I think all PhD supervisors want to do a good job. The type of job they do depends on several things: their personality and capability; the resources they have available; and the experience they had as a PhD student and what they have learnt since.

* The slave driver: I once heard of a supervisor who required every member of the lab to be at their desk or bench throughout each day and if absent to leave a note indicating where they were. To me the amazing thing was that despite this over-bearing approach the lab was world leading and part of a highly successful new institute set up by the supervisor. I think that these days such supervisors are, thankfully, the exception rather than the rule.

* The helicopter supervisor: this supervisor drives productivity in a quite different way and can do it with intended kindness. Paying minute attention, the supervisor may hover over the student, review plans for the day, and help collect the harvest. I can remember days when I was in the lab and liked to help do easy tasks like filling tip boxes, splitting tissue culture cells, or patching out yeast plates, with students. But I seldom was aware of or set daily “to do” lists. While helicopter supervisors mean well, their unwavering attention can be stifling and can prevent students from feeling or even from developing independence.

* Indifferent supervisors: I have seldom seen supervisors who do not care about their students, if only because student progress translates quickly to lab progress. So, it is generally a win-win situation and it is easy to care. Nevertheless, some supervisors are remote, pre-occupied with their own schedules and professional networks, and some are simply disorganised procrastinators. A few end up being remote simply through shyness. I once heard of a lab head who discouraged talking in the lab since it was distracting. Students may feel neglected if their emails or drafts are not quickly responded to or if they simply do not get to see or receive input very often. At its worst, neglect can have quite powerful negative effects.

* The imperial supervisor: while many supervisors would be quite happy to run smaller labs, the modern scientific enterprise encourages empire building. If you have a bigger lab then it is easier to seize new opportunities, to take risks, and to survive even if some of the risks do not pay off. Thus, some labs end up getting too big. I knew one supervisor with several postdocs who explained to me that they never spoke to their students directly. Students were supervised by the postdocs, and the postdocs reported to the lab head. Thus, the lab was organised and stratified with a clear management structure that appeared to work in terms of productivity, though it was very different from any lab I ever worked in.

* The rich supervisor: I did hear of one lab that was very well-funded and the supervisor would sometimes say – “think big, you know we really have the resources to do anything you like here”. There are huge advantages to being in such an environment. If you need more experiments to answer reviewers’ comments and get a paper published, that will not be a problem. If you can save time by buying in reagents, synthetic DNA, libraries, or genomic or bioinformatic services, then again it is not a problem. In addition, technicians in the lab may help with experiments and make up solutions. There are a few downsides. Such labs tend to waste resources. It can also be difficult to transition back to more normal funding when you leave. You do not always learn all the fundamental techniques, and perhaps most importantly there is a heavy burden of pressure in such environments. It may sound odd, but I think it would be strange to work in a place where if you fail there is only one reason for the failure – you!

* The impoverished supervisor: Naturally the opposite of the rich supervisor is the poor supervisor. Quite a lot of labs are periodically poor. Most begin OK, since new investigators are typically only appointed once they have demonstrated success, and they usually win their first grants or are given start-up funds. But eventually most labs go through a lean period. The disadvantages are obvious, but there can be advantages to having limited resources – as the New Zealand born atomic physicist Rutherford said “we did not have much money, so we had to think”. In addition, poor labs tend to be smaller labs, so individuals can receive personal intellectual input, even if physical and financial resources are limited.

* The ideal supervisor: The ideal supervisor will be kind and will provide professional support when necessary, but will remain remote enough to allow the student space to grow. The process will be such that supervision is more supportive early on but gradually fades out as students mature. Importantly, every person in the lab will feel supported. Opportunities to attend and present at conferences, write reviews, get involved in collaborations, and try new things will be fairly distributed. The supervisor will provide a platform – a trampoline – for the student to launch their career but won’t dictate too much or attempt to bounce alongside the student.

I benefited from and have seen a lot of good supervisors in my time. It is not easy though. The needs of different students vary, but the biggest challenge is the fact that experimental results are impossible to predict. Most scientists are at the mercy of a boom and bust cycle of results, involving long periods of digging through dirt and dust before every now and then some water gushes forth. This means that sometimes it is tough for everyone in research and the burden of looming failure is difficult to bear, but this is what makes researchers stronger.

Ultimately, as I was always told – as a student you don’t have to impress the world, you just have to convince a few examiners, conquering the world comes next, in your postdoc!


Merlin Crossley is DVC A at UNSW. The Crossley Lab appears in CMM every Friday


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