On Expectations

I am often asked by prospective graduate students what my “expectations” are for students joining my group.  I am always slightly bemused by this question, as it is not how I think about things.   The topic has also come up in recent efforts within my department (UW Madison Chemistry department) to improve our “climate” for graduate students, and relieve some of the anxiety and tension that some of the students feel in our graduate program.  Well-intentioned individuals have suggested that professors like myself should clearly lay out their expectations for graduate students, so that the graduate students know what they need to do to succeed, and to help to dispel the mist of confusion that seems to surround some of the professors expectations and attitudes.  This of course seems logical.

However, I am quite resistant to laying out “expectations” for my graduate students, or other graduate students, or in fact any students!  Here are some reasons for that.

First of all, I hope to help all of my students become excellent world-class scientists.   I don’t know of any excellent world-class scientists who are motivated by the guidelines or goals set for them by others.  Rather, all of the excellent world-class scientists that I know (and I am fortunate to know many!) are self-motivated, and driven by their own initiative and curiosity and energy.   I do not think this is remotely accidental… the creativity and curiousity that drive the best scientists and science are the engine that pushes science into new areas.   It cannot be mandated from above, it comes from within.   I feel that setting “expectations” is counter to what needs to be done to tickle stimulate and encourage curiousity and exploration in young scientists.   To me it encourages a “box-checking”, “job” mindset, rather than an “explorer”, “pioneer”mindset; and a “I am here to serve others” rather than a “I am here for myself” mindset.  Perhaps it seems egotistical to have your goal be “for yourself”; this may well be so, but egotistical or not, I do think that that sort of personal drive is what it takes to do important new science, and so that is what I want to encourage in my students.

What I really want to say to students when they ask me what my expectations are for them (and sometimes I do, although I recognize it can be a bit unsettling to be on the receiving end of this response), is “I have no expectations whatsoever for you… what are your expectations for yourself?”  This is actually true…  I do not have any expectations for new students, because I don’t think I have a very good ability to predict performance or behaviour of someone I have just met.  I do have hopes – my hope is that the student will thrive in graduate school, love science as much as I do, and find themselves overflowing with exciting and interesting projects goals and opportunities that set a strong foundation for a career of beautiful work exploring the unknown.  I want to establish a tone right out of the gates that they are not working for me, they are working for themselves, and what they have in my group is an opportunity to explore and grow and discover new things that they find interesting.   I also want them to know I am not going to babysit them… if they choose to never show up and do research, that is going to hurt their career a lot more than it hurts mine; so it is on them to decide what they want to do and why they want to do it, not on me.  I want them to see working with me and my group as an opportunity, not a job.  

For these reasons, and more, I believe I will continue to eschew clarity regarding expectations, and rather continue to strive for more of an uncomfortable ambiguity that encourages students to view themselves as their own bosses, creative and independent scientists in their own right, rather than as persons reporting to others, who will be tasked to accomplish designated objectives.  This ambiguity can be more uncomfortable than a set of defined expectations, but I think it is a better way to encourage the growth of first-rate independent thinkers.

- L. Smith, May 2019