Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Can common tradeoffs predict your supervisor’s functional type?

With Lanna Jin

If you’re a graduate student, the most important question (even more important than who you’re writing your paper with) is who is running your lab. New graduate students everywhere are settling in and getting to know their supervisors are little better. Supervisors come in all types, and hypothesizing a priori what their style is can be difficult. Fortunately, a couple of common tradeoffs underlie most functional styles...

The invisible man/woman: The ultimate laissez-faire approach. You have the freedom to choose the ideas and projects that interest you, and the responsibility to make them work. Freedom can be replaced by frustrations when you need a signature, some support, or a manuscript commented on.

El generalissimo: "Here's my idea, now go do it." These labs are usually run in a top-down manner. Day to day operations are fairly hands off though, giving you room to work through those problems on your own. El generalissimo will reward their supporters well for good work.

The coach: The coach provides you the best of both worlds: enough rope to explore your ideas, but not so much to hang yourself. They are available for troubleshooting and brainstorming, but you ultimately have responsibility for your project. But if you rely on them to much, it's going to be hard to function without them.

The micromanager: These supervisors expect regular presence, frequent meetings, records of progress, and milestones to be met promptly. If you like working from home, leaving early or starting late, or need lots of freedom to be most productive it could be a poor fit. For students who thrive on structure and prefer set goals though, this might be an ideal environment.


The skeleton: This supervisor has established themselves in their career and been active for some time, but now other interests consume them. The scientific meat that made their name seems to be gone, and all that's left is the skeleton of their earlier career. They are happy to chat with you about the many things they are interested in, but supervising your science doesn't seem to be a priority. They often see you as a person who has with non-academic interests and responsibilities, which can be a nice feeling.

The superwoman/superman: This career superstar has made their name, possibly quite early, and they are passionate about their science. This can make for an exciting and successful lab experience, as new ideas and opportunities are always on the horizon. But since they have so many demands on their time, sometimes their capes (and they) are feeling a bit ragged.

The silverback: Labs of influential individuals can be an amazing opportunity for a graduate student. Silverback experiences might be quite variable, depending on how involved they are in day to day lab activities, their travel schedules, and the size of the lab. When they are available, they have a lot to teach a student about making a successful academic career.

Bad idea: This corner of the tradeoff (low interest in science, poor establishment in the career) probably doesn't exist in tenure-track faculty. If you do manage to find such a person, run away.

The unknown: A motivated but still unestablished supervisor is a blank slate. Their early career state means that they might have time and energy to devote to you and be especially motivated to see you and the lab succeed. On the other hand, they may not yet know how to manage people and their supervisor style could morph into anything - the coach, the micromanager, el generalissimo. A bit of a gamble.


Markus Eichhorn said...

It's a shame that all the graphics in this, and the implied genders of many of the names, are exclusively male.

Caroline Tucker said...

I hoped by making them faceless, that wasn't the case (I definitely thought about it), and they were essentially androgenous. I've changed superman/invisible man to man/woman (which I should have caught!), but for the remaining characters, I feel like gender isn't really implied.

Sandra Hargreaves said...

I disagree. It's a fun post and clearly gender-neutral, even before the edit.

To the authors: Thanks for making my morning!

Noam Ross said...

A neat post, but to follow on the previous comment, "silverback" is a gendered term. See

Caroline Tucker said...

Thanks Noam, that's a good point. I think the issue ultimately is that it's useful to rely on caricatures/archetypal figures-precisely because there are innate characteristics associated with them- but (unintentionally) one side effect may be that possible gendered associations can lurk there as well.

Markus Eichhorn said...

As, I'm afraid, is 'El Generalissimo'. My comment wasn't intended to be critical of what is a nice post, only to point out what looked like a subconcious bias. Keep up the good work ;o)

Melinda said...

I love this so true!!
I wonder how many advisors really think about their mentoring style or if things default to their personality and anxiety level.