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Assignment 3


Mentoring Scenarios


Excerpts from "Report of the APS Task Force in Ethics Education" April 2006

Title: Mentoring Scenario 1

Keywords: mentoring

Description of the Problem: You enter graduate school with two full years of support from a fellowship awarded by your undergraduate institution. You easily find a faculty member to work with. At the end of the second year, the faculty member tells you that she will not be your thesis advisor.

Question: What should you do?

Discussion: At this point, all you can do is find a new advisor. Going back in time, the mistake you made was to assume that the person who took your first two years of free research availability would automatically supervise your thesis work. If you have this kind of support, be very sure of the continuation of the research relationship once the support is gone.

 Additional Questions: Was the behavior of this faculty member ethical? Why or why not? How is the behavior of this professor different from the assistant professor in Scenario 6? Can you design a faculty scenario for this situation that would make her behavior ethical? What should be the response of the department to this situation?

Title: Mentoring Scenario 2

Keywords: mentoring

Description of the Problem: You are a 3rd year graduate student working in theory. Your research professor has not provided you with a problem and seems uninterested in the work you are doing on your own.

Question: What should you do?

Discussion: The point to be established is whether or not the faculty member is serious about supervising your thesis research. Opening a discussion of possible thesis topics is one way of assessing the situation. Either the discussion will lead to a narrowing of thesis possibilities or it will become clear that no thesis will result. Either way you are ahead because you will have not wasted more time. Additional Questions: What commitments were made to this student when she was accepted as a thesis student? Are the problems the student is working on interesting or is she wasting her time? What kind of supervision should a graduate student expect from a thesis advisor? Should a student expect substantive and appropriate help from an advisor or are there different supervision styles, all of which are appropriate?

Title: Mentoring Scenario 3

Keywords: mentoring


Description of the Problem (from the student point of view) You are a second year graduate student in physics and have just failed the qualifier for the second time.

Question: What should you do?

Discussion: The most likely reason that you are failing the qualification exam is your background in undergraduate physics. Some students, as undergraduates, do not acquire the physics framework that would support graduate work in physics. They could have been simply very good at passing exams but did not assimilate the material, or their exposure to advanced undergraduate physics might have been deficient. All possible remedies start with a discussion with the graduate program head. Once you have admitted your problems the possible remedies  might include grading in the advanced undergrad physics courses or simply sitting in on undergrad courses for no credit.

Description of the Problem: (from the point of view of the graduate program chair) Several graduate students in the program have just failed the qualifier for the second time.

Question: What should you do?

Discussion: Students accepted for graduate study in US institutions are not dumb. If a student is failing the qualifier, you should find out why. A discussion with the student and with the student’s teachers is a necessary part of the process.

Points that an outside observer might raise: Should the program chair or counselors be aware of the classroom performance of graduate students before they take the qualifier and arrange appropriate counseling and learning opportunities to insure success? What kind of counseling was offered to the students after their first failure? What is the attrition rate for graduate students in this department? Some institutions do not have a qualification exam. Are their students less able than yours? Is the success rate of their students as professional scientists less than the  success rate of yours? This scenario opens up the question of whether a program uses exams to weed people out. When I was applying to graduate school, some programs had the reputation for intentionally accepting more students than would pass the qualifier or comprehensive because they needed the TAs.

Title: Mentoring Scenario 4

Keywords: mentoring

Description of the Problem: You are a minority graduate student studying at a good University. You are having trouble with your graduate coursework because your undergraduate institutiondid not  offer intensive courses in some upper level physics areas. Your first term grades were marginal. During the second term, the faculty member in charge of the graduate program asks you to attend a physics meeting aimed at minority scientists to help the department recruit new minority graduate students. You are flattered but are worried about missing class work.

Question: What should you do?

Discussion: This may be an opportunity to open a discussion with the graduate program head about your difficulties. A straightforward admission of your problems and your worries about missing class might lead to mentoring opportunities that will help you in your classes. If the graduate chair is not approachable, then a similar discussion with your professors might also provide some positive benefits.

