Audio
Notes

3:40 – Christine asks Greg about the leadership aspect of his role as a professor. More specifically his approach to mentoring students and their professional development.

4:10 – Greg has 30 PhD students and currently has 8 PhD students and a postdoc. He talks about the real output of PhD programs being the people that we produce. The people go on to make an impact on the world. Publication impacts have a shorter timeframe than the people that you produce. He wants to produce the best people he can and prepare them to do what they want to do.

5:12 – Greg tries to figure out what is in the best interest of the student as quickly as he can. Not all of them know what that is the first day they arrive, but he works toward that understanding.

5:30 – Once you know what kind of future the student is aspiring to then you can tailor the PhD experience to their needs. Focusing the student on different objectives.

6:00 – This also allows you to play to the strengths of the student. You cannot assume that every PhD student that comes into your lab wants to be a miniature version of you. You can figure out the projects or the pieces of projects that make their eyes light up.

6:40 – If students are really engaged then productivity goes up. A career is only 4 years long so you cannot wait until year 3.5 to ask about the future. It is too late.

7:40 – Greg constantly looks for opportunities for students. This is simpler if you have funding from various places including industry and consulting firms.

8:30 – For students looking for postdocs you have to constantly ask your colleagues what their needs are to find placements for them.

9:00 – Matt asks Greg about developing relationships with companies. Is there an approach that he takes to working with the companies and developing those relationships so you do have those avenues open for the students that want to pursue those types of careers?

9:15 – The most obvious way is if you are getting funding from a company, you listen to them and they will tell you about their needs. For masters students they often are hired into consulting positions. Staying in touch with them and talk about your graduating students. Meetings and conferences are also key. Keep those connections open and cast a broad net to create opportunities.

11:15 – We ask Greg about the tricks of the trade for recruiting great graduate students into his group.

11:30 – Greg says that effective recruitment is the most difficult part of the job of being a professor. If you have any group bringing in the right people makes the job so much easier. The people that are there make or break what is is going on. The students are on the ground, the students are innovating, the students are pushing the path forward.

12:20 – Many new areas that Greg has gotten into has not been because he mandated it from a top down position. It has been because the student has been working on something and then suggests a new path forward.

12:50 – Student recruitment varies by institute. Carnegie Mellon is a well-known place and therefore does not lack for applications. He knows other places struggle. But like finding positions for students you have to cast a broad net. You want to be out there and asking about undergraduates and masters students that are looking for positions. He always asks, “who do you got that is coming up or applying for graduate school soon?”

13:40 – Always judge the poster competition. It is a great source of future students.

15:03 – When you have applicants come to visit how do you select? Greg looks for three things: Intellectual curiosity, intelligence and alignment.

15:30 – Intellectual curious people just want to understand how the process works. They are driven by uncovering new information. Students with deep intellectual curiosity have excelled. There is a continuum of intellectual curiosity, but the more the better.

16:10 – Smart people can be taught skills. He cannot teach intelligence. Looking for smart and sharp people. However, someone who is a super hard worker can make up for the difference with more intelligent people.

17:05 – Alignment you want people in your group that are diverse but like minded in the way they interact with each other. In the ideal world his group is all his kids and they get along and don’t fight.

18:00 – Students often self-select. They show up for the interview and everything is right about their qualities, but they realize that the environment is not right for them. He used to get upset about losing students, but then he realized that students need to find and feel like they are a good fit.

18:50 – You don’t control everything about the recruitment process. You offer an opportunity and an environment to foster their pursuits, but sometimes it is not the right fit for them. Don’t get upset about it.

19:30 – He wishes looking back that he had not fretted so much over the recruitment part in the first phase of his faculty career. He gives an example of a student he recruited and her ultimate choice was totally out of his control.

21:00 – Christine asks Greg about how he handles students that might not end up being a fit after they have arrived and started a PhD program.

23:05 – In the past Greg has found people that are miserable down one path and then you switch them to another path that is aligned with their skills and excitement level. You might be able to find a better match that can serve your project. Sometimes you just cannot.

24:00 – Early in his career he had a masters student that was sensing leaks from pipelines. It just was not working. This student hated the laboratory. But it turned out there was another professor in the department that had something more aligned with the student’s interests. The project had more to do with data and data analysis. The student is a professor now.

