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Careers Café

The first step to grad students’ independence


As I approach my annual summer vacation weeks, I am feeling a variety of emotions that I am starting to associate with this time of year … none of which include the anticipation, relaxation, excitement, or relief that one might expect. Instead, I find myself vacillating between panic, concern, and guilt about leaving my graduate students alone for a few weeks. How can they possibly make it without me?! Somehow, it seems just a little like how I felt when I dropped my daughter off for summer camp.

In reality, I know from experience that 95 percent of the time, everything works out just fine. I do leave my email address and phone number with our administrative assistant, for those few real emergencies, and who acts as a bit of a filter for me. That way I know that if there really is a serious issue, I am accessible, but that students who suddenly need to know how to interpret statistical interactions right now might be gently encouraged to seek out other sources of knowledge.

In the first summer during which I was supervising several students, I made sure I didn’t take any vacation time until after they had all left the field. This turned out to be quite unnecessary, and I ended up twiddling my thumbs a bit during an inconvenient time of year. So, since then I have taken the plunge and just scheduled vacation time when appropriate, as long as my students have been in the field for at least two months… long enough for training to be completed, and for all those inevitable difficulties and disputes that are associated with field work to emerge and be dealt with.

In previous blog posts I’ve made the analogy that raising grad students is a bit like raising teenagers. Leaving grad students on their own for a few weeks is a bit like leaving teenagers alone in the house for the first time … figuratively, they are either going to step up to the plate and clean the house, or have a bunch of keg parties and trash the place. With teenagers, and grad students, you simply can’t be there all the time. At some point you just need to trust that you’ve laid the foundations for responsible behaviour, and that their training and education will allow them to stand on their own as the constructive, educated adults that they are.

There are some steps that I take to make sure students are likely to succeed in their field work, alone, for a few weeks. Training is thorough and takes place well in advance of my vacation time. All students in the field have committee members that they have met, and thus they have another source of feedback for those emergency statistical analysis questions. Less experienced Masters students are usually paired with more experienced students, PhD students, or project managers, who can help solve a myriad of simpler problems on a daily basis.

While I strongly recommend that professors disconnect completely during their vacation – after all, it isn’t going to do your grad students any good if you have a nervous breakdown due to constant overwork, and thus your taking a real break from it all is in everyone’s best interests (and anyway, sand really isn’t good for laptops) – I admit that I am failing in this goal this year. I do feel like I have too many students with upcoming hard deadlines, and too many students in the middle of challenging field work situations, to follow through with my previous policy of never checking my email during vacations. I may have mentioned to 1… 2… ok, 6 or 7 students that I will keep in touch while I’m away from the office.

I’ll have to evaluate how problematic that really is after this summer. But in the interests of my sanity, and of my long-suffering husband, I will restrict my use of email to just one or two days a week, and I will hide my laptop from myself the rest of the time. Ok, I admit it… I might have to ask my husband hide it from me. I just don’t have that much willpower. But, I know that if I make this a proper break, I will be rejuvenated and enthusiastic when I return… and that’s going to be in everyone’s best interests in the long run.

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