Paul D. Heideman

                      Graduate Research Student Expectations


    I've written this description of my expectations of students because I want to make sure that all of us understand what we expect of each other when doing research in my laboratory.  One of the major reasons I'm here is my enjoyment in teaching people how to do science by doing real research projects with them, and in helping them develop a realistic and professional approach to scientific research.  This document provides a professional framework upon which we will interact, me as mentor and you as aspiring scientist.

    Most students enter a relationship with a thesis advisor without a clear idea of what they can expect, and without a clear idea of what it takes to succeed in science.  I've written this document to give you a clear view of what I would expect of you as a student, with some comments on the reasons for those expectations.

    My students tell me that this guide sounds harsh and inflexible, and that the reality of having me as a mentor and being in my lab is not.  I haven't toned these comments down because I want prospective graduate students to think through these issues carefully and soberly.  I'm hoping that you will read this and take it seriously, and then discuss with me the concerns or fears it almost certainly raises before making any decisions.  


   0.  Background
   1.  Goals
   2.  Time (yours and mine)
   3.  Ideas (Intellectual Property)
   4.  Data and Lab Notebooks
   5.  Conditions for Ending the Relationship
   6.  Professionalism
   7.  Credit
   8.  Animal Care
   9.  Equipment
  10. Mistakes in Experiments
  11. Safety
  12. Visitors to the Lab
  13. Borrowing Policy

    Graduate students and their mentors enter into a professional relationship.  While the goals of both are, on the surface, shared and straightforward, conflicts and misunderstandings are not unusual, even when the two relate to some extent as friends as well as mentor/student.   

    This document is an attempt to set out very clearly my views on the rights and responsibilities of both student and faculty member in order to minimize the occasional conflicts.  It also provides a format for working problems out, not necessarily to everyone's satisfaction, but in a form that is most acceptable (or least objectionable) to everyone.  My goal throughout is to be both realistic and reasonable.

    Reading this document should scare you a little.  It should make you feel that you are considering a difficult and challenging step.  It should not make you feel that I am unreasonable and absolutely rigid, and it should not make you feel taking on this challenge will be a miserable experience.  It should make you be clear about your special circumstances--if you know that you want to spend 20 hours a week on something that is personally valuable to you, we need to plan around your constraints (if possible).  You do not want to discover in your second year that I don't believe your time commitment can possibly let you meet your professional goal!  You should expect to be challenged in graduate school, and you should expect to stretch your limits.  If I let you perform at less than your best, I have done neither of us a favor.

    The terms under which I take on each student are different, and the expectations differ according to your goals.  Every graduate student is different, and I don't consider it either appropriate or fair to treat each graduate student identically.  In other words, I won't be very concerned about whether your project or the coursework I think you need is harder than that of another student of mine or another faculty member.  Instead, I will be concerned about whether your tasks are appropriate to your goals and my goals.

    The areas over which conflicts are, I think, most common are over use of time, degree of progress, money, and the source of ideas.  I am setting down my expectations and views here.  If you disagree, make that clear, and negotiate a different set of rules for yourself.  Since my memory is not perfect, I will require any modifications to these general or specific issues to be set out in writing in a letter or memo!

