Deconstructing Research Advising

When advising on research, it's important to always think about this crucial question: What is the immediate next step to suggest for the student to take at this time?

These ideas came out of conversations with many people (most notably Walter Lasecki), so I can't claim credit for them ... but I can claim credit for writing this article :)

As an assistant professor whose tenure case is largely determined by my research output, and who cannot possibly produce enough output on my own to get tenure, one of the most important things I do at work is advise students on their research projects. Being a good advisor isn't just a matter of being nice to my students ... it determines whether or not I get fired in five years.

There are a zillion nuances to research advising – and more generally, to people and project management – most of which I haven't even begun to master. But if I had to break it down into one simple idea, it would be always thinking about:

What is the immediate next step to suggest for the student to take at this time?

Assuming that a project idea is well-conceived, completing it is simply a matter of consistently taking one step after another, and intelligently course-correcting along the way. Thus, the primary role of a research advisor is to think about the immediate next step at every stage of the project, and to communicate suggestions in the proper way to motivate students to make steady progress on it.

Let's look at two extremes of this idea. First, imagine an ultra hands-off, super-chill advisor. Here would be the directive to each student:

  • Step 1: Think of a good idea.
  • Step 2: Publish the paper on it.

The gap between Steps 1 and 2 here is impossibly large, spanning months or even years of effort. Clearly this isn't going to work. It's like:

Now imagine the other extreme: an ultra hands-on micromanager. Each immediate next step would end up being so fine-grained and mindnumbingly dull that students will just feel like cogwheels grinding for meager pay. And the amount of effort the advisor expends would be so high that they might as well be doing the project themselves, which defeats the whole point of delegation.

Obviously the ideal next-step granularity lies between those two extremes. But what should it be? I think it varies greatly depending on each student's skills, personality, motivations, and experience level. This is why there's no one-size-fits-all solution to research advising (and more generally, to people and project management).

The optimal next-step granularity is different for everyone. Some students need a lot of hands-on guidance, while others need a lot of autonomy. And the optimal granularity for any individual student will likely change as they gain more experience.

In my limited experience so far, when I set the next-step granularity right for a particular student, our project quickly builds and sustains momentum, and it becomes a pleasure for both sides to see our collective progress week after week. And when I somehow can't hit the right stride or don't have enough time to figure out the right granularity, those projects tend to stall.

Created: 2015-04-17
Last modified: 2015-04-17