In my last career column, I wrote about how mentors at different stages of their careers in academia approach time off for their interns, especially around the end of the year and vacations. In preparation for this article, I spoke with Kevin Struhl at Harvard Medical School. He’s been running a research lab for 40 years, and I thought his perspective deserved a separate column.
I admit it: what he had to say surprised me somewhat. I think his thoughts on how leave is handled today versus how it was handled in the past speaks to how the overall mentor-mentee relationship has changed over time.
Courtesy of Kevin Struhl
Kevin Struhl is the David Wesley Gaiser Professor of Biological Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology at Harvard Medical School.
Graduate Students: Employees or Independent Agents?
When I asked Struhl about his policy on time off with interns, his answer was simple: he doesn’t. “They do what they want,” he said. “It’s their life and their career. They can manage their time. I don’t pay much attention to when or how long they take off.
Although I was fortunate to have a graduate mentor who was also generous with time off, I know that is not always the case. I’ve seen graduate students and post-docs subtly (or outright) ashamed of having taken time off for whatever reason, or expected to make up for that time on the weekends. My own graduate program didn’t even have guaranteed annual leave for graduate students until my fourth year, which made it harder to take leave if a CP didn’t approve.
Struhl says the changing approach to free time drives a larger cultural shift that has occurred within academia in recent decades. When he was a graduate student, he says, it was a much more independent experience: your mentor or PI served as an advisor, but without as much structure and organization as there is now for graduate students. He said he would work like “a maniac” but also take long vacations, ranging from three to nine weeks, no problem.
“When I was a student and a postdoc, there was less emphasis on the employer-employee sentiment that exists now,” Struhl said. “I was responsible for my own projects, my own timelines and my own productivity.”
Struhl said he doesn’t feel like an employee as a graduate or postdoctoral student, so he doesn’t treat his interns like employees either. Instead, he said, he views them as independent agents. He helps guide and advise them but says he doesn’t feel like their boss. “They usually take my advice, but it’s not mandatory, and ultimately the decision is up to them,” he said.
He continued, “I think there’s a big philosophical problem here: if you’re an employee and your employer tells you what to do, you have to do it. If you are an independent agent, you can do your own thing and manage your own time. »
He thinks this shift partly explains why many PIs approach time off (and other aspects of the mentor-mentee relationship) with more structure, but it can also make it more difficult for interns to feel independent and independent. control their time and effort. .
Struhl said the difference with how NPs approach their relationships with their interns now is partly due to changing pressures. When he was in training, projects were generally more focused and less collaborative, he said. Most of his publications had only two authors: him and his PI. However, it is rare to see a publication with less than five authors.
“The collaborative side of research, where a lot of people are contributing to a given project, it really changes things,” he said. “Before, if you took off for two months, which I did after one of my biggest results, you only affected your own schedule and your own productivity. Now that’s not the case.
He also noted how this increase in collaboration has affected publishing. He said a biochemical or genetic paper could have been accepted for publication 10 years ago, but today editors want genetics, biochemistry and other disciplines combined into one paper, which usually involves several authors who depend on each other.
Additionally, he said the way IPs are assessed for grants and promotions has evolved.
“IPs are now a bit more at the mercy of the specific accomplishments of their interns than they were before,” he said. In particular, grant review committees prefer to see interns contributing to specific grant objectives rather than going in new directions. This can cause PIs to put more pressure and focus on their trainees to help ensure their own success.
Broader changes in the academic labor market have also influenced the evolution of mentor-mentee relationships.
“There’s a lot more competition now, and there aren’t as many college jobs, so people are going into graduate school and postdoctoral positions with a different mindset,” Struhl said.
Taken together, these factors – the emphasis on trainees as employees, increased collaboration, and competition for funding and jobs – have changed the way most IPs interact with their graduate and postdoctoral students. Sometimes it’s for the best, but sometimes it also comes with a stripping of the agency. I don’t want to portray this change as inherently good or bad, but I want to help interns realize that they need to be their own advocates. This extends to leave requests. So, if you are an intern, be sure to take the time you need at the end of this year.