Points that an outside observer might raise: Is attending the meeting an appropriate (ethical) request to make to this student? If a student were worried about classroom performance, would he or she be afraid to refuse the request of his program chair? Is there a better way to recruit students to attend meetings of this type than targeting individual students? Have the graduate counselors in the department worked with this student in planning an appropriate program? If the graduate chair is not viewed as approachable by the student, why not? It is not always easy to confront personality issues in a department, but one way or another a department needs to make advisors or program coordinators available that students feel able to talk to.

Title: Mentoring Scenario 5

Keywords: mentoring

Description of the Problem: You are a student from a very small undergraduate institution, accepted for graduate study in a prestigious university. Your first year is covered by a scholarship. When you arrive, your advisors place you in the standard first year graduate classes. You have doubts about your background.

Question: What should you do?

Discussion: There are several factors to consider in this scenario. The first is the courses that you elect to take during your first term. Your options are: accept the placement because you don’t want people to think you can’t handle the graduate work. Insist on taking some advanced undergraduate courses your first term to check your preparation. Try a combination of graduate and undergraduate classes, focusing the undergraduate work in areas where you doubt your preparation. Which option you pick depends on your preparation. It is important to realize that you are in charge of what happens to you. Two of the ethical concerns in mentoring are recruiting students under false or incomplete pretenses and making sure that student responsibilities are substantive and appropriate. The questions an outside observer could raise regarding the departmental behavior are: When this student was accepted, did the admissions committee discuss her deficient background? Why was she accepted with a poor background? Is the student a member of a minority group and the acceptance tokenism? The student was given a scholarship. Was this recognition of her need to spend more time on class work than others? Is this department being pushed by the institution to enroll more under-represented students? Do the first year counselors regard the students they counsel as individuals to help or as a burdensome service assignment? This scenario is   challenging in that it represents an aspect of advising fairly realistically. How do we know if student is under-prepared?

Title: Mentoring Scenario 6

Keywords: mentoring

Description of the Problem: (from the graduate student perspective): You are a 3rd year graduate student working for a faculty member you believe will chair your thesis committee. Two weeks before school begins in September, he tells you that he can no longer be your thesis chairman. In order to be supported as a graduate student, you need to have a research mentor. Question: What should you do?

Discussion: The first thing you should do is immediately talk to the graduate program chair. Some departments have rules about amount of notice faculty research mentors have to provide graduate students before cutting them loose. What you should not do is choose a research advisor on the rebound simply to remain in good standing. This particular problem may not have an easy solution as finding a good thesis advisor requires time. You may have to seek funding outside of your department until your situation is regularized. The second thing you should do then, if the graduate chair cannot help, is look for other support in institutional bridging and support programs that need teachers with a science background. One term of this kind of support will give you the time you need to reestablish a research relationship.

Description of the Problem: (from the perspective of an untenured Assistant Professor) In January, a student approached you to be his thesis advisor and you agreed. During the subsequent semester you found that he was taking more of your time then you were really able to give. He was not at a point where he could effectively contribute to any of the calculations that you had in hand. He would frequently give you his own calculations for comment and, because of other time constraints; you usually were not able to read them in a timely way. While you would have preferred a student with more independence, you thought that the situation might improve over time. In May, a senior colleague in your group left and his advanced graduate student opted to stay at your University rather than accompany your colleague. You were pressured by your department to take this student. As the summer progressed, it became clear that you could not effectively deal with both students and do all of the research that was needed in order to present a good tenure profile. Your options seem to be to cut the first student loose or to keep both students,

Question: What should you do?

