How to get what you need from your Ph.D. or postdoc supervisor
For Ph.D. candidates and postdocs, the relationship with your supervisor can make or break a career. The onus for a positive and nurturing relationship should fall largely on the senior member. At the same time, supervisors are often overstretched and have their own priorities, which might not perfectly match up with their trainees’. And even the best-intended of supervisors can sometimes miss emerging or specific needs in their advisees. In the end, it is a two-way street, and there are things that early-career researchers can do to make sure they get the attention and resources they need to succeed.
Everyone’s situation is different, and what works in one relationship may not in another. Science Careers asked early-career scientists in a range of disciplines to share how they fostered a positive relationship with their supervisor and ensured they received the support they needed. The answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.
How have you helped pave the way for a nurturing relationship and maintained it over the years? Have you ever had to “manage up” to get the attention and support you need?
In my first conversation with my prospective Ph.D. adviser, I made sure to ask about the experimental and programming skills that would be required in case I needed to receive extra help or training. I also asked about the expectations for trainees toward completing a Ph.D. in terms of papers and time commitment and we discussed advising style and work-life balance. Then, during our biweekly meetings, I made a point to produce well-structured presentations with all my results or hurdles and possible solutions so my supervisor could provide meaningful feedback. I also stayed on top of any upcoming deadlines or conferences so I could alert my supervisor and we could plan ahead together. At times, when I had too many projects going, I would initiate conversations about reassessing my responsibilities or taking a break to avoid burnout. Ultimately, it boils down to the strategy of “helping your adviser help you.” Faculty members are inundated with multiple administrative, teaching, and service activities, so being proactive, articulating your needs, and clearly communicating hurdles in the lab is key.
—Suhas Eswarappa Prameela, postdoctoral fellow in material sciences and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
I already knew my supervisor when I started my postdoc in the United Kingdom, but in our first meeting we still discussed our preferred ways to work. We explicitly discussed the expected scientific outputs of the project, including the number of papers and conference presentations. Setting these goals at the very beginning helped me work efficiently while maintaining a good work-life balance. We then entered a weekly routine with a 30-minute meeting to discuss my progress and other relevant things, which forced me to be concise and structured in what I wanted to talk about. Whenever more time was needed, to discuss a paper, for example, I arranged a dedicated meeting. All the supervisors I’ve had have always been very supportive. I am aware that the fact that I am a cisgender, straight, white man might have made things easier. Having said that, I have also solicited meetings to get attention and support whenever I encountered important doubts or difficulties that I couldn’t solve by myself or by talking to peers.
—Pol Capdevila Lanzaco, postdoctoral fellow in marine ecology at the University of Barcelona
My supervisor is very busy and I’ve learned that if I need something I have to let her know, but it has to be strategic. It requires knowing her priorities and scheduling and planning things around them. For example, if I wanted to approach her about a new research idea, it’s not the best time when she’s trying to meet a grant deadline. As much as possible, I also try to make it easy for her to approve a new purchase for my research by showing that I’ve already tried the alternatives.
—Daphne S. Ling, Ph.D. student in neuroscience at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver
In my first meeting with my Ph.D. supervisor, I felt like a lost duckling! I was honest enough to share that I probably would need lots of support to get started. He offered reassurance and explained how he runs the lab. From there, we had weekly one-on-one meetings. He would always start by asking how I was and whether I was struggling with anything, and then we would focus on my lab work and go through my results. If I needed extra help, I could go find him in his office, even though he was very busy. I also told him when I was going through personal issues, so that he would know why my lab work and performance might not be up to standard. He was extremely supportive and even found extra help for me through the university.
—Soudabeh Imanikia, molecular diagnostics science manager at AstraZeneca
How have you navigated tensions and difficult conversations with a supervisor or gone about convincing them of something?
