When I was at the Ecology Meeting a couple of weeks ago, I actually spent great deal of time talking to graduate students and post-docs. One interaction in particular really hit home for me. A graduate student was seriously depressed about their advisor. Not necessarily shocking in and of itself, but the stories that began emanating from this student were eye-popping. I mean stories that would make the hair on your toes curl in horror. You might be wondering right now if this graduate student had interviewed with the advisor before accepting the position - and the answer is yes. In this student's defense, the advisor in question is very charming and there were no glowing eyes, cloven hooves, or even the subtle but disturbing smell of sulphuric smoke to indicate that this might be an advisor to avoid. So, next question - did the student talk to other students in the lab? Yes. And this is where the title of this piece comes to play - they all told the prospective student to not come under any circumstances period. They explained why and they all gave a consistent message (as the depressed student ruefully admitted). Apparently, this has been going on for a while in that lab - current students tell prospective students that the lab is hell, not to come; that they themselves would have chosen differently if they had to do over again. Still the students come. And they all seem shocked to find out that every word was true.
I honestly don't understand this as the words coming out of the current students mouths seemed to be brutally clear. But this direct and brutal communication about a potential advisor is not always the case.
Fast-forward to another conversation witnessed at the meeting - a young scientist receives a post-doc opportunity with a well-known person who is also a gigantic ass. While the individual's science is known broadly, that he is also a gigantic asshat is less broadly advertised. Young post-doc mentions the prospective post-doc position to someone in passing - obviously oblivious to this person's personal reputation - and receives this advice: "I think you would really find it helpful to talk to FormerPostdocX." This advice is reiterated several times during the conversation. There is no mention of the myriad of problems that absolutely everyone who has ever worked with this individual has experienced, but it is clear to those in the know that the individual is pointing the young post-doc to a person who will spill their guts. This indirect passage of information is frankly more common than one might think because science is such a small world. Besides let's face it, I might never see a certain prospective student/post-doc ever again, but not only will I see Dr. Jackass at least once a year, he may be reviewing my manuscripts/grants or sitting on committees with me for the next 30 years, so life is more pleasant if there is at least not open warfare.
Even if you are open-minded and truly listening to what people are saying, this subtle form of "feedback" is the most difficult to detect and process. I have one simple piece of advice that can help: ask the same question over and over and over again of as many people as can reasonably be expected to answer (I learned this one while interviewing for faculty positions). You can learn some interesting things by what people consistently say, what they consistently don't say, or by the mixed messages that you receive (do equals or superiors speak highly of the individual yet underlings burn him in effigy every morning before starting work?). And here's my best piece of advice: if all the answers come back loud and negatively clear then, frankly, it is likely that something is wrong with that advisor and not that there's a wonderful advisor waiting to be discovered who just needs the right student to come along. It doesn't work with boyfriends (trust me, I've tried) and it doesn't work with advisors either!