Graduating My First PhDs

It’s been far too long since I’ve written a blog post, but I think I have a good excuse: I’ve been focusing on getting tenure. It’s been a 5-year, assistant professor roller coaster ride. But the ride is nearly over. Weirdly, it feels like just yesterday, but also a lifetime ago, that I shared my experience during the job search, wrote my memoir of a first year assistant professor, and captured our first year in lab with a time-lapse camera. My tenure package is submitted and my external letter requests are out. Thankfully, my group has been very productive and we’ve published some really solid science. I’m optimistic about tenure and it is honestly a relief to have my portion of the process behind me.

My tenure timeline also coincides with the bittersweet experience of graduating my first PhD students. While I am not a fan of ceremonies for the sake of ceremonies, I can get behind the pomp and circumstance surrounding a PhD graduation. I sat through two different 3-hour graduation ceremonies, one for the College of Arts & Sciences and one for the College of Engineering, and it was worth it. It isn’t every day that you get to be a central part of a centuries-old tradition. I hooded my students, just as my advisor hooded me, and his advisor before him, in a chain that dates back to the earliest Ph.D.’s over 500 years ago. While the thesis defense is typically anticlimactic, the Ph.D. hooding ceremony has a formal grandiosity that’s well-earned following 5 years of dedicated effort.


I have mixed emotions about losing (err…graduating) my first students:

Pros:
• My students certainly earned their ‘Dr.’ title
• I’ve contributed the growth and development of some truly exceptional scientists and I look forward to seeing what they accomplish next
• I got to hood my first PhDs!
• I got to wear my most expensive outfit (hood + gown = ~$1,000)
• My lab now has room for more new students
• I have several new connections entering the academic and industrial communities
• It’s time. There isn’t much more they can learn from me
• Now that I have academic progeny, I’m more motivated to add my information to my graduate and postdoc advisors’ academic family trees

Cons:
• I lost fifteen years of combined practical lab knowledge in a weekend
• Now that they are especially good at writing papers, they are leaving
• I had more time with these students while creating our lab than I will probably have with any others. I am going to miss them
• I am not entirely sure that all of our instrument and account logins and passwords have been handed down
• They each have their own unique skills. While some of these skills will be replaced by new students, others are irreplaceable

 

In preparation for their departure I contemplated two questions:

1) How do I commemorate my students time in lab?

I really wanted to do something tangible and long lasting to commemorate their time in my group.

Approximately five years ago we started Photo Friday by sharing one photo of our research every week on our Twitter and Instagram accounts. Since then, my group has captured some truly remarkable images. One was selected as C&EN’s 2015 Chemistry in Pictures photo of the year. This included a spread in an issue of C&EN and a grand prize award of a DSLR camera.

My wife and I liked the photos so much that we decided to incorporate them into our home decor. We found an online printing company to create 8” x 12” metal prints of our favorite photos. The number of prints grew and below is a photo of our current collection.

Each photo has its own story. For example, the second photo down on the far right was included in the TOC image of our first corresponding author paper.

So, in a kind of wonderful but unintentional way, we happened upon a way to commemorate my students: we asked them to sign their work. On the back of their photo is I asked the students to write their name, signature, degree, and year of graduation.

2) How do I keep track of them after they leave FSU?

Two years ago, at the Fall 2016 ACS meeting, I organized a special symposium to celebrate the 75th birthday of my postdoc advisor, Thomas J. Meyer. The event included three days of presentations and a dinner for both the speakers and all Meyer group alumni (AKA The Meyer Mafia). Part of my organizing duties involved contacting and inviting as many alumni as I could find. Thankfully, Prof. Meyer’s secretary had an excel spread sheet containing over 150 names spanning more than four decades. While it was not comprehensive, and some of the email addresses and webpages had long-since died, the list was impressive and very helpful nonetheless. The symposium and birthday party were ultimately a huge success. The proceedings even helped populate a book, aptly titled The Ru(bpy)3 Legacy, commemorating Prof. Meyer’s impact on the research community and his students. The book also included a list of all his academic children and their current affiliations.

The symposium allowed me to meet, face-to-face, the people behind the papers I had read for years. It also made me very reflective. How was I going to keep track of my students? Over the course of 4 or 5 years you spend hundreds of hours in meetings together, exchange thousands of emails, and learn a hundred little details that you might not even recognize. For example, I can identify who’s about to enter my office based on the rhythm of the steps coming down the hallway. The advisor / student relationship can sometimes be a love-hate but hopefully it is still deeply rooted in mutual respect. And while we (mentors/advisors/professors) don’t always show the impact students have on us (I for one am an emotionless robot) the bonds of a quality mentor-mentee relationship run deep.

It is for this reason that I am going to do my best to collect private email addresses and current affiliations. My hope now is that they will continue to contact me and update me on their major milestones. It is always a pleasure to hear from Hanson Research Group undergraduates who’ve moved on (even though they have only been gone for a few years). In the future I will look forward to hearing from my newly minted PhD students too.

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