Sometimes I have experienced difficulties making progress on specific projects, and I have always tried to face such situations with honesty. As scary as it sounds, most supervisors will understand that you might face difficulties from time to time. First try to identify what is preventing you from progressing in the lab, and then go and express it to your supervisor. Communicating the problem is usually enough to show that you are trying to improve the situation while giving them a chance to help. When difficult health or personal circumstances arose, I also made a point to communicate them and have always felt supported. However, it is important to transmit this information professionally to avoid passing on the personal burden to your supervisor. In some circumstances where issues appeared in the mentorship style or lab dynamics, I tried to keep it professional and understand that there are different ways to manage people.
My supervisor has thousands of ideas and if you happen to be in his proximity while he is in his thought process, be sure he’ll throw them at you. As a Ph.D. student, I felt uneasy many times as I attempted one such experiment and it did not work, or I simply had no time to try stuff out. One day, I talked to him and apologized for not having followed up on an idea he had. His surprised face was enough to release the tension. From then on, understanding that he was just brainstorming creative solutions—and not expecting me to try them all—saved me a lot of time and stress.
—Giovanni Di Mauro, recent Ph.D. graduate in organic chemistry from the University of Vienna and current freelance science communicator and illustrator
I have a research scholarship and so my supervisor was initially not keen on my spending time on teaching. I acquiesced for a few terms, but then I decided to tell her how central teaching is to my interests and career goals. She still wasn’t too keen, but she agreed that it was a useful skill and proposed a teaching area for me to focus on. This has made me so much happier, I wish I had done it sooner!
I wanted to pursue some experiments that my supervisor thought would not be useful. So I decided to follow his approach, but on the side, I still did the experiments I felt would be complementary. He was open-minded enough to accept and appreciate my decision. In most cases, the supervisor knows better, but occasionally it could be that they are a bit out of touch on a topic. Either way, it is best to show that you are following their guidance but also have your own ideas. Then, when I was writing my thesis, I needed more help and felt I was not having enough time with him. I was frustrated and I ended up seeking help from my second supervisor, who managed to navigate and de-escalate the potential conflict. The whole situation resulted in a bit of sourness in the relationship with my primary supervisor, but we got over it, and today, he is a mentor and a very good friend.
I had an open-door policy with my committee members, but there was a time when there was a lack of clarity about the direction of my dissertation. I communicated that I was feeling lost (and they could tell I was), after which the committee met and figured out how to proceed together.
—Sara K. McBride, research social scientist at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Earthquake Science Center
In one instance, I was keen to characterize some of my samples using a technique that was yet to arrive on campus. I found a potential collaborator working in another country who could help us, but to convince my supervisor I had to make a short presentation highlighting the benefits compared with working with nearby national labs. Providing all possible solutions to a problem is a good starting point to foster productive discussions, rather than going to a meeting with just the problem or a single approach in hand.
Were there ever times when your supervisor gave you exactly the support you needed, without you even being aware you needed it?
Early in my Ph.D., I would take failures very seriously. My adviser mentioned that these were common and I should not let them bog me down. By sharing his own hurdles and setbacks with me, he encouraged me to keep going. At several points during my Ph.D., my adviser also empathized with some of the personal and professional struggles many international students face. It was comforting to have an adviser who not only provided excellent research mentorship, but who also valued students’ well-being.
I’ve always tried to avoid jargon and make my scientific presentations more appealing, which has sometimes made me feel like the only trainee who misunderstood the assignment. But at a recent meeting, my supervisor praised me for my ability to present to a lay audience. Hearing my supervisor say that what makes me feel like an outlier in academia was actually a strength was a much-needed piece of encouragement. It reminded me that there are many ways to present science, and that it’s OK to be different.
I joined a research group outside of my original training, and I really struggled with self-confidence during the first 2 years of my Ph.D. My supervisor often kept me in the office to ask me how I felt about the whole process, even more so after I hinted at the idea of quitting. Oftentimes, he highlighted my hard and soft skills, making me feel unique and worthy.
