Friday, May 20th 2016

Mentors and collaborators: when are you one, when are you the other?

In the sciences we’ve moved almost completely over to the model of the multi-paper dissertation. There are of course a number of advantages. Students can have a far more impressive CV for when they go on the job market if they already have publications, rather than if they are struggling to convert dissertation chapters into publications. Their advisors also often get a few more pubs to their name, which is helpful if they are pre-tenure or gearing up for a grant proposal. And it gives students some time while they are still students to be mentored on the art of the journal publication.

The challenge I see is in navigating the advisor’s dual role on student manuscripts as mentor and collaborator. Advisors generally make substantial intellectual contributions to student work, because it is a part of the training the student receives to become a researcher and a scientist. Advisors also have a lot more experience in the culture of academia, from the appropriate journals, to the way to word critiques, to how strongly one points out one’s own study limitations. But in my field at least, advisors are not the ultimate expert on that student’s dissertation: the student is. The student is the one who spent six years developing an idea and expertise, carrying out the research, and carving a niche for herself. Even when students are carving out their own space in a broader project of the advisor’s, they are the content experts and the advisors are often conceptual framework/theory/disciplinary experts. The goal of a PhD is to have your student know more than you by the time they defend.

So, when it comes time to write the papers, what is an advisor (or a dissertation committee, depending on how involved they are) to do?

The advisors could treat the manuscript like a dissertation and provide rounds and rounds of edits until it’s as they like it. They could use it as a chance to teach the student about formatting, and writing, and how to communicate best with colleagues. This seems like a good thing until it isn’t. This student is presumably first author and did all the work, and if the advisor is too heavy handed the student may become resistant to revisions, however good or correct they may be. The paper may stop feeling like the student’s, or they may grow to hate it, or they may just make changes to please their committee rather than the changes they feel are appropriate to the science.

Now, these are issues that can crop up with any form of collaborative writing. But power dynamics get tricky when the lead author is junior and the collaborators are all the people who will decide whether or not you get a PhD.

I don’t know that there is a perfect solution to this. But I have a few thoughts for those of us in the more powerful position:

  • As Paul Silvia argues in Write It Up, have the journal in mind before you write the paper (actually, he argues you should have the journal in mind before you even run the study!). This was a dissertation. It probably wasn’t well funded. It probably wasn’t perfect. It is still an important contribution that deserves to get out there, or else you wouldn’t be writing this paper with your student. So rather than try to make the paper a PNAS paper, determine what would be a journal that is an excellent fit for the topic and great for your student. Maybe in your own research you aim higher. If you force this paper follow your usual trajectory, it could lead to heartbreak for all parties.
  • If the lead author were a fellow faculty member (albeit a junior one), how would you handle your disagreements or edits? At what point would you let some things go? (Or maybe you’re the kind of collaborator who doesn’t let a single perspective or grammatical difference go anyone else’s way but your own. If that’s the case, remind me not to collaborate with you.)
  • As you would with a colleague, if a student is really obstinate and you are quite sure you are right, give the reviewers a chance to tell her. (I had this happen to me once, and it was quite humbling; I had this happen to a collaborator once and it was quite satisfying.)

You’ll notice what I’m advocating for here is a little bit of balance: a recognition of our expertise and role as mentors, but also the recognition that we are, when writing papers, collaborators. Our students may still have loads to learn from us (and we from them), but I imagine the way to create that optimal learning environment is to guide and lead rather than grind away.

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