1. Goals
    Your reasons for entering our Master's program may include such things as getting into medical school, discovering whether you like research enough (and are good enough at research) to make it part of your career, becoming employable with your master's degree, and getting into a good Ph.D. program.  No matter why you entered the program, your major goal should be learning how to be a professional scientist, and my major task as a mentor is to help you learn how to be a professional scientist.
    Your reasons for wanting to get a master's degree with a thesis will affect how we should tailor your experience here to best meet your overall goals.  The most obvious part of my task is the provision of advice and direction on your thesis project.  That includes advice and direction in choosing a thesis project, doing a literature search for background information, designing experiments, analysis, and writing.  I will also help you learn how to give various types of informal and formal scientific presentations, and we may choose the types of presentations you learn based on the types of presentations you will be most likely to give in your career.  I will try to give you clear and specific advice on any aspect of science.  My emphasis will be on teaching you how to do science rather than on how to do your specific project.  In other words, you should leave my laboratory knowing exactly how to go about doing your next project, not knowing merely how to repeat your master's project.
    I will also offer you advice on how best to meet your goals.  If you need and want it, I will help you learn your personal strengths and weaknesses, and make suggestions on how to work around your weaknesses and take advantage of your strengths.  No one is perfect, and becoming a perfect scientist is an unattainable goal.  Part of my job is to help you learn yourself and your science well enough to be a competent scientist, with the skills and training to move on to the next phase of your career.
    Most of us have a tendency to feel that how hard we work or how hard we try should be a prime measure by which we are judged.  In fact, though, in science as in most of adult life, results matter.  If I am a miserable teacher and mentor, it doesn't really matter to my students whether I tried hard or not; they got the same wretched performance.  Thus, while I may be very sympathetic when your experiments aren't working, that won't do you much good.  You need to be aware that it matters that you plan and run your experiments as carefully as possible and as often as necessary to give you publishable results.  Although I may be free with advice, suggestions, and help on your thesis, the ultimate responsibility for completing your thesis and doing it well is yours!
    I will expect to write letters of recommendation for you (upon your request, of course).  I will want to write as positive a letter as possible (and honest), and you need to help me find good things to say about you.  Keep me aware of your successes, and get me to help you fix areas where you aren't successful.  You can share your insecurities with me (we all have them), but get me to help you develop a professional attitude which keeps your insecurities in their proper place.  You can trust me to write a professional letter of recommendation for you that discusses your skills and ability as positively (and honestly) as possible.  For example, if you want me to write in a letter that you consistently do more than I expect, then you have to make the effort (and make sure that I am aware of what you do).  Part of the message here is that you want to impress me as well as use me as a teacher.

2. Time
    The time commitment to research tends to be one of the most important issues for graduate students and mentors.  As long as I can see progress and accomplishments at a reasonable pace (meeting the goals you should be writing out for yourself, with a copy to me, each semester), I won't pay much attention to how you spend your time.  Ultimately, results matter, and if you can get things done with a very low time commitment, that's great!  Because most people struggle with the issue of research time, I've described my views here.
    I expect you to regard graduate school as at least a full time job.  Unless you take on a project with unusually heavy time commitments, I will expect you to take some vacation time, but I will also expect you to work during some/many/most academic year "vacations".  I regard two weeks of vacation a year as reasonable, three or four weeks is probably not.  I expect a typical graduate student to need to work on some, and perhaps many, weekends and evenings.
    I assume that a minimum work-week for a graduate student is 45 hours.  8-9 credit hours of non-research credit will take up a minimum of 20 hours each week.  Research will take up a minimum of 25 hours each week.  We can negotiate how much working as a TA adds to a minimum work week or takes time away from the minimum research commitment.  The minimum commitment of 25 hours per week is what I expect from you unless you negotiate something different.  Circumstances that legitimately modify this commitment include illness or, in the short term, personal emergencies.  I expect that time lost on a typical personal emergency (or short illness such as the flu) normally will be made up later.  
    You should not require or expect heavy supervision--I assume that you are developing your independence and maturity.  You should expect me to notice when you are having problems meeting your time commitments, and you should expect a response from me.  Failure to meet time commitments and deadlines is fairly common for students, and it is not good, but it is not a disaster.  It does not mean you can't make it in graduate school, and it does not mean that I will recommend that you leave my laboratory.  It does mean that we should meet to find a solution.  Being unable to find a solution is serious.  If we can't find a way for you to budget time to get your projects done, after significant time and effort devoted to finding ways to keep you progressing, then I will recommend, reluctantly, that you leave my laboratory.  If you aren't here, I can't train you.  
    To how much of my time do you have a right?  At present, I'm spending minima of 30+ hours a week teaching my courses, 8 hours a week in various meetings and appointments, 2 hours a week in seminars, 3 hours a week on correspondence, 6 hours a week advising undergraduate research, and additional time on research that is just my own.  I expect to accept about five-ten undergraduates and one or two graduate students doing work in the lab at any one time; more than that is impossible for me to handle.  All of this makes my minimum work week more than 50 hours; my average is above 60 hours.  (I have a personal life that I enjoy very much, and I would rather work the 35 hours or so a week that I did at the rare times when I got to set my own pace, but I can't do that and succeed at what I want to do.  Still, I enjoy this job a lot!)  
    I often work with my door open, and normally you can interrupt me with questions or to discuss a problem.  Appointments are sometimes more convenient, but I often prefer to deal with questions as they arise.  You should be aware that every interruption, no matter how minor, costs me at least 5 minutes, and usually more, while I refocus on my task.  You should think about whether a particular question merits an interruption or whether you might be able to wait until another, better, time with a series of questions.  You can call me at home for important questions, but should find me in the lab/office for questions that can wait.  If I find that you are interrupting more than I feel is appropriate, you can have confidence that I'll tell you and suggest ways to decide when you should interrupt me.  You have an absolute right to a minimum of one hour a week of my time, and it will be your responsibility to make sure that you get that time.  Be careful to use the time well.  Understand also that I may give you more of my time, and possibly much more at times, especially when I judge that you need it.  