25:20 – If you know something is not going to work out you have to be honest and cut the cord and things will work out for them in the long-run.

26:30 – If you ask the student sometimes it can be a relief for them to be more transparent about how they are not enjoying the experience of the PhD program. It’s a very hard decision to make, but in the end it can be what is best for both parties.

Full Transcript

[0:00] You can’t assume that every PhD student that is going to come into your lab is going to be exactly the same and want to be a little mini you.
Cuz they don’t usually most of them have their own agenda and they have their own needs they have their own vision and what their future is in once you figure out what that is,
and what they’re good at and what really motivates them then you play to their strengths.

[0:25] Welcome to helium podcast I’m Christine Ogilvie Hendren here with Matt Hotze.
Today’s episode we chat with Professor Greg Lowry Greg is the Walter J Blanco senior professor of civil and environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon University,
and he also serves among other roles as a deputy director of the center for the environmental implications of nanotechnology or CEINT.
Where I’ve been fortunate enough to work with him over the past six years he is obviously great at the science part and he’s one of those people who always delivers,
one of the reasons we specially wanted to talk with him here today is that he’s frankly just hilarious and he keeps it real and he is very intentional about how he approaches being a mentor of colleague and a researcher so
we thought people would really enjoy hearing from 

 

We’ve both worked with him I mean used you currently work with him and I was supposed to talk with Greg in the past,
we thought he would be a great guest for two big issues surrounding early career researcher struggles one is recruiting students what she says is the toughest part of the job.
In the second part is understanding what makes those who have achieved success like Greg successful.
So we divided our interview into two parts based on these needs and so in episode 15 which you’ll hear on this recording you’ll hear about how to build a research group through careful recruiting,
listening to students and letting go of what is out of your control and so this last part is key because.

[1:55] This doesn’t get discussed at the end of the episode but Greg does a great job of really summarizing the things that.
He’s learned to let go of because you don’t have complete control you are Professor you do have your own research group but you have to learn to let go of certain things that is an important part of this episode.

[2:14] Yeah I agree that part is so counter-intuitive when you’re handed the responsibility for an entire group how is it that there are parts of it that you set in motion and don’t handle yourself but Greg really talks about some practical advice for doing that.
Another unifying themes about our conversations with Greg was how important it is to just develop a constant questioning as a habit of mind and
how interconnected our success and really the success of our research overall is to asking questions about people all around us about what they need so you really get the sense from his conversation about how always asking
others are working on what do they need what is the fundamental question they’re interested in solving is really the Bedrock for identifying and capitalizing on opportunities.

[3:01] Right before we started recording so we we always talk to our guest before we start recording our episodes was asking us these very same questions about the podcast so he’s really living it out in every single corner is life.
Episode will be especially useful for those early career researchers just starting to build and recruit for the research group so if you’re in that position listen up to let’s get to our episode with Greg Lowery.

[3:29] Hey Greg I think this is our first conversation we’ve ever had that didn’t start with you saying what’s happening
since a recording I figured I shouldn’t get what’s happening what’s happening that we were joking before we started recording but we
I’ve had so many normal conversations it was it’s going to be hard to keep it on track it’s always just very fun so hopefully it sounds to our listeners like
they’re hanging out at a happy hour with us but we did do a little bit of thinking about what we wanted to talk to you about and so maybe I’ll just kind of Dive n does that work.

[4:08] Yep sounds good
either we’ve had the chance to work together for many years and over those years I have really taken note about the way that you look at the leadership aspect of your role as a professor and one thing we wanted to just kind of fun pack from you is just how you view your role in mentoring students and postdocs so
but it’s kind of philosophically how you feel responsible for their development professionally and then also just
systemically how do you put this in your practice of PhD students,
are we in in the 30s right now I’ve got eight currently a PhD Student Center and a postdoc.
If you think about what we do in our profession we write papers we get grants we do all those kinds of things right.

[4:59] The real output from from our research programs are the people that we produce.
People go off and have an impact on the world.
You know a publication has a certain lifetime it might have an impact and ended up in some X number of years and maybe you’ll get lucky and have a publication or two that has a long lasting impact but the thing that will have an impact on other people that you produce.

