From the unscientific files: favoritism
You should make sure to read this really interesting post at FSP about how to relate to students after they leave. There were 26 comments when I checked, and all of them made really good points about the student-adviser relationship.
I guess what bothers me about the whole friends/not-friends question that FSP poses (about whether it's unfair to relate to her former students differently) is this: the implication that she probably related to them differently when they were in the lab.
And obviously, how unscientific this all is. Maybe if our whole system weren't predicated on the assumption of advising, it would be okay? But since we all are still living with the Myth of Mentoring, allow me to elaborate (it is my blog, after all).
I know, we all try to be fair and all that. But let's be honest. Most of my problems with my postdoc adviser have to do with -isms. Which is to say, if I were one of the Blond Guys, I would probably be a favorite.
But since I'm not, I'm occasionally subjected to woman-specific advice.
Yes, in the moment it is offensive.
In the next moment, I move on.
But what stays with me is the implication of what this represents: a deep-seated bias that has influenced every single decision my adviser has made about my project or me.
Every step of the way, my work has been degraded simply because it was done by me.
Every step of the way, when I needed to be introduced to people at meetings, or otherwise advised, I was not. And yet, I've witnessed other people in the lab getting all kinds of mentoring.
And yet, maybe it's not such a bad thing to miss out on. The meager advice I did get was terrible, so I stopped seeking it out. More than once, I did something my adviser insisted upon, only to be told by reviewers or search committees to do the opposite. Sometimes with the admonition Who told you to do that? Get rid of it!
Maybe I'm less appreciative than most, because I was the teacher's pet more than once before I went to grad school.
The first time, I was pretty young. The other kids attacked me for it, and I didn't know why. I didn't even realize I was getting special attention! It was a traumatic and memorable introduction to the power and consequences of jealousy.
The second time, I was abused by the teacher, who had me doing her job while she was off with her boyfriend. But I worshiped her, and I loved the privilege of doing what she did. It wasn't until much later, when she didn't reciprocate by supporting me when I really needed it, that I realized how unprofessional and inappropriate she had been in taking advantage of my enthusiasm for the subject.
So while I have had other, really good advising relationships, these kinds of experiences have made me distrust advisers at worst, but even at best I am always wary of being the favorite - or being perceived by my peers as the favorite.
Generally my advisers alternate being harsh in private with being laudatory in public. This can include such twisted interpretations as lab meetings being "private" and recommendation letters being "public", or vice-versa, depending on the day.
I guess at the end of the day, I really would rather have an adviser or former adviser who was fair, competent, trustworthy and dependable than someone who
a) loved me but couldn't follow through when I needed their help (had a few of those)
b) someone who was perceived to be fair, spectacular and trustworthy but who hated me randomly (had one of those)
c) someone who was perceived to be competent and dependable but who proved to be completely unfair and untrustworthy (one of those is enough!)
I guess what I'm coming to in writing this is that in my experience, the ones who play favorites and try to rationalize it or deny it are unfair in more ways than one. Which makes them, at best, untrustworthy as advisers. And at worst, untrustworthy as scientists.
I hope FSP is not one of these Favoritists. She seems passionate about her science to a point where I have to suspect we have at least this one trait in common: the ability to be more annoyed when people get in the way of science, than the other way around.
But speaking of the other way around, I guess the other point of favorites is that scientists will often work on new things just because they want an excuse to work with friends. Or choose a thesis lab just because they like the adviser. Or choose not to take a talented student because the existing lab members don't like this person socially.
What scares me is that this is essentially the essence of the old-boys network. Women are starting to develop separate networks, which is good in some ways but maybe a little too "separate but equal" - which is not good. Maybe it's an intermediate step, I don't know. But the privileges awarded via friendship seem to be the major currency of our culture. Careers are made or lost based on these little back-pats and leg-ups. I know I forward job ads and coupon offers, not to my enemies, but to my friends. We all do. And we all do it at work, too.
You get the idea. I'm not sure how to take the friend factor out of science, but it's something I wish we could overcome.