Research Advisors vs Bosses

This Wednesday in OEB 399 (that class where the G1 cohort gets together to eat, drink, and talk every week), we discussed the differences between “normal bosses” and research advisors. It was an interesting talk and I thought I would share the discussion (some of which I contributed, some of which comes from others’ opinions and experiences).

A/N: This blog deals a lot with imaginary people and professors. I tried to refer to professors as “they” a lot, and not use a gendered pronoun. In the few cases I might use a gendered pronoun, it’s probably a “he” or “him”, and that’s because my professor is male. It’s not a sexist thing, it’s a situational thing. I’m simply thinking about my own professor as I write. 

Our discussion wandered back and forth a bit, so bear with me as I try to recollect things in an organized fashion.

First, there are some pros and cons to having either, right? With a stereotypically normal boss, it might be easier because you come in knowing where the lines are drawn. You know what you’re expected to do, when to do it, and where the personal/professional lines are drawn. There’s not a whole lot of guesswork involved with a normal job. The expectations are already in place.

Coming into a new lab, you might have a rough idea about what the expectations for you are, and the professor might have a rough idea of what you need from them as a mentor, but the lines probably aren’t clearly set. It’ll take time to feel out where the lines are. That being said, because the lines might not be set, you probably have some wiggle room. If you like to sleep late, you might decide to come in at 11am and stay until 9pm, and your professor might be okay with it. You most likely won’t get that flexibility in a regular job.

With a research advisor, the advisor-student relationship depends on both the professor and the student. Each comes to the table with their own expectations. Take meeting frequency, for example. A professor might be the type of person that wants to meet with a student every day (common in genetics labs), every week, once a month, or once every few months (more common in field ecology). Each new student has an idea of how often they’ll want to meet with the professor depending on their background (whether or not they’re new to the field), their learning style, etc.

Generally speaking, you should get an idea of this when you’re interviewing. Professors should tell you what they expect of their students so you can gauge whether you’ll be a good fit. However, it’s also possible you’ll change your mind. You might come into a lab thinking, “Yeah, the once-monthly meeting with my prof will be plenty”, but then after some time, you might realize that you do need more facetime with him, at least in your first year.

This is just one example where your expectation and the professor’s expectation might not match up; the lines aren’t clear, or they may start clear and become blurry.

We did an exercise in class last night where all 12 of us stood in a line. At one end were the people with the highest meeting rate (which was daily), on the other end were the people with the most infrequent meeting rate (once a month or every few months). I’m in the weekly group, standing right next to the two daily kids (who work for the same prof). Then the TF said to sort ourselves based on how often we would ideally meet with our professors. Only ONE person changed their position, moving from the monthly to a twice-weekly position. I think this speaks to what I said about discussing and matching expectations during interviews. Most of us found professors that matched our mentoring style, at least in the amount of facetime we required from our professor and the amount of time they wanted to see us. bossvspi

The TF said to look at the people next to us–the people who had the same or nearly the same facetime expectations would be the people we talked to if we had difficulties with facetime expectations. The people next to me, the other weeklies and the dailies, would be the people I should talk to if I had trouble with meeting requirements. The monthlies or every few monthlies wouldn’t really know what I’m going through in terms of lab expectations.

Once you’re in the lab and find that your expectations and goals differ from your professors, then maybe it’s time to talk to your labmates. Find out just how flexible your professor is. If they’re willing to change their mentoring style from student to student, you’re probably in good shape. If they’re not, depending on how severe of a difference it is, you might want to look for additional mentorship, a second professor or a post doc or an elder lab member who can help fulfill your needs. It’s also worth saying it’s possible that your expectations are unreasonable. If you think that may be the case (which I honestly doubt), talk to others.

Communication is the best solution in this situation. Or any situation, really.

Moving beyond expectations, there are a few more differences we talked about. First, your PI and you might have different goals. By this I mean that, as a PhD student, chances are your #1 goal is to get your PhD. Your PI already has a PhD, maybe even more than one. His main goal is probably maintaining his lab and having enough money to keep everything running. That being said, your professor probably wants you to succeed. Having a student in his lab means thousands of dollars in stipend, tuition, and experimental costs. It means years of time spent training them. They don’t want to spend all that on someone only to have them fail.

A normal boss probably won’t be a mentor, teaching you all the ins and outs of your profession. Your advisor should be your mentor, not just in how to do research, but in how to be a productive scientist. That means teaching you how to read and write successful papers, how to present at conferences, how to network so you meet all the big wigs at the conferences, how to apply for grants and fellowships, etc. (If your professor isn’t a mentor outside of strict research goals, it is highly recommended that you find someone who can be a mentor to you, either an elder lab member, or a secondary advisor, or even another professor you just like.) And it’s never a bad thing to have more than one mentor. Your professor doesn’t have to be your only one.

584b13604f9fb61c022d5d776158c37aHere, the conversation derailed a bit into the differences between a boss, a leader, and a
mentor. None of these are mutually exclusive, but a PI is more likely to have aspects of all three while a boss, on average from our cumulative experiences, was just a boss. There were some people in labs where the leader, the one who best knew everybody, who could motivate everybody, who led discussions and provided help, was just a senior lab member, rather than the PI themselves.

Chances are, when you work for a company, your work is your boss’s work, just delegated to you. In a research lab, your professor could potentially be completely hands off with your project–it’s your baby. That means your professor isn’t thinking about your work as often as you are, and chances are they don’t understand it as well as you do. You might go into a meeting expecting your professor to remember every single detail about your project and problems, but remember that you are not his only student, and your project is not his. You are one of many things he has to juggle. This includes but is not limited to: funding the lab, departmental and faculty meetings, student meetings, conference meetings, publishing papers, networking, looking for future students, postdocs, or collaborators, teaching classes, working on their own project maybe, and advising everybody else in your lab on their projects, papers, proposals, or presentations. We decided it’s reasonable in a normal job to expect your boss to remember what you’re doing; not so much with a research advisor. Don’t be angry at them when they don’t remember. Unless you’re a savant, you probably wouldn’t either.

If you work at a normal job for any significant length of time (years), your boss might always be the same, and the expectations and lines might never change. In a research lab, depending on where your professor is in their career (trying to get tenure vs trying to retire), what they can offer you in terms of time and mentorship will differ vastly. It’s possible you might come into a lab just before your professor gets tenure, so they rush you and don’t have a lot of time to spare. After getting tenure, they might be more relaxed, less pushy or grouchy, and have more time to spend on you. The lines can move significantly based on your professor’s career stage. The big downside to this is if your professor applies for tenure and is denied. That’s probably the worst case scenario.

Wrapping up, there are probably some things we discussed last night that I’m forgetting, and there are probably things we just didn’t discuss. If you think of something, I’d love to hear about it and talk about it with you. Also please let me know if you disagree with anything I’ve shared.



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