Discussion: One of the ethical concerns in mentoring is the recruiting of students under false or  incomplete pretenses. In this case, the student was not recruited by the faculty member but was accepted as a thesis student. While there was no “pretense” initially involved, there could be a developing element of dishonesty if the student is not informed about the evolving situation. The two levels of ethical concern in this scenario are the decision to be made by the faculty member and the behavior of the department. Points that the faculty member might consider: What commitments did you make to the younger  student? Did you discuss a timeline toward a degree? Was this student given any indications that you were considering dropping your commitment to thesis supervision? Did your department behave fairly (ethically) in pressuring you to take the second student? Were you promised any extra resources for accepting her? Were you told that it would help your tenure? As the situation deteriorated, did you discuss the problem with your department chair? Points that an outside observer might raise: Does this department have a strong commitment to developing graduate students into professional physicists? What is the attrition rate for graduate students in this department? Does this department have a strong commitment to helping assistant professors achieve tenure? Was it ethical to pressure the faculty member to accept the second student? What kind of pressure was applied? Was the treatment of the student by the department after he was terminated fair? It is true that, once the student had no thesis supervisor, he was not a student in good standing. When the student was recruited for this graduate program, what kind of assurances was he given about departmental support? Were these assurances honored when he was denied support after being terminated?

Title: Data Acquisition

Keywords: data handling, record keeping

Description of the Problem: You are a graduate student working in a lab where data is accumulated for the purposes of measuring the optical absorption of a variety of samples. For each sample there is a large data file stored on a computer in the lab. In reviewing a lab notebook from one of your predecessors in the lab and comparing that to data published by the lab, you find a gap. That is, some of the data that was published is not accounted for in the lab notebook. Furthermore, you are unable to locate the computer files for this missing data. You talk to a  fellow graduate student about this situation, and he tells you that you should be very concerned about the situation and that it should be reported.

Question: How should you proceed?

Discussion: First, it is useful to recognize that there may be several explanations for the “missing” data. Among these are: the missing data was acquired by someone else who maintained a separate lab notebook and stored computer files differently. The missing data was acquired by the same person who acquired the rest of the data, but for some reason the records were not maintained in the same fashion. The missing data in fact never existed. Of these three possibilities, only the third involves serious misconduct, while the other two possibilities involve problems in record keeping. Given the information you have at this point, it is premature to conclude that misconduct has taken place. A logical place to begin is to find out if other people were involved in acquiring data for the publication in question. If you are unable to track down the missing data this way, you could ask your research advisor about it directly. It is more likely that this is just a record keeping problem, so avoid any questions that sound accusatory. If you are unable to resolve the matter at this level, you should talk to a carefully chosen, outside party. It is not necessarily wise  27 to talk to fellow graduate students about the issue. It is not clear that they will have the experience or perspective to assess the situation and you may unwittingly start unfounded rumors about your lab. You could consider talking to the department head if you think he or she is an objective third party. You could also talk to your institution’s Misconduct Policy Officer. Your institution’s research development office can provide contact information. Finally, it is worth noting that careful record keeping can help prevent misunderstandings. If someone else was had collected the missing data, a cross-reference in the two lab notebooks would have been helpful. Similarly, if one person accumulated all of the data but the  information was stored differently, that point should be noted in their lab book.

Title: Whistle Blowing

Keywords: whistle blowing    

Description of the Problem: A graduate student has been working in a lab for a year on what she hopes will be her Ph.D. dissertation research. She has been troubled for the last several months by the possibility that her advisor may be manipulating data used in his publications. This past week, she has just discovered what she believes to be incontrovertible evidence that some of his published data had in fact been fabricated.

Question: What should she do?

