People’s relationship with their supervisor during their PhD is a complex issue. There are elements of teacher / student, boss / employee, friends and sometimes even quasi-parental. Every pair seems to have their own dynamic.
It isn’t hard to find graduate student / adviser relationships that don’t work. One man I know from my research area told me once that every meeting he had with his adviser would end up with the adviser screaming at him until he was in tears. He’d excuse himself to go to the washroom, compose himself and by the time he returned his adviser would have calmed down and they’d resume work.
I would find this INTOLERABLE, but he was at a very good school, his adviser was a big name in the field and it paid off for him to suffer through.
The wife of a friend was doing PhD work where all of her supervisor’s students were required to work on one big project that he’d received funding for. She was more interested in fundamental research, but was forced to do engineering to advance his core project. Eventually she dropped out of her doctoral program, as she wasn’t doing what she wanted to do.
I’m a big believer that people shouldn’t accept being mistreated. If an adviser is making your life miserable, I fully support leaving the program or changing supervisors. That being said, everyone will have some complaints about their adviser occasionally, so really do some soul searching about what is a big deal and what isn’t.
I’ve never had more than one supervisor, but one school that made me an offer for my PhD wanted me to have TRIPLE supervision. This seemed crazy to me – did any other students apply the year I did? Dual-supervision is common, but should be carefully considered before you accept it.
Some students have fantasies about dual-supervision that they the student will be in charge, and they’ll be able to pick and choose – a la carte – what they want from each supervisor. The unfortunate reality is it often turns out that you have no power, yet have to satisfy the demands of both supervisors – sometimes they will be in opposition and you need to diplomatically broker a compromise. No fun!
What was most common with my friends who had dual-supervision was that one faculty member ended up being their real supervisor, and the other mostly faded into the background. This was probably for the best.
Different research areas work in vastly different ways. I briefly dated a Philosophy professor, and was shocked to learn that co-authors are very rare in philosophy and typically students and their supervisors won’t co-author anything during the course of a PhD in philosophy.
In many STEM subjects, HQP – highly qualified personnel, a.k.a. graduated grad students – are an important metric in grant applications. Many STEM faculty will think about their graduate students in terms of the quantity and quality of co-authored publications they’ve gotten from them – and how much work and drama was required to get that.
It can be quite hard to figure out, but the best work is done with compatible students and supervisors. Obviously there needs to be shared research interest, but work style needs to be compatible as well. Some supervisors meet with their students weekly, others monthly, others as needed and others as seldom as possible. Some supervisors will dig into the work and try to figure out problems with their students, some will leave the students to do the work and just want it explained to them once it’s complete. Some will work with the students writing the results, others will revise what the student has first written, while other will act almost like a reviewer, just making some small changes.
Often times money will affect your relationship with your adviser.
A friend of mine came in to graduate studies with a big scholarship. His view, which his advisor eventually acquiesced to, was that he should be able to work on what he wanted since he’d brought his own money. For me, it was more of a negotiation – which publication venues we would target, since my advisor would be footing the bill for publication and was paying my stipend during my studies – which was totally fair.
Many students just think about the prestige of their supervisor and the school when deciding where to study. It can be hard to tease out some of these issues before you begin, but it’s worthwhile thinking about what sort of faculty member you would work best with and trying to find someone who is a good fit.
For readers already in a PhD program or having graduated, what surprised you about interactions with your supervisor? What do you wish you had known?