3. Ideas (Intellectual Property)
    I consider ideas that come out of my laboratory to be my intellectual property unless we have agreed differently.  I have an imperfect memory, so if you regard an idea as yours, make sure that we agree and that we have that point in writing.  
    Papers resulting directly from your thesis work are yours, and you will probably be first author on at least one of them (most theses will probably produce a single paper).  If I have had a substantial role in producing the idea, designing the experiment, or (not and) writing up the manuscript, I will be a coauthor (which will be the case for almost all theses).  If I or another student played the major role in conducting the experiments and/or writing the manuscript, I or they will be the first author of the manuscript.  In other words, if you have not put in the majority of the intellectual/physical effort, you will not be first author of resulting publications.  Similarly, if you are unable or unwilling to finish your experiments or write them up for publication, I or another student may be first author on the resulting work.  If you cannot finish your work, you forfeit your rights to be first author, regardless of how much of the work or intellectual contribution was yours.  The rationale for this is simple.  In science, if you don't finish a project you might as well not have done it.  
    I will expect to see a complete, written draft of manuscripts for publication within six months of your departure.  Your thesis may or may not fulfill this requirement.  The maximum amount of time I consider reasonable to wait for a written draft is one year, and in some cases I may not be able to wait even six months.  Why does this matter?  Being able to complete analysis and writing at a reasonably rapid pace is a very important part of research, but that is only part of the issue.  Most of what we work on will need to be completed rapidly in order to allow continuing work in the area or to support a particular grant proposal.  Not getting things done jeopardizes projects and future grant support for the lab.
    As in many other issues, discussion is crucial.  Make sure that we communicate on these ideas and that areas of possible disagreement are in writing.  Before you leave the laboratory you should make sure that we have agreed, hopefully in writing, on a schedule for writing the paper(s) from your thesis.

4. Data and Lab Notebooks
    For each project, you should have a lab notebook that explains, logs, and documents (e.g., with shipping labels or invoices pasted in or photocopied, with the tags from research materials, etc.) your methods, your materials, your procedures, and all of your original data.  The lab notebook stays in the lab; I should be able to gain access to your lab notebook at any time.  You should keep photocopies of the lab manual for yourself (talk to me if this would involve hundreds of pages).  Electronic copies should also be backed up in at least one place in addition to your working copies.  One way to do that is to send me copies.

5. Conditions for Ending the Relationship
    There are times when the best thing for students and professors to do is give up on a student/mentor relationship that isn't working.  It should be rare, and it should happen only after a serious attempt has been made to solve the problems.  A general list of reasons for such action include:  (1) the professor cannot supply the intellectual or material resources necessary for a project, (2) the student cannot supply the personal interest, motivation, or time necessary for the project, (3) the student lacks necessary skills for the project and is unable (or unwilling) to acquire them, and (4) serious and insurmountable personality clashes.
    My procedure will always be to attempt to find some solution to the problem first.  Talk with me about these kinds of professional problems!  I assume that all of us struggle with these kinds of issues.  I see my primary role with you not as a judge, but as someone who can help you teach yourself how to be a scientist.  Once I agree that I can help you attain your professional goals, and that your goals are compatible with work in my laboratory, my job is not to attack you for having weaknesses, but to help you find ways to minimize the negative effects of your weaknesses.  However, if we can not find any solutions to a problem that I believe will make you fail to meet your goals, I will recommend that you leave my laboratory.  Please be aware that I might, conceivably, take this action even if you were only a month or less from finishing.  Failure to meet commitments, without adequate cause, is something that I will take seriously.
    These paragraphs should not make you nervous or paranoid.  Ask me at any time, and I will give you my assessment of your performance.  A good-faith effort in terms of time, responsibility, and productivity is what you need.

