The wide spectrum of graduate supervisors and how to work with them?

During the Canada Day holidays, we had a small group seminar on the top of my friend Hongli’s roof (gorgeous view of the Canadian Rockies) and discussed academic research. One of the topics was about supervisors. I gathered some thoughts from all sides and came up with this post – hope it can be helpful to other students who are entering this field or may be struggling in similar situations.

Supervisors are those important people in your graduate study that you cannot live with and, at the same time, cannot live without. This article is about introducing the wide spectrum of supervisors and some tips on how to work with them – so that makes everybody’s life easier. 

Obviously, for newly admitted grad students at the very beginning of their research, special “care” from supervisors is needed – supporting funding, discussing research ideas, helping with technical issues, editing paper drafts, connecting with their networks, all these things. 

There is a wide spectrum of supervisors and they can have millions of working styles. Almost like a gaussian distribution – most supervisors follow some “academic conventions” – while others could be extremely “good” or “bad” examples at either end. I will first introduce two types of “toxic” examples and some advice for those who are in these situations.

Two ends of the spectrum

The first type of extreme is called the “micro-management”, which always have very strict time management and harsh requirement, not only on their own but also on their students. I have heard from other colleagues complaining about this type of “control freak” supervisor – they require instant responses on email, long weekly working hours (45-60, unimaginable!), frequent meetings and checking on what students are doing, and eagerly pushing for progress. Some would even knock on the door and come in later just to see if the student is not watching YouTube. 

This stressful lab environment usually happens in experimenting subjects, such as in biological, medical, or pharmaceutical labs, rather than in theoretical studies or computational simulations. The nature of these “wet” lab experiments – the procedure of which requires precision, strict rules, and long working hours – would constantly put students into stressful conditions. The experiences working in these labs are analog to workers on the assembly lines, following the rules, monitored by their overseers, with little self-motivation and subjectivities. 

The second type, on the other hand, usually happens in a group of too many students or in a “prestigious”  supervisor. They would be characterized as the “hands-off” type – more of celebrities or businessmen than professors or scientists, occupied by meetings, calls, and interviews, but always “unavailable” to students. The students are officially “under” these supervisors, yet from whom they get very little instruction. When they struggle with ideas, experiments, or papers, they are directed to other people in the group, postdocs, technicians, or even other senior Ph.D. students. What’s even worse, students recruited in the group during the pandemic don’t get a chance to see the supervisor in group meetings as much as on TV. They are facing a helpless situation from complete “freedom” academically (no instruction at all) to strict restrictions spatially (can’t go outdoor).

Communication is the best tool

Now comes the key question – supervisors as they are, what can students do to help with their situation? I always believe communication is the best tool – voice your concerns and speak out what’s in your mind – either you feel too much pressure or too little attention from your supervisor. 

Some students may feel scared or embarrassed when talking with supervisors or in a group. This is also a common situation with young students in an established professor’s group, even more concerning in international student scenarios. For example, there are some common thoughts about “what if I asked a stupid/naive question and the group may laugh at me?” or “I should do some more research/try out more efforts to fix this problem, rather than bring it to the group”. Although they seem reasonable – it essentially is postponing communication with others. 

I would encourage communication, in various forms, in group or 1-to-1 meetings, with the supervisor. Seize every opportunity to ask questions. Regardless of the questions or challenges, they are definitely giving you hard time and stop you from exploring deeper. The supervisor shouldn’t think down on the students, because we have all been there, at the beginning of the stage. It is the supervisor’s job to help out with the students – if students already acquire sufficient skills and knowledge for their research, why would they still need a supervisor??

Another way to think of communication is about maintaining healthy interactions with supervisors. This is as difficult as the research itself – or it is a tremendous part constituting the Ph.D. journey. Though I mentioned two types of bad examples in the last section, they are not necessarily “bad” people – they may just don’t know how to work with students. That’s why this grad student-supervisor relationship should work in both ways: the supervisor gives guidance and students learn from the course, at the same time, students ask questions and the supervisor helps with them. 

Today’s academic education is trending towards a more equitable environment – instead of regarding supervisors and students as superiors and subordinates in a hierarchical structure – a non-hierarchical structure with more free spaces and spontaneous connections between groupmates and supervisors will spark novel research ideas worth discovering. 

