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Your PhD Boss: Adversary or Super-Advisor? Part One


A few of you reading this won't have seen your PhD supervisor for many months; others may well be like two peas in a pod with your boss. But whether close or at a distance, a good working relationship is essential--much of your initiation into the 'real' world of science comes from your advisor. As in dating, there are 'Rules' for getting the best from your scientific nearest and dearest. This month we look at the first three Rules that lay the foundations for a successful relationship.

Rule Number One, the Ground Rule: Remember That Your Boss Is on Your Side

PhD dogma states that 'he who becomes isolated from his boss fails to submit'. I've seen this happen once and it's not at all nice. The person in question fell out with their advisor and managed to eventually lose all contact with them--not a smart move.

So if you wish to avoid ending up working in the local library, you need to a) submit your thesis (surprise, surprise!) and b) maintain at least a reasonable relationship with your boss in order to get to that point. You'll also need to keep them on board for the long haul so that you can access their network of contacts and vastly improve your job-hunting prospects. Having offered you the studentship over a number of other 'possibles', something about you must have appealed to your boss. Without being a lap dog, aim to work at keeping them pleased that they chose you. You might ask if your advisor is likely to keep up their interest in you after your 3 years of possibly less than world-class research? This question is especially pertinent if your advisor has a large number of other students. The answer is most definitely yes, but only if you work at maintaining the relationship.

Rule Number Two: Keep Them in the Picture

As you get more confident, you'll find yourself drifting free from the burden of checking everything first with your boss. But beware of this slippery slope, especially if your boss is geographically distant. Sometimes I've gone for days, even a couple of weeks, without my boss knowing what I've been doing. Even for a workaholic like me, the subconscious temptation is to let things slip; 'when the cat's away', and all that. This nasty habit leads to a student with a false sense of independence ('I've got plenty of time and I'm in control') and a boss with a false sense of security ('I've not heard anything from them so I assume everything is OK'). Regular feeding of information to your boss, if only by e-mail, is the best way to focus your mind on exactly how much, or how little, you have achieved since the last time you told them anything. It's also a good chance to sound them out on your new ideas. Scheduling this event once a week gives you a regular, and scary, target to aim for. There's no fear like the fear of saying 'I haven't done anything at all since last week'. Also, bosses like getting these e-mails: It gives them the delusion that they are in control. N.B. Only tell them stuff you are certain you want them to hear. Applying this Rule is a discipline that leads to happier students ('Regularly telling my boss what I've achieved seems to be really driving my project forward') and happier bosses ('I don't have to hope they are making progress, I know they are').

Rule Number Three: Find Out What Makes Your Boss Tick

To get this relationship working really efficiently, you'll need to find out which sort of scientific animal you are dealing with. We all know that underneath a scientist's usually quiet exterior lies constant mental activity. But is your boss an aggressive activist, who is always looking for their next experimental 'fix', or a more cautious completer-finisher, who only moves onto the next level when everything else is in place? Finding out which of these, or the many other personality types, they are may be largely a process of trial and error, remembering to avoid doing in future whatever it was you did that rubbed them up the wrong way!

If there are any, chat discretely with 'old-hands' in the lab to assess their dealings with your boss. But the real meat of Rule Three is subtle in the extreme--it's about your personal relationship with the head honcho. After enough conversations (and e-mails) with your boss, you can distil essential information about what sort of person they are. For example, I have learnt, to my cost, that I have the ability to utterly confuse my boss unless I choose my words very carefully. I'm still not clear how 'I don't think that experiment is worth repeating' sounds like 'I'll do it again straight away', but I've learnt how to phrase things so they are crystal clear, a sort of 'boss-speak' I suppose. In effect, you'll need to identify where your personality and communication skills are at odds with your boss's and take steps to iron out the differences. As the student, the onus is on you to do this, not them. Finally, do not make the mistake of underestimating your boss. After all, group leaders have made a career out of drilling for oil in the uncharted depths of Nature, so give them a bit of respect and take time to scratch the surface.

Next month we'll look at the final three Rules that will build on these foundations and propel you into a more dynamic student-boss relationship.

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