Discussion: First it is useful to remember that available (though not definitive) evidence  indicates that data fabrication is rare in physics, so while the student is likely in a position where she must take some action she should keep open the possibility that she has misinterpreted the situation. This comment, however, should not be used to justify looking the other way on the possibility that she is wrong. The question about the data needs to be resolved. If there is going to be a formal inquiry of this matter, then it will be very important to preserve as much physical evidence as possible. At some universities, lab notebooks and other relevant material are impounded immediately upon receipt of a formal allegation of research misconduct. Preserving the evidence makes it much easier to arrive at a definitive conclusion regarding the existence of misconduct or the grounds for full exoneration. With this in mind, any actions the student takes should be consistent with the goal of preserving the evidence. A formal inquiry into a misconduct allegation is kept confidential out of respect to both the accused and the accuser. Anything the student does prior to making a formal allegation should be consistent with this principle. This means that the student should not ask numerous people for their opinion on the matter, but rather advice should be sought from one or two trusted department members or from the university official who is likely to conduct the inquiry. Nearly every university has someone designated as their Misconduct Policy Officer (or a similar title) who has the responsibility for initiating inquiries in response to formal allegations. The student may well need to take her allegation to this official. While it is nice to try to handle things internally (for instance  working within the department), failed attempts at reaching an internal solution can make the inquiry much harder to pursue. For instance, an individual who is tipped off about a pending allegation by an attempt to resolve the issue internally has more time to cover his or her tracks and to alter or destroy physical evidence.

Title: Interface with the Public: Signing a Petition

Keywords: public affairs

Description of the Problem: In the 1980’s, President Ronald Reagan proposed building a missile defense system that would provide a defensive shield for the United States. The Strategic Defense Initiative was heavily funded, opening up research opportunities for physicists, engineers, and computer scientists among others. In 1985, a petition circulated among many physics departments in the U.S. It read in part:  We, the undersigned science and engineering faculty, believe that the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) program (commonly known as Star Wars) is ill conceived and dangerous…. Participation in SDI by individual researchers would lend their institution’s name to a program of dubious scientific validity, and give legitimacy to this program at a time when the involvement of prestigious research institutions is being sought to increase Congressional support…. Accordingly, as working scientists and engineers, we pledge neither to solicit nor accept SDI funds, and encourage others to join us in this refusal. We hope together to persuade the public and Congress not to support this deeply misguided and dangerous program. (I added an indentation here to make sure it is clear what has been quoted)

Question: Setting aside for a moment the specifics of SDI, under what circumstances is it appropriate to sign a petition such as this?

Discussion: It is important to recognize that a key motivation for this petition is communication to Congress and the general public by scientists and engineers of their stand on an issue. Had the point been merely to refuse SDI funding, that goal could have been accomplished in silence. Signing a petition such as this then raises ethical issues associated with how physicists communicate to others outside their community. How will signatures on this petition be  interpreted? Will they be interpreted as a statement of a political sentiment by a group of professionals or will they be interpreted as a statement of professional opinion on an issue of political significance? In the latter case, does signing the petition does that imply you have a certain level of knowledge and expertise in the area? To what extent is it sufficient to rely on the knowledge and expertise of others before deciding to sign this petition? At the same time, if you do believe that you are aware of reliable, relevant information in a debate over an issue of this importance, arguably you have an obligation to actively seek to share that information with others.

It is also worth considering the issue of trust. Complex societies function in part based on the trust we have for people in their area of expertise. Physicists can continue to have a positive impact on society and continue to receive support from society provided they maintain the trust of society. One aspect of maintaining this trust is making it clear when a statement is being made based primarily on scientific information about which one has some knowledge, and when a statement is being made based on political considerations. In the case study provided above, insufficient information has been provided in order to judge whether there is a scientific basis on which to sign the petition. More information is required. That in fact illustrates the point: one should not express an opinion that might be interpreted as an “expert opinion” without having acquired sufficient knowledge about the technical issues. A second issue presented by this case study relates to the promise not to solicit particular form of funding. Suppose you have kept up with the technical issues raised by the petition and you do feel sufficiently knowledgeable to sign it. If you are presently in a job situation that would not ordinarily give rise to your pursuing such funding, is it reasonable or is it misleading to sign the petition? For instance, if you are a beginning graduate student whose research is funded by the National Science Foundation through a grant held by your thesis advisor, there may be little need for you to apply for funding in the next few years. Is it misleading to sign a petition foreswearing the pursuit of SDI funds when you had no intention of pursuing any funding anyway?


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