My ideal student, or Cultural conflicts

My lab is a small lab. I don’t have any graduate students, postdocs, or research technicians. I have me and a handful of students. Two undergraduates and one medical student. They undergrads are due to graduate this year. The medical student is a 2nd year and will be moving on soon for her 3rd and 4th year clinical rotations. That means I have to replace all three of them. I’ve been giving some thought to how I will do this.

I have some experience now in the process. My experience supports the hypothesis that there is no fool proof method. I can interview a lot of students, I can put out an announcement on a board, I can only go with word-of-mouth. Most of the time I get pretty good students. Once in a while I get a great one. Once in a while I get a bad apple. Knowing that no matter how thoroughly I investigate the applicants, I might get a bad one anyway frees me up to just do as good a job as I can and make the best decision I can.

Usually there’s a few that are obviously not a good match. You might think it’s because the person is such a low achiever that I just throw out the application. But more often it’s because the person is such a high achiever. With several scholarships, awards, activities, and offices held, I don’t see how such a student has time to be a research assistant, or how that student would be motivated to do it. The overachieving student doesn’t need the research experience because her resume is packed. So I tend to shy away from them. That would have made me very angry when I was a student, if someone took that approach and I found out about it. I was one of the overachievers.

In preparing for this upcoming round of interviews and selections, I wrote up a description of my ideal student. I’ve learned not to publicize all the characteristics of my ideal students, because they take them so literally. I only meant it is my ideal, not that these are requirements! Yes, my ideal student is in town over Christmas and spring break, but how likely am I to find someone like that? Not very, so go ahead and apply. If you are a better fit in other capacities I might take you over someone who never leaves Kirksville. To tell the truth you’d have to be a little bit weird to stay in town during all the vacations so I’d want that one anyway. (It is slightly possible that I don’t know what I want.)

I went ahead and pulled out all the plugs as I wrote up this description. It was for my eyes only, not a job posting, so I didn’t worry about saying things like “I prefer this kind of personality” or “I want someone who likes to bicycle”. I do prefer a somewhat outgoing personality, because it’s a bit of a struggle for me to connect with the reserved, shy ones. They make me feel loud and awkward. I love to talk about bicycling, so I can connect really easily with a student who likes to bicycle.

Of my three current students, one of them is quiet and bicycles, and I’ve connected well with him. The others aren’t as interested in bicycling, but they don’t mind hearing about it, and they aren’t shy, so I’ve connected pretty well with them too.

From this I concluded that it is important for me to feel like I have connected with the students. It puts me at ease around them, which lets me communicate with them much better. Regardless of the specifics–personality, or personal interests–the important thing is that I can connect with the student.

There was another trait that came out on my “for my eyes only” that troubled me quite a bit. I’ve worked with or around at least a dozen scientists from India/ Pakistan during my career. With very few exceptions, they’ve caused or had problems. I’ve heard horror stories from their labs, I’ve experienced the horror stories in their labs, I’ve had troubling interactions with the ones who were my peers. As I was writing this, I realized that my ideal student is probably not from India.

That bothered me. A lot.

It prompted me to ask why that is. Why do the Indian scientists have troubles in the US? Is it cultural? (Of course it is.) What is it about the culture? Is it something I could learn to work around? I started feeling curious about it. I thought, if I did take an Indian student, I would do it knowing that she would be a lot of work, that maybe I would learn more about the culture and where is the friction between that culture and ours. Maybe we would successfully figure out how it could work. Or maybe it wouldn’t work out, but I would have learned a lot.

In thinking about the many interactions I’ve had with Indians, some of them moderately uncomfortable and some of them explosively uncomfortable, I suddenly noticed a common theme. Indians (in general, it’s a big place and not uniform, anymore than US culture is uniform) value the need to save face. Saving face is very important to them, and they understand another person’s need to save face. In the US, honesty is valued more than saving face. Even if they knew the person was lying to save face, Indians won’t call them on it. Furthermore, they’d judge anyone harshly for calling someone on their face-saving dishonesty.

This is pretty hard to swallow for an American. We’re proud of taking each other to task. We like finding out and publicizing someone’s dishonesty. We like bringing someone down. (Again, generalizations. Obviously neither Indians nor Americans are a single culture or personality.)

Being able to see this cultural trait without judging it is really important if I want to understand how their culture interacts with mine. I can’t judge either culture. I can’t say that Indian culture is bad for prizing saving face above honesty, nor can I say that American culture is good for being honest. I can’t stop there, I have to look at how part of American honesty is this delight in crushing other people. I have to see how the Indian respect for saving face is a kindness to someone who has failed. But again, without judgment. Neither the American honesty nor the Indian saving face is bad or good. It is just how it is.

Now I’m nearly keen to take on an Indian student, to learn more about the cultural friction, to gain a deeper understanding of my own culture. That is one of the things I love about science. For all that the internationals are flooding the PhD job market, I love it because it’s a little like getting a study abroad experience without ever leaving Missouri.

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