Finishing with the Start in Mind

by grouperlab

Hmm, Caldwell, that’s not how the Stephen Covey Habit goes.  Yeah, I know…


It’s not that the summer has parboiled my brain — I’ve had several pleasant vacations and focused quite actively on the concept of taking time for myself and prioritizing my own relaxation and recovery.  And in fact, we talk a lot in the lab about the excitement of connections and possibilities that come from having a bold imagination.  However, the steps involved with getting from being a brand new grad student to a freshly minted PhD combine a bit of imagination (beginning with the end in mind) with a lot of perseverance (focusing on the next step).  It’s great to have a great goal and imagine all sorts of wonderful outcomes… but as the Taoist Lao Tzu said, the journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step, with a focus on the ground immediately below one’s feet.


As a systems engineer, I also think of the world as a set of nested feedback control systems.  This weekend, I am getting ready to complete the graduation ceremony with placing the doctoral hood on my new PhD GROUPER alumna Marissa Vallette.  The joy of the weekend also has me thinking very intently about how Marissa arrived into the lab.  In our exit interview a few weeks ago, that initial meeting was the source of a very rich conversation.  Every student is different, with a unique mix of strengths and weaknesses (“opportunities for additional development”).  Marissa is one of the ones who, by all accounts, is likely to want to organize your files, keep track of the calendar, and ask several times exactly what is meant by that correction in paragraph 5 on page 73.  (This is by no means a complaint.  Sometimes, when you’re working on a dissertation, that’s exactly what you need to focus on.  And I am indebted to Marissa for taking on the role of organizing the GROUPER lab calendar and several of our lab documents for two years.)  And, please recall, GROUPER works on a somewhat unusual recruitment and selection model: existing members of the lab are strongly engaged in interviewing and providing feedback on potential new members.


I am amused when people ask Marissa how she started in GROUPER.  One version of the answer is that BSC passed the interview.  Yes, she started with a list of questions for me (reproduced with permission from MAV):


  • On average, how many years does it take to graduate an M.S. and/or Ph.D. student?
  • How many M.S. and/or Ph.D. students have you graduated?
  • How many M.S. and/or Ph.D. students do you currently advise?
  • Are you tenured?
  • How do you incorporate your background (e.g., research, industry experience) to industrial engineering?
  • What other commitments do you have both on- and off-campus?
  • What is your advising style? For instance, is it guided or un-guided?
  • What is your availability? For instance, how quickly do you respond to e-mails? How frequently would I be able to meet with you one-on-one?
  • Aside from departmental requirements, what is your philosophy on selecting a committee (for an M.S. and/or Ph.D. defense)?
  • How do you run your research lab?
  • What are your/the lab’s current research interests?
  • What are your/the lab’s current research projects?
  • What, if any, are the requirements/expectations of your graduate students? For instance, do you require them to publish journal papers and/or attend conferences? Are there lab meetings?
  • What funding opportunities are available both inside and outside your research lab?


Overall, not a bad set of questions, and if you are a student who considers themselves in need of a bit more “active involvement” from their advisor, you really want to get answers to these questions.   I admit that I would have had trouble answering these questions as a brand new faculty member—both because I wouldn’t have had positive answers to many of the questions, and because I wouldn’t have been able to articulate my philosophy as well then.  But, as Marissa said, it was good that a) I did have answers to these questions, and b) that I didn’t mind her asking them.  I certainly want to have a good fit and ongoing relationship with my students, and it is definitely not the case that my students are all reproductions of me.  I want that sort of interaction, and a mutual agreement on goals and priorities, because it is that sort of agreement that helps manage the rough patches of the graduate experience.


In retrospect, she’s not even the first (or last) member of GROUPER to have interviewed me with such questions.  For the new crops of students about to start their graduate careers in the next few weeks, I would recommend that they come up with their own list of questions, for themselves and for a potential advisor.  In the long run, my grad students can be seen as “colleagues displaced in time” (a phrase I adopted some years ago to reflect my desire to have a strong professional relationship with GROUPERs as they continue on in their careers).  In the short term, I have an exceptionally powerful and controlling role and responsibility for their progress and completion.  That’s not boastful egotism.  That is a recognition of the way academia works in a doctoral-granting research program.  In all of the research conferences I’ve attended, one of the most frequent questions asked (sometimes just after “Where’d you go to grad school?” but sometimes even before that) is “Who was your advisor?”  Those relationships are vital, and can easily make the difference in your life for decades after you leave that grad lab for the last time.  So, I am quite pleased that I was able to have this time, on this graduation weekend, to reflect on lessons I got to learn with a brand new doctoral student and her questions at the beginning of her GROUPER program.