6. Professionalism
    Part of what I will expect you to learn or develop with me is an attitude of "professionalism".  How do I define professionalism?  I view professionalism as (1) taking responsibility for one's own actions and duties, (2) reasonable respect for and tolerance of other views, (3) a willingness to make reasonable compromises to meet shared goals, (4) a pleasant demeanor (real or false), (5) a focus on getting things accomplished, and (6) an ability to escape, avoid, or ignore petty arguments, bickering, and gossip.  Note that a professional relationship does not require friendship.  In fact, a good professional relationship should allow you to work reasonably well even with people you personally detest, or who detest you (although we all hope it never comes to that).  

    A professional manner carries us through periods of disagreement and difficulty with minimal strain and stress.  While a serious disagreement with a friend may make it impossible to continue any relationship with that friend, it normally shouldn't destroy a professional relationship.  A professional manner should allow you to get deeply angry with me or another coworker, yet not erupt into furious denunciation and accusation.  It should allow you to calmly think through a situation and discuss it with those involved as a problem to be solved.  It should allow you invite and accept reasonable criticism as constructive rather than destructive (criticism normally from a mentor or supervisor, but at times from coworkers as well).  As a mentor, I expect to offer honest judgments about professional abilities that I might never offer to a friend.  I expect also to ignore things that I consider irrelevant from a professional standpoint, including such things as specific political or religious views.

7. Credit
    Your project will fall somewhere on a gradient between entirely independent (your own idea, experimental design, analysis, and writing, with only supervision from me) and highly directed (my idea, design yours only in part or only with my detailed comments, my close supervision with detailed advice at all stages of the project).  You may work on your own on a smaller project or as part of a larger team on a bigger project.  In all cases, for academic credit I will expect your intellectual input into the project.  That means you will have to understand all phases of the project very well (including the literature), and you will have some unique and valuable intellectual contribution (in the form of an experimental design, the working out of an analytical method or technique, etc.) to some portion of the project.
    You may or may not receive technical help to do the physical labor of your project, either from me, another student, a friend, etc.  Obviously, projects differ, both in their importance and their needs.  I won't let you take on a project that I feel that you can't do, either alone or with the level of help I feel that I can offer.  If the project needs additional support, I will try to recruit other students or provide other help to make it work.  However, the ultimate responsibility for completing a project lies with you.  It is your responsibility to understand your project well enough (that is, very well indeed) to know whether it is feasible given the resources available.  
    I know that no two students are identical in ambition, resources, time, or abilities.  I attempt to supervise all students fairly, but I take those differences into account.  You will get credit for your efforts--greater independence, more time on a given project, or particularly good designs or projects, will be reflected in letters of recommendation and, hopefully, in results.  When you have questions or concerns about these issues, talk to me about them!  I regard discussion of these points as part of your training.
    When you discuss your project with others, either informally or as a formal presentation, you MUST give appropriate credit to others who shared in or did part of the work.  If someone helped with physical work, data analysis, etc., you must point that out!  If someone else (me, another student, etc.) did previous work, make that clear!  In other words, take credit only for what you did, intellectually and physically.  If the project is truly yours, you can (and often should) speak about it in the first person, but do make it clear where you had help.  For parts of a project that preceded your involvement, you can't say "we"; you should assign credit to the persons who did that work.

8. Animal Care

    Proper care of animals and concern for animal welfare is essential in any science that uses laboratory animals.  Mammals used as laboratory subjects must be treated so as to minimize discomfort, pain, and suffering to the maximum extent that is reasonable.  There are good guidelines for animal care and welfare available from virtually all scientific societies, as well as from the USDA and NIH, and I will expect you to become familiar with them.  
    I will take mistreatment of animals very seriously.  Gross negligence or deliberate mistreatment in animal care will be sufficient grounds for me to ask a student to leave my laboratory.
    The use of animals in laboratory research is an important ethical issue as well.  I expect students to think about the issues and develop their own sense of appropriate uses of animals in research and society.  I feel very strongly that research using animals is very important to society as a whole.  However, I view this as an issue in which there is no single clear "right" answer.  A legitimate goal of yours in the laboratory may be an exploration of the issue and discovery of whether you are comfortable with doing animal research (a separate issue from whether you believe that a particular type of research is appropriate).  This is a subject that you should feel free to discuss with me.

