The Bottom Third

08 Apr 2020 Gregory J. Stein

When I first arrived at graduate school, one of my professors shared his experiences on managing students. He told us that his students tend to fall into three bins of roughly equal measure: one third of students earn their keep, one third don’t, and a final third produce enough work to fund both themselves and the underperformers. The implication was clear: Work hard and make sure you don’t end up in the bottom third.

My graduate school experience was in the sciences, in which my advisor was my boss and paid the bills. The social sciences have less direct management, but these lessons about effective management are no less important.

What has bothered me the most in the years since is the idea that these categories are fixed. That students who find themselves in the bottom third are stuck there. That the advisor is somehow abstracted away from how their students perform. How they treat underperforming students is what separates the good mentors from the bad.

Too many times, I have seen hard-working, brilliant students overlooked by their advisors because they didn’t show enough immediate progress. These students slowly receive less attention, despite often needing more, and their access to experimental resources wanes. Students who adapt quickly to graduate school or get lucky with an early project win favor, while the remaining students may not receive another chance to succeed. For advisors, this bottom third mentality is a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Mentorship is difficult. As educators and mentors, it is our responsibility to work to make sure that every student succeeds. Playing favorites isn’t always conscious, but good mentors look for other ways to engage with all their students and work with them to help them succeed. Here are some management lessons that good mentors keep in mind.

Different people may need different management styles to succeed. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to management. I have seen too many faculty manage as if every student was a cookie-cutter image of themselves. Yet everyone has different interests, different reasons for having pursued their career path, different strengths and weaknesses. Good advisors recognize that their students may need different levels of external pressure: while some students may need to meet multiple times a week, many are extremely productive for weeks at a time without supervision.

Even if students are managed differently, it is important that different standards do not apply to different people. Particularly in an academic environment, it is important to ensure that criteria for completing degree requirements or passing classes be clearly defined.

A lack of early success does not imply a lack of future success. I changed fields before earning my PhD. I was helpful enough to other students in the lab, but, for a while, I didn’t have the domain-specific knowledge to make independent progress towards my independent research goals. Some students take longer to spin up than others.

Burnout is different from laziness. Sometimes, burnout happens. It’s not great, and we should do what we can to identify the signs of burnout. Everyone needs downtime. Constant sprinting towards deadlines and not taking time to rest and recover creates incredible stress, and we all react to stress in different ways. It is important to ensure that students have guilt-free time to relax.

Changing labs/managers/jobs is not a sign of failure. We are imperfect. Even the best advisors have trouble managing some students. All of us—advisors and students—should be willing to have an open conversation about what’s not working. I changed advisors during my PhD; the lab’s research was simply not what I wanted to work on for the next four or five years. Too many friends of mine didn’t listen to that voice in their heads, and struggled through much of their PhD as a result. Advisors should make the option of switching to another lab clear, but do so without pressuring the student.

The book Difficult Conversations is a great resource for “how to discuss what matters most.”

As always, I welcome your thoughts in the comments below and on Hacker News.