obligation to report that to the department in advance of any discussions with prospective students.

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I think the folks who said you should be tactful but direct in telling prospective students about the potential pitfalls of working with some folks are on point. I'll add another potential thing to say:

Professor Y is an excellent researcher and very well-respected. In my experience, she didn't have a lot of time to supervise me as a student. That said, I felt like I got much better guidance from Professor Z.

Or something along those lines. Be more or less direct according to your judgment. Let's hope there's something positive about some professor you can say!!

I am sympathetic to the fact that your field is close-knit and that you don't want to jeopardize your future relationships. I'd urge you to balance that with your instinct that prospective students deserve to know what to expect. You can state the facts without bad-mouthing people. You'll have to assume that your interlocutors are mature enough to make a sound judgment about your message. From what you said, it sounded to me like you weren't sure you could assume this. I'd urge you to give this a second thought.

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Rather than give advice about specific faculty, try to give advice on how to choose an advisor. Then it's up to the prospective student to make their own valuation of how much it matters.

For instance, if you want to advise against a certain professor because they don't spend much time with their students, you can say: “When choosing an advisor, you should ask yourself: ‘will I do better with an advisor that expects to see me once a week? Or once a month? Or once every six months?’”

These (and others) are questions that prospective students don't know to think about. You're giving them advice that's valuable not just for avoiding a specific professor, but types of professors. It can be helpful even if the prospective student lands somewhere else.

The prospective may feel you've already adequately answered the question, simply by the fact that you didn't say, “Prof. X is amazing! You should definitely work with them.” But if they demands to know which of these Prof. X belongs to, you can say “I found Prof. X was a six-month person with me, and I'm more of the once-a-month person, so I ended up working with someone else. But you should talk to some of his current students to get more information.”

  • This is a great answer! I already accepted another one, but I'll keep this in mind when actually talking to the visiting students. Thank you! – convexityftw Feb 6 '18 at 16:45
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    @convexityftw: Thanks. It's a technique realtors use when they want to steer people away from neighborhoods (which is forbidden by their ethical code). They can't say: you don't want to buy a house here because the schools are bad. They can say: you want to look at the school system before choosing a location to buy in. – Matthew Leingang Feb 6 '18 at 17:47
  • ...except the immediate followup will surely be "Which is professor X?" and you're back in the same issue but now you've put yourself on the spot and you cannot easily use other answers given here to handle it. – Stilez Feb 8 '18 at 10:15
  • @Stilez: Good point. I added something to the answer indicating how one might handle that. – Matthew Leingang Feb 9 '18 at 18:05
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Shift the conversation. Rather than answer the question about what it's like to work with Professor X, who you don't like, ask about their interests and talk about Professor Y, who would be great for that.

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    An astute visitor is going to get a very clear message from "I'd rather not talk about that, let's discuss Professor Z...". That may or may not be a good thing but should be pointed out. – Nij Feb 5 '18 at 7:47
  • @Nij So rather than than say "I'd rather not talk about that", just talk about what you want. Don't call attention to the fact you didn't answer the original question. – Nicole Hamilton Feb 5 '18 at 13:02
  • I'd consider this as very rude to the visitor if they have a good reason to ask about Prof. X. – user90948 Apr 6 '18 at 20:59
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Do not assess the professors how good advisors/reseachers they are, you are not entitled to do so. You can only assess how their way to advise fits to your needs.

You can mention the topics the professors are intersted in, their results, their typical schedule etc. Let students decide, whether it fits their preferences or not.

If you want to share your expirience with working with the professors, describe what you had expected and why it didn't fit to your needs. You and the group you are in is too small sample to extrapolate conclusions. Who says the asking student's needs doesn't fit with the professor's way to advise?

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    I never said anything about making a generic statement like "Prof. X is a bad advisor". I specifically asked how to describe my negative experience being advised by Prof. X, if a visiting student happened to ask about that professor (which I know is going to happen, because several visiting students have listed said professor as their first advisor of choice). – convexityftw Feb 5 '18 at 19:50
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    @convexityftw I have understood your third paragraph stating exactly that. These professors are great researchers, but, in my opinion, not good at all as advisors. sounds to me as These professors are bad advisors. – Crowley Feb 5 '18 at 19:58
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Talk about your own experience and about what didn't work. You don't need to say that it was the professor's fault, but telling what happened to you may make students think what can happen too them.

For example, "Since I wasn't able to work 120 hours a week, I didn't meet Prof X expectations and the project needed to be abandoned". Probably you can find better examples.

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