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Your Ph.D. Boss: Adversary or Superadvisor? Part 2


A good relationship with your Ph.D. supervisor is essential, but, as in dating, there are 'Rules' for getting the best from your scientific nearest and dearest. Last month, Part One of this article considered the three ground-rules of 'boss-handling': remembering that they are on your side, keeping them regularly informed of your progress (or lack of it), and finding out what makes them tick. Here we look at the three essential 'Rules' for developing a more dynamic student-boss relationship.

Rule Number Four: Earn Your Boss's Respect

I once knew a capable Ph.D. student who used to habitually kow-tow to his boss's ideas simply because he lacked the conviction to believe in his own ideas. The truth is the boss was equally frustrated by this student's lack of initiative. You need to know that earning your boss's respect doesn't only come from amassing lots of good results, important as they are.

In science, it's all about showing you are capable of independent thought. Many Ph.D. students develop their own ideas but hamper their chances, ultimately of career progression, by either not believing that their ideas are any good, or lacking the bottle to speak up. If you can develop the knack of approaching your boss with good hypotheses and suggestions you'll boost your confidence when it comes to writing papers and grant applications and standing in front of a packed conference hall. Into the bargain, they will begin to see that you are developing as a scientist. Naturally, they will feel they deserve all the credit for being such a good advisor. Don't spoil the illusion. The key to Rule Four is not to try to 'sell' your boss every idea that comes into your head. They'll soon get tired of you. Why? Because we are all human and very few of us have really good ideas more than, ooh, once a fortnight. So be prepared to hold your tongue and wait until you know deep down inside that you've got something good.

Rule Number Five: Assert Yourself With Your Boss

Ph.D. students often complain that they are just skivvies: cheap labour. It's a bit of a cliché, and I guess we've all said it at least once. My response is that we shouldn't be so defeatist. In my experience many students are often not used to making demands of people in positions of authority and end up being far too submissive. If you apply Rule Four, you have the immediate advantage of being in a much stronger bargaining position: Your boss respects you. Remember that you are being trained to be an independent research scientist. So forget the old student-tutor relationship, this is something new. Start to negotiate with your boss about your project aims, your workload, anything. If you are new to tackling bosses, don't be too pushy. Get yourself on an assertiveness training course. This will show you how to listen to your boss and use what they say to approach them in a way that will increase the chance of a successful outcome. Such a result only gets you what you need. If you are assertive in the true sense of the word, your boss will feel that they got what they wanted too. Once you've experienced the feeling of leaving a meeting that, due to your behaviour, went well for both parties, you'll want to do it again.

Rule Number Six, The Golden Rule: Write for Your Boss

The Golden Rule is obvious. If you want an easy ride with your boss you have to be proactive about writing, especially writing papers. They applied for the funding and brought you in primarily to increase their own personal tally of papers. That's what everyone is judged on these days. Ultimately, that's what your boss wants from you. If your boss already respects you and is used to you behaving assertively with them, early delivery of good quality writing will utterly convince them that you are worth investing even more of their time in. So as soon as your results are in start getting it all together on paper. Daunting as it seems you can write the outline of a paper within a week, if you put your mind to it. When I handed my boss the best part of my first paper he was like a dog with two tails: I've got a great working relationship with my boss, but I had never experienced interest in my work from him like this. Clearly, nothing gets a scientist's attention like the prospect of submitting another paper with their name on it. The Golden Rule is the hardest to apply but has the most wonderful effects. Firstly, your boss will love you and gladly read several drafts of your thesis. Secondly, writing and defending your thesis will be a whole lot easier with at least some of your work submitted for publication.

So there's your complete six-step guide to becoming a good 'boss-handler'. Follow these Rules and you'll be more likely to find yourself with a boss who is also your greatest ally.

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