[5:25] So my personal approach to to the to the job of being a professor is to produce the best people I can in prepare them to do what they want to do.
So that’s that’s how I start I guess I I try to figure out as quickly as I can what is in the best interest of the student what is the pass,
the bay would like to pursue moving forward and not all of them know what that is the first day they arrived,
but I try to get there as quickly as I can because it’s going to,
it’s going to make a big difference in a lot of ways it is student wants to go off and be a professor,
then you’re going to push them to be very academic and produce highly academic papers you know be thorough be modeling Etc
if the person would like to go off to a government lab and work and would like to go and Industry maybe you do things that are slightly more applied prepare them to to work in that environment.
So if you figure that out in the earlier you figure that out the better and then it also allows you to play to the strengths of the student.

[6:29] So if you can’t assume that every piece you soon as you can come into your lab is going to be exactly the same and want to be a little mini you.
Cuz they don’t usually most of them have their own agenda and they have their own,
means they have their own vision of what their future is in once you figure out what that is and what they’re good at and what really motivates them then you play to their strengths.
Ain’t you can you talk about certain projects you talk about elements of projects and you kind of look at figure out when their eyes light up and you can see from the way they react to things that that excites them.
And milk later that strength go down that path with the project make it as attractive as possible for them and,
you’ll find that is there really engaged then the productivity it goes up and it also benefits them in the future so I try to talk to people talk to the students as soon as I can about their future
it okay to give you the maximum amount of time in a career cuz PT Cruiser short for.

[7:32] What is it four years long maybe five okay if you’re in wisner’s lab maybe 10.
You can’t wait until you’re three and a half 43.75 to say oh I would like to go work at a teaching University somewhere,
and then say Oh man maybe we should have had you teach a class for yourself to get your resume in order so the sooner you can,
the student and you can sort of figure out what’s the right fit for them that gives you the most amount of time to prepare them in practice.

[8:07] I’m constantly looking for opportunities for students.
Yeah I got a I got a few that are going to be graduating soon as I get funding from various places including companies and,
the students are looking for a corporate jobs I’m always kind of wondering I talking to the corporate people and say hey and I’ve got the student coming out if the student I know wants to be an academic and they’re closed.
Add a student just
just last week while four of them actually went to the synchrotron and and one of them is going to graduate soon so connected her with some of the synchrotron scientists about maybe post office there at Stanford and at the srl or in one of the Department’s there,
I know a lot of people in the field right I most professors are fairly well connected cuz it’s a small community and you know who’s looking for students you know who’s looking for postdocs you know what skills people might need
and as dumb as you’re asking your colleagues the what their needs are you can always find homes for our students especially ones looking for post office.

[9:11] Philosophically my job is to get the student where they need to be in the long run and if you keep that mindset everything should work out okay.

[9:22] I kind of wanted to follow up on on one thing that you said about developing relationships with these companies because I think that’s probably the more difficult jump right so is there a an approach that you take two.

[9:36] Working with the companies developing those relationships so that you do have those Avenues open for the students that are interested in those careers.
There’s a few ways you can do that so you know what if you’re getting funding from from a company that you obviously have some connections there and then you just listen to them and they’ll tell you what their needs are,
there’s other ways to write we we have a lot of Master students that go through our program,
and if they get as they get hired into some of these Consulting positions you can stay in touch with them,
and reach out to them and say hey how you know I’ve got a student graduating in there looking for a role in your organization or a Consulting
tight roll what opportunities might exist.
So it’s I guess it’s a boy say that if we have connections through both Masters and PhD students that we used to place future students,
didn’t we go to meetings for conferences and various meetings we know people from from geosyntec in Arcata sand and from various consulting firms.
Keep those connections open with the intent of placing your students in the future.
Please. That’s how I’ve done it I’ve tried to test this broader than that and create a network is Broad of a network as I can to create opportunities.

[10:58] You know what I really like the theme across everything that you’re saying comes down to.
Just asking questions and asking people what they want and need and whether it’s the students the colleagues the company reps and I really like that.
Kind of approach just applied broadly just keep your ears open ask people what they want and need.

[11:20] So far it’s worked pretty well you know the students the students that I’ve had and impose taxes have all landed wealth.

