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Opportunities: Insubordination

I have a confession to make: I was not a very good graduate student. Although I was (and remain) on very good terms with my Ph.D. adviser, and I was reasonably productive during my 5 years at Stanford, I had a penchant for doing things that were beyond the scope of my role as a graduate student. I organized and ran the weekly journal club, co-led a major field trip to Central Europe and the Alps, and (worst of all) got involved in research outside of my thesis topic. I colored outside the lines.

My adviser, a truly gifted scientist and a generous and kind person, had his hands full with me. There were times when I know he despaired over my unwillingness to apply myself solely to my Ph.D. research. At one point, when it became known that I had presented a paper on a subject outside of my research at Stanford, I was even called to the office of the Department Chair for a discussion about my “priorities.”

I wanted to be a good graduate student. I wanted the approval and respect of my adviser. But when I found an opportunity to do something that I felt would have a big impact, I couldn’t help myself: I jumped on it.

The irony was that these “extracurricular” activities in graduate school were instrumental in helping me land a plum postdoc at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and a fellowship in Washington D.C.--and launching me on the exciting and fulfilling career that I have today. And the larger irony is that many successful scientists, engineers, and other professionals I have met over the years benefited enormously from similar moments of “insubordination.”

Disobedient child

Insubordination does not come easily to most people, especially in graduate school. At a very deep level, the Ph.D. process is one in which a grad student starts off in a sort of child-parent relationship with his or her advisers. First-year graduate students (especially if they come directly from an undergraduate program) often idolize their advisers and quickly learn to emulate their style of research, problem solving, and perspective on science. One adviser in my department created such a strong and distinctive culture that many of his grad students adopted many of his habits, recreational interests--even his manner of speech.

But the Ph.D. process is supposed to be about growth and maturation. The child-parent relationship is supposed to develop into a mentoring relationship and, ultimately, a relationship of professional colleagues. The culmination of the Ph.D. is supposed to be the creation of an independent and self-sufficient scientist who can continue to contribute to the scientific enterprise.

That’s the ideal. In reality, several factors tend to undermine the development of independence. One big obstacle is that, although an adviser is envisioned to be an Adviser/Teacher/Role-Model/Friend (that's the title of a guide to mentorship published by the National Academy of Sciences), your adviser is also your boss--the person who pays you--and, in the case of noncitizen graduate students, your visa sponsor. And even the most congenial relationship between adviser and advisee cannot mask the fact that the adviser has nearly ALL the power when it comes to conferring the Ph.D. degree and providing critical letters of reference to launch (or sink) a student’s career. In such an imbalanced environment, it is not at all surprising that graduate students quickly learn to do what they are told.

The vast majority of Ph.D.-adviser parents are generous and well-intentioned toward their graduate-student children. But because they also depend on their graduate students (and their postdocs even more) for the bulk of their lab’s productivity, their interests are served best when graduate students have their “noses to the grindstone.” Not coincidentally, advisers often convince themselves--and their graduate students--that the most promising path to a successful career is to work hard, do what you are told, and publish, publish, publish. Just like they have always done.

Surely, at least for a career in academia, this advice is spot on, right? Well, doing what you are told is certainly a way to learn things for the first time. But the goal of a Ph.D. education is to create an independent, self-sufficient scientist. Your advisers, if they are thoughtful and considerate, can help enormously along the way. But at the end, the science you do and the career you embark on is yours. Even if it is a “traditional” academic career, chances are your career experience will be dramatically different than that of your adviser-parent.

And most Ph.D. scientists and engineers don’t end up in academia. Most end up in industry or government, where a wide variety of nontechnical skills are so critical to career success that they are explicitly taught and sought after. For example, Google selects people who have demonstrated creativity, personal involvement, and initiative. Sometimes the only way to develop--and demonstrate--nontechnical skill is to engage in some activity that is outside the confines of your job as a research assistant.

To be fair, many research programs recognize that graduate students and postdocs need at least a little time at the margins to develop their intellectual independence. Some fellowships specify a portion of time that their fellows should engage in independent work. But this work is still envisioned to be science. Taking a course in financial modeling, organizing a leadership-development program, or volunteering for a political organization probably won't be seen as a legitimate use of such time. But such extracurricular activities help you develop critical nontechnical skills. They can also expand your network and connect you to people who will help your career.

A little disobedience is a good thing

Before going any further in this discussion, let me make it clear that I am not recommending that you ignore the wishes of your advisers, bosses, and teachers. Much of their advice will be useful and pertinent to the research environment you are in. Yet sooner or later, you’re going to have to start making your own decisions--about research and about your career--and sooner is better than later. Although advisers may care about you deeply, you are the one who has the most at stake. It’s your future.

In previous columns, I have mentioned the 80:10:10 rule--a choice piece of advice I got from a very successful alumna from my department. Her advice was to spend around 10% of one’s workweek solely focused on professional development. Clearly, with only 2 days per month to devote to something “extra,” you should be selective. It’s an investment of something precious: your time.

If you choose to embark on something that may put you crosswise with your adviser, follow the sage advice I received when I was very young:

  • Think carefully about what you want to gain before embarking on the project.
  • Be prepared to defend--respectfully--your decision if you are confronted about it.
  • Try not to get caught!

This advice came from my older sister.

You’re not insubordinate, you’re entrepreneurial!

As you know, one of the core themes of this column is entrepreneurialism: the principal of directing your career toward making an impact in the world. The best entrepreneurs are effective when working within the rules. But they also know when the rules need to be circumvented.

Comments, suggestions? Please send your feedback to our editor.


Peter Fiske

Peter Fiske is a Ph.D. scientist and co-founder of RAPT Industries, a technology company in Fremont, California. He is the author of Put Your Science to Work and co-author, with Dr. Geoff Davis, of a blog (at on science policy, economics, and educational initiatives that affect science employment. Fiske lives with his wife and two daughters in Oakland, California, and is a frequent lecturer on the subject of career development for scientists.

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