I was hoping to do a postdoc in my Ph.D. lab, but my supervisor one day just told me “Soudi! You have to go and find your own path!” I was a bit puzzled, as I had nowhere else to go. But it turned out this was a fantastic kick for me to start shaping my own future.
On many occasions, positive reinforcement was all I needed to maintain a positive attitude—for example, congratulations on my work after submitting a challenging manuscript, independent of whether the manuscript would be accepted or not.
I came to the Ph.D. from a career in communication and emergency management, and I had my own blocks to researching and writing that I wouldn’t recognize until about a year in. During that first year, I kept some practitioner obligations and contract work going, and I was constantly distracted. One day, my supervisor handed me a sheet of paper that had the word “NO” printed on it. She said to stick it on my computer, and every time something new or exciting but unrelated to my research came up, to look at that piece of paper. I still think this is one of the best pieces of advice I have from her.
Do you see your supervisor outside of the lab for social activities? Do you find knowing each other on a more personal level beneficial or detrimental in your professional relationship?
My supervisor would plan yearly gatherings with us. It was a great bonding experience, and it also showed us that he is human! We had occasional coffee breaks together as well. There is a sweet spot between being professional and being friendly that makes for a very healthy and thriving working environment.
Going to social events has helped me form tighter bonds with my supervisors. Getting to know them on a more personal level can help you understand certain circumstances or behaviors. At the same time, it is good to maintain the formalities at work so you don’t take things too personally when your supervisor gives you critical feedback.
Every 1 to 2 weeks, I go to my supervisor’s house to steal her dog for walks and hugs. Sometimes, my supervisor will join us for the walk, and we will just talk about life or I’ll rant about the things that frustrate me about my work. I think it works well for the both of us because it also gives us some chill time when we “walk-talk” outside. At times, both my supervisor and I have done things that aren’t helpful for a working relationship, often because of a breakdown in communication. But we are both always willing to try again, and our love for the same dog has definitely helped our relationship.
In the lab, we celebrated papers and birthdays and organized barbecues and Christmas parties. However, my supervisor would rarely join private events. Managing a big group of people requires a tad of distance, enough to make sure you maintain a respectful atmosphere and treat people equally and objectively in the workplace.
Any further advice for early-career scientists on how they can get what they need from their supervisor, while acknowledging that sometimes supervisors and trainees may have different priorities?
A big chunk of it goes back to making sure you choose the right supervisor—this is the first and most important step. Pick people whose work you respect, but who are also good humans and are invested in your success. Asking around your research community can help you a lot in that respect. Also, now that I have myself become a mentor, I would say that students need to be aware that supervisors still have their own work to do, including teaching classes, supporting other students, and doing their own research. So be respectful of their time, and be patient. You’ll get there.
Most likely, a single supervisor won’t be able to fulfil all your needs. So, try to empathize with your supervisor and make the most out of what they have to offer you. Then, provided your supervisor agrees, don’t be shy to reach out to other researchers. The supervisor-mentee relationship can sometimes be complicated, so always remember that you are not alone.
My relationship with my supervisor works for me, but the dynamics won’t work for everyone. It is important to try to keep the lines of communication open, have good friends inside and outside of academia, and, where possible, find mentors. My supervisor and I have butted heads several times and I get very upset when it happens, and that’s when getting perspective from people who care about me really helps. Also, grad school can be very hard because of the huge power differential and income gap between the supervisor and the trainee, and sometimes the best thing for your mental health is just to change supervisors. Sadly, some supervisors are pure toxic. If this is your situation, remember that it’s not a reflection of your worth: It’s OK to walk away.
It’s important to establish early on that the supervisor and the trainee are on the same team and not competing against each other. Communication and transparency are key. If that isn’t enough, seek an objective source of support that can either help resolve the conflict or guide you through finding the next best option. Ultimately, if you undermine your supervisor, you won’t succeed—and vice versa, supervisors should acknowledge and appreciate their students. It’s like dancing on ice—if the two dancers cannot move together in harmony, not only will the performance be disastrous to watch, but it can also be that one or the two of them get hurt.