[11:29] Sexually speaking of that that’s there’s a step before that right is actually bringing the post Dachshund and graduate students on board.
So related to this is the recruitment aspects right so what are the tricks of the trade that you have in terms of figuring out.
How to attract and select people for your group that fit.
Kind of you know you’re you’re looking to serve them but also there’s obviously a a symbiotic relationship so you’re you’re trying to figure out what’s going to work for your group and your research.

[12:04] That is the hardest part of this job is true of almost any industry right if you if you have a business or you have company.
Hiring the right people makes the job easier and makes the company better and makes the whole process that are a research group is no different.
It doesn’t matter if your group has two people in it or 22 people in it the people that are there make-or-break what’s going on.
Professor is actually no better than than the students that that they’re advising.
And that’s because you’re the students are on the ground students are innovating the students are pushing the path forward.
So the better soon shoot you choose the better your research will go know a lot of the things that I’ve done and gotten into as has not been because if it is not in top down it’s not open because I said
go to this,
it’s been because the student has been working on something and said hey you know I ran across this this looks like an interesting approach maybe we should try looking at that and then there’s some discussions about the Passover to whether it makes sense that the students drive a lot of.

[13:16] So what your question was how do we get students in the door,
I think it varies by Institute so Carnegie Mellon a pretty well-known place and we actually get lots of a great applicants we get more applicants and then we can bring in
I know other universities struggle with getting applications in the door,
but their likes like with finding positions for students you got a cast abroad Nat you want him to be out there you want to ask your colleagues,
do you have anybody graduate do you have any undergrads or Master students that are good and are looking for positions and anytime I go to a conference or a meeting or give a seminar at a university,
I asked,
Krieger do you got that’s coming up who do you guys it’s going to be going to be a client who do you want to apply so we can say I was just in a meeting last week in Washington DC.
And I was jealous judging cultures for the poster competition cuz I and I like to see what the students can do.

[14:12] And this one student was very energetic and she was actually one of the one of the best ones that I was talking with,
it turns out after I just assumed she was a PhD student and then she tells me a while I’m just an undergrad I’m just an undergrad.
Nice and right away I was like hey are you thinking about grad school are you thinking about a master’s or Ph.D now Buffalo is not too far from Pittsburgh maybe we can call me
if you’re looking for grad schools so that’s that’s Again cast a wide net to ask people figure out what they’re looking for,
talk to your colleagues about who the best people coming through our,
and just always be on the hunt for people you can’t just wait to see what applications roll in the door you have to go after them and recruit.

[15:10] Yeah I like it’s not a passive process it’s it’s very much an active process and a good thing with her it sounds like she’s in a colder place in Pittsburgh so if she doesn’t have coming probably a little bit colder but it’s definitely snowing.
We can maybe recruiter here that would be great.
Okay then as far as like grad students at the end of the day you got you have all these applicants some that you recruited in through meetings or through other you know asking people some that have just apply to program.
And then the question is how do you select from them how do you figure out if someone’s going to be a good fit so so I look for a couple of things I think first and foremost for me is intellectual curiosity.

[15:55] I’m looking for students that want to know the answers to things.
Not the one that says I need a PC so I can check that box so that I can go on and do this job it’s I’m really looking for the one that says I just want to know how this works I just want to understand this process better.
In my experience the ones that had that intellectual that really deep intellectual curiosity have Excel.
And it’s very much aligned with with what we do at the University level so I think that’s a good thing that’s not to say that every student and there’s a Continuum of intellectual curiosity.

[16:39] When liquid smart people I want it really smart more people I I can teach.
I was just talking to someone about this not too long ago that I remember who that was but,
I can teach people skills I can teach people environmental chemistry I can teach people how to do you know lcms I can teach x-ray spectroscopy but I can’t.
You know it’s either there or it’s not there to eat soon you’re always kind of looking for someone who is is a really smart sharp person.
They’re the best ones to have in the lab for sure.

[17:15] Tell if you know someone who’s someone who is like a super hard worker can can probably make up for for someone who’s maybe less intelligent than the absolute top of the list,
the more intelligent the better cuz it’s hard to teach intelligent and then I think the I think the last thing is alignment you know you you know,
you want a diverse group in terms of of where they’re from in terms of gender etcetera.
But you want people in your group that are little bit like-minded in the way they interact with one another I think it makes things ghosts more smoothly.
In my ideal world my group are like all my kids and all my kids get along and don’t fight that would be the best way to feel about your your research,
let me know cause I have two kids and they fight all the time so so I might have my my research family fights sometimes to usually about who gets who gets the pipe headers and all that comes up
one thing that I found which is kind of thinking about this discussion with you guys and reflecting a little bit.
Is that students often self-select.

