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.
2. Time (yours and mine)
3. Ideas (Intellectual
4. Data and Lab Notebooks
for Ending the Relationship
8. Animal Care
10. Mistakes in Experiments
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!
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
[Biology Home Page]
Last updated 28/2008
College of William and Mary,
Department of Biology