9. Equipment

    I don't expect you to be perfect; I expect that some students will make an occasional mistake while using equipment and cause damage to it.  I do expect you to use equipment with care.  I expect you to operate equipment only if you have learned how to operate it safely and without damaging it.  I expect you to take notes on the operation of equipment if you need notes, and I expect you to post them near the equipment if you need to.  I expect you to ask me how to operate equipment if you have forgotten, and I expect you to write down those instructions so you won't forget again.  I expect you to tell me if you think that there is even the slightest chance that you have damaged equipment.
    We all want the laboratory to operate smoothly and with a minimum of breakage.  To help us remember (and to reward those of us who cause the least damage), there will be penalties for misusing or damaging equipment.  The usual penalty for misusing equipment will be extra time at glassware washing or other cleanup jobs.  In addition, I will probably hold you responsible for the time required to clean up or replace a part.  
    Damage to equipment during normal use is something that I dislike but expect (though I want it to be as rare as possible), but damage due to gross negligence is not acceptable.  In other words, if you break something expensive during normal use, you might do extra glass washing, but that's all.  If, however, you forgot how to operate the equipment and decided to free up a supposedly stuck part by extreme brute force, or you brought a drunken friend into the lab and they broke the same piece of equipment, I would treat it far more seriously.  Truly serious damage to equipment due to gross negligence will be grounds for asking you to pay for repairs yourself and/or to stop working in my laboratory.  In other words, I can understand and accept occasional carelessness or an episode of clumsiness, but truly stupid behavior I regard as a serious obstacle to success in science.  
    Frequent clumsiness is also serious.  Though I won't blame you for being clumsy, I may, in extreme and rare cases, consider such clumsiness to be serious enough that I would recommend you choose an alternative scientific field or career.   A certain level of dexterity and care are absolutely required in all of the lab sciences.

10. Mistakes in Experiments
    Every scientist faces times when they suddenly realize either that an experiment that they deeply hoped would work has failed, or that some serious mistake they made has invalidated an experiment.  The proper reaction is to calm down, accept that result, and discuss it with collaborators (and/or mentor).  Those are hard things to do; it is never easy to accept an unpleasant result or a stupid mistake and report it to collaborators.  In fact, these are the conditions under which most scientific fraud begins.  Under the stresses usually felt at those times, it can be easy to rationalize a slight (or sometimes large) manipulation of the data to adjust for what we deeply hope is an anomaly.  That is the wrong response.  The correct response is to remain calm, and carefully record the data and/or circumstances underlying the mistake, in detail!  Think through the circumstances carefully, and try to evaluate the situation honestly to yourself.  Then discuss it with me as soon as possible.  My experience is that usually an apparent disaster is much less serious than it first appears, and that part or all of the experiment is often salvageable.  
    Please take this issue very seriously.  Falsification of data is the worst of scientific crimes.  In biomedical fields, falsification of data can lead to immense wastes of time and money, and even misdiagnosis or mistreatment of patients that might result in their death.  The penalties for scientific fraud are appropriately severe; I know two Ph.D.s who falsified data in single experiments, were discovered, and thereby abruptly destroyed their scientific career.  

11. Safety
    Safety is more important than anything else in the lab.  I expect you to learn and practice safe laboratory procedures.  You should learn the potential dangers of working in a laboratory, and I expect you to learn what to do in an emergency.  You should wear gloves and eye protection while handling chemicals (dangerous or not!).  I expect you to call my attention to dangerous spills, and to help clean them up if I judge that to be safe.  If you don't know whether or not a particular action is dangerous, then you shouldn't do it.
    Do not do anything unsafe in order to "save" an experiment.  I would rather have you (or me) lose a difficult experiment than have you put yourself at risk.

12. Visitors to the Lab
    Please check with me before bringing someone else into the laboratory for a visit, tour, etc.  I have seen experiments/equipment ruined because of an innocent mistake by an unaware visitor, including things as apparently innocuous as a distracting question during a difficult procedure.  In addition, some of the chemicals we handle are truly dangerous.  While you are aware of proper behavior, and have implicitly agreed to accept the risks, that is not true of a typical visitor.  I prefer to keep visits and tours to a minimum, but feel free to check with me if you want to show your parents or a close friend what you do in the lab.  

13. Borrowing Policy
    Don't borrow anything without permission, and, when you have permission don't remove anything from the lab (not even for Xeroxing downstairs) without leaving me a written note with your name, the title/name of the object, and the date.  If things disappear from the lab I will enforce this rigidly, and when things aren't disappearing from the lab I'll probably still enforce it rigidly.  I hate not having something when I need it!

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Last updated  28/2008
College of William and Mary, Department of Biology