[18:29] So you know I might have a person that I that I’ve talked to you in a meeting that I recruit here they’re smart they’re intellectually curious they’ve got all those things about them they show up
and they didn’t they just realized that this is not the right environment for them that they are they’re not in alignment with the attitudes of the people that are in the group.
And they don’t come.

[18:50] And when I first got started in the back remember I was very upset when I couldn’t recruit a student there when they went and I lost them to Stanford or Berkeley and.
Then I realize you know it’s not it’s not only.
It’s not it’s not my decision. It’s their decision and they need to find them feel like they’re a good fit and if they don’t come.
They might not have worked out as as perfectly as you would have envisioned it to be anyway cuz they don’t quite fit in with the group but my main point is that.
You don’t control everything.
You you offer you offer an opportunity and you offer an environment to Foster yo there they’re their academic Pursuits.
And if that’s not the right fit for them Soviet and don’t get upset about that it’s just it’s just the way it is.

[19:44] That’s such good perspective.

[19:46] It takes a while to get to that perspective cuz when you know when you’re first getting up and running your like I need people I need good people I need to make them produce
in hindsight after a lot of your answers after that startup mode when you’re in the beginning of that s-curve and things start to get a little more steady state,
you can reflect on these kinds of things I wish I hadn’t fretted so much over the recruitment part in the first phase to its here’s a great example.

[20:17] Student student I really wanted here was great had an N assist tell the shift I thought was a perfect fit everything was good and she thought she was a perfect fit to the end of the day she cuz I’m not coming.
Wake up man why not go cuz my boyfriend got accepted at this place so we’re going there together okay,
totally out of my control where where the boyfriend goes right and has nothing to do with me I can’t get upset about that it’s it’s the choice of of the student and a wife Choice more than just a career choice,
don’t don’t sweat the stuff that’s out of your control
also makes me think of another angle of people who are at the beginning and I know how hard sometimes it is to find this mix of skills that you’re looking for and and maybe you haven’t honed your gut instincts yet so much when you’re choosing
students so I’m kind of wondering about.

[21:17] Digging a little bit into advice you might have when you realized you have maybe ended up with somebody that’s not a great fit on their end or your Ender both stand.
Either what are the different outcomes cuz I know that people spend some.
Serious emotional energy and turmoil and there is an issue and do you have some advice in the similar to the don’t fret about losing somebody that wasn’t a fit,
before they actually joined your group do you have advice for man I wish I would have realized that this is how you handle it when you end up in a situation where,
you don’t have a good.

[21:57] You’re asking if you have a student is in your group who’s gotten started but it turns out that maybe it’s not a great fit for or either.

[22:07] Yeah and student that you’ve now recruited and have started on a PC but it doesn’t look like it’s going to be a good experience or are either party.

[22:18] Yeah and I guess maybe kind of on the way to deciding if that’s the situation versus have you do just need to do the
the thing you talked about in answering earlier where you got to ask them what it is that makes them light up so it’s so how do you
prove that figure out if there’s something to make these red flags go away by better aligning them and then if it does.
Come to the point where you realize this isn’t a good fit do you have any kind of advice for people who are stuck in that spot.

[22:47] Yeah that’s that’s that’s always a hard situation when you when you got someone in there a year or year-and-a-half in and and you’re thinking cheese.
If this person stays for another two and a half years it’s going to be like pulling teeth to get any productivity and,
just because the person doesn’t like what they’re doing it is really hard to put yourself in the student use if if your,
it’s hard to earn a Ph.D right it’s a lot of work and you have to love it you have to be dedicated to it and if you can get yourself motivated and dedicated and excited.
Actually Brookdale performing everything that has to be done to get to the thesis and a defense would be almost impossible it just be miserable.
If you ask you got to keep asking those questions and if what I’ve done in the past as if I find someone he’s miserable down One path.
You know who like you put them in the laboratory and and Yuri and they just after six months are like I hate pipetting I hate love. Hate measuring stuff I hate calibrating answer this is killing me this is not going to work for me.
But maybe they’re excited by modeling stuff and they’re more of a remodeling type of make it like to get on the computer or they liked it to find information and consolidate information,
you might be able to find a match.
A product that can serve your project is most of these projects are funded by somebody or an entity that as an end goal in mind.