Three different role models

I really had great fortune and opportunities in my research journey insofar as I have worked with three supervisors with very different work styles (advantages or limitations). They are nice people and they have a very large influence on me too (to avoid troubles I will use only initial in Capital for their names)

I met S in my third-year exchange study in the UK and she was my supervisor for the final year project. S and I and two other students had a 90-min meeting to discuss our progress and questions every Tuesday afternoon. Since we all worked on similar topics, we had also similar problems and discussions, so it wouldn’t be a waste of time when listen to other people’s progress. What I liked about this meeting was that S would also encourage us to initiate the discussion and others just felt free to engage. This nice and easy environment was so inspiring to us that we could keep going on after the meeting was over.

But when it came to presentation, S was strict too. As the final year students, we had a mid-term presentation to report on the final year project before Christmas. When we were preparing for the rehearsal, S was very serious about the presentation – I had to make every point clearly referenced, nothing vague so that the entire research project would be solid and defensible. I still remember her saying – “People all like publishing papers, but in the future, we don’t like to have a paper we regret to have published.” That’s why she was strict with us, from reference to presentation, to try to avoid making mistakes in the research project. 

My Ph.D. research was a collaboration between my home university in Canada and an institute in the US. The collaboration worked out this way, I had courses in Canada during university terms and visit the US during summer, from May to Sep. So I had the best opportunity to work with Y and F, my own supervisor and my host in the US. They have very different work styles and I try to learn and combine their strengths. 

Y was on the “hands-off” side of the supervisor spectrum. She had her degree in atmospheric dynamics while expanding towards a newly emerging field during her tenure track. On the other hand, her group has expanded from only four people when I started in 2016 to now more than 12 people in 2022 (what a great leap!). That being said, we have a large group of people working on different studies – many of them are not Y’s expertise. When she was consulted for questions, she usually didn’t have a certain answer to address, but rather direct the student to other people who may have a better background, other collaborators, postdocs, and other professors. 

I too had complained about this working style – “if you don’t have an answer to my questions or do not give me enough instruction, what makes you a supervisor? Why not let other professors have your students, since obviously admitting too many students that she doesn’t have enough time for?” 

What made me think differently was after I met F, my host at the US collaboration institute. The best thing I learned from F was – don’t be afraid of the heavy-lifting work. I remembered that when I was starting a new project with a new model I have no background of – F lent me his old textbook and helped me with the code. We printed out the code and reviewed them line-by-line. I was scared about this new model but this code-reviewing section went so well and deep inside that we worked out a huge development. “That’s about the heavy-lifting work, we all know people hate it, but the deeper you look, the more you can discover” as F would describe. 

In one line, F was an excellent supervisor to me – he has been kind and patient, knowledgable, and very efficient – except that he didn’t have funding for me. That’s when I started to appreciate the support from Y – although she didn’t actually provide a lot of substantial help to me, but gave me a lot of freedom to explore (with the help of other supervisors) and funding. I understand that grad students in principle are entitled to work on their own research without sufficient funding (more of an ivory tower), but the truth is – actually a lot of people would struggle for funding in their third to the fourth year. That’s what I appreciate the most from Y, the freedom and time she provided and didn’t interfere much with my personal time. 

Look on the bright side

Finally, I want to conclude this article and give some hope to those who is reading this, maybe grad students or postdocs – a bit of a twist to look on the bright side will do. The “micro-management” supervisor is willing to spend more time with students while the “hands-off” supervisor will at least not interfere as much and let students explore freely. 

There is no single “perfect” supervisor who is caring, patient, prestigious, knowledgable, energetic, ambitious, inspiring, etc., with all these good characteristics with him or her, but rather dynamic and adaptable student-supervisor relationship, which requires contributions from both students and supervisors. 

Maybe another take from this article would be – if you are struggling with one supervisor, either push too much or too hands-off, one option is to get a co-supervisor so that one gives you money and freedom and the other give you actual advises and experience. This combination has worked out for me and I very much cherish it. 

All in all, the most important three things:

  • There are a wide range of supervisors and their various working styles
  • Communication, in various forms, is critical in this research journey
  • There may not be a “perfect” type of supervisor – but try to learn from their best, rather than their worst.

Thank you very much for reading this and I hope everyone can have a fantastic Ph.D. journey!!

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