The Sassy Scientist – Supervision Dilemmas

The Sassy Scientist – Supervision Dilemmas

The quality of supervision is arguably the most important discriminant between a nice academic experience and a hellish one. For early career scientists, supervisors are the sole responsible for our choice to leave or stay in academia. As the name suggests, supervisors are there to supervise our research activity, as it is all too easy for us specialists to get lost in the details of our project and forget about the big picture. But they should do much more than that. Ora wonders:

What makes someone a good supervisor?

Dear Ora,

I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all answer to this question, but we surely know what makes a BAD supervisor: they are either omnipresent or never to be found, they are bossy, they are abusive. Working backward we can say that a GOOD supervisor has at least the following characteristics:

  • Balance! In everything! Your supervisor should not want to see you three times a day, but neither only once every six months. Hearing “how is the code coming along” multiple times a week is certainly not appropriate, given how long it takes to code (aka: debugging someone else’s scripts). Talking to your supervisor only at the department Christmas party: also bad.
    It’s also good to go out for a couple of drinks every now and then with your supervisor, but they should be able to draw a line somewhere. Seeing one another as human beings that need to decompress: good. Telling each other about your latest fornications in front of the international scientific community: not so good.
  • Support your choices! You want to leave academia? You want to work with someone on a project that is different than what you and your supervisor have worked on since your PhD? Right answers include: “Here is some connection that may help you!” and “Oh, that is an interesting project. Good for you!”. Wrong answers are: “You are making a mistake!” and “That project is stupid!”.
  • Tell it for what it is! Sometimes we think our results are not good enough even though they are brilliant. That is where a good supervisor should give us a confidence boost! That said, we all make mistakes. Sometimes your experimental setup is actually bad, and your supervisor should give you a reality check and tell you “Your experimental setup is bad”. Possibly not the day before the PhD defence.
  • Slavery ended long ago, mate! This one should be obvious, yet here we are, needing to discuss this in the Year of Our Lord, 2022. A good supervisor should NOT expect you to work weekends and overtime. Never. If a good supervisor notices you are doing that regularly, they should tell you to take some days off.

These are the very basics. If your supervisor fails in some of the above, run!

Your truly

The Sassy Scientist

PS: This post was written on a Saturday night. Is that slavery?

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I am currently employed at a first tier research institute where I am continuously working with the greatest minds to further our understanding of the solid Earth system. Whether it is mantle or lithosphere structure and dynamics, solid Earth rheology parameters, earthquake processes, integrating observations with model predictions or inversions: you have read a paper of mine. Even if you are working on a topic I haven’t mentioned here, I still know everything about it. Do you have any problems in your research career? I have already experienced them. Do you struggle with your work-life balance? Been there, done that. Nowadays, I have only one hobby: helping you out by answering the most poignant questions in geodynamics, research and life. I am waiting for you right here. Get inspired.

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