[24:17] Can you can find a different path for them but sometimes you just can’t.
And it’s not always bad so that I’ll give you an A in Antigo from very early in my career actually.
Probably only like my third year or something I had a student who already had a master’s degree came in I had them in the laboratory working what we were doing.
Kind of an interesting project on.
Figuring out how to send slow leaks from pipelines imagine that is like far removed from what I do now but that was something we were doing back then.
And it just wasn’t working this this person just really hated the laboratory.

[24:59] And we talked and he kept saying okay I’ll do it and then wouldn’t do it and it was just he just couldn’t get motivated to get an 11
tell Empire eventually just said after years have I said look this is this isn’t working out and he said yeah I think it’s not working out,
but it turned out that there was another professor in the department.
That had was looking for someone and had a project and he was interested in that project and of course I said.
But he’s a smart guy he’s got all the stuff going for him but he wasn’t it wasn’t working out for me he wasn’t for me in the lab.
Turns out this other professor of the project was modeling that wasn’t so much lab work and David had to do a data and some other things.
And he very much excelda. He’s a professor now so it worked out for him.
I guess the point of that long-winded story was that,
if you know something isn’t going to work out you just got to be honest and just like cut that cord.

[25:59] Because it is in the benefit of both parties and it will generally work out in the long run,
I’m going to give you another story in microwave actually only had to let go of three people ever after 18 years so selecting wisely as it is a good thing to do at the internet to go through this but if you have to
it’s a good idea so I had a student wants a different student now just struggled with a qualifying exam really had a hard time with a qualifying exam,
said okay well you can do it again second time still was struggling with the qualifying exam.
Can I sat down and finally decide to say look this isn’t working if you happy we’re going to fail you on your exam.
And are you know.
Call keep you for as long as you need to to move on and you know will not as long but semester or will finish out the year whatever I wasn’t just going to kick him out the door that week but,
the look on the students face was one of just shutter release.

[27:02] And then when the student started talking to me game very clear that this student really didn’t want to do a PhD at all with sort of being coerced a bit bye bye family to to do a PhD and was just happy that it was over.
So so again case where it’s a very hard decision to make but in the end it was absolutely the right decision.

[27:26] And it’s also the moral of all these stories are it can be a good decision and go with your gut if your gut’s telling me that this person isn’t working out and and you know,
where most of us are
err on the side of caution and we’re like optimistic about all we can do this we can make this work but if you’re if you’re giving all that up and it’s still not working.

[27:49] Don’t be afraid to cut that cord because it’s probably beneficial in the long run for for everybody at such,
important advice for people to hear I think especially early in their career and and also I like what it speaks to in terms of you kind of realizing the inherent power dynamics at play in Academia and saying that you’re taking it,
on yourself as the professor to set up that really open communication just okay this is this is all of our real lives here let’s not waste time let’s not be dishonest in kind of disrupting that.
Power Dynamic silence that can happen is is really useful for everybody for sure they couldn’t a conversation should never start,
with I have decided that you should not pursue a Ph.D that I think it went how do you how do you really feel about this,
you will find it that maybe it’s just they know it’s just not really what they want.
You’ve been listening to episode 15 of helium podcast the show notice episode can be found out www.com helium episode 15.

[29:08] Don’t forget that we have a fusion Friday newsletter,
you can find that newsletter by going to team helium. Coast podcast in scrolling to the bottom of the page.

[29:19] On the newsletter which we send out every week we distill the best tools books and resources for early-career researchers so please check that out.

[29:28] The music for this episode is from Michael Blake you can found him at M Blake music.com.

[29:36] Healing podcast is produced and edited by Christine Ogilvie hendren and Me Not O T.

[29:43] Join us in a couple weeks for episode 16 where we find out more from Greg about the reasons for his early Career Success.
Until next time you’re in tact be about more than your impact factor.