How afraid are you of your supervisor?

A dry mouth, excessive sweating, aphasia – hopefully that is not what you experience when you need to talk to your PI. For some, however, the benign stress response ahead of meetings that you may be familiar with turns into an unbearable condition. Recently, Dr. Diamandis, professor at the University of Toronto, addressed what he recognized as a “growing phobia” in a Nature article sparking a debate on the duties of supervisors and their students and postdocs in handling the phenomenon.

The supervisor’s perspective: How to engage students and resolve fear

Diamandis reported on the case of a student who developed an aversion of him during the first couple of months in his lab. In Diamandis’ eyes it was his “constructive criticism” which was mistaken by the student and led to the student avoiding him and other colleagues. The student hid problems in the lab and did not thrive scientifically until the issue was raised and resolved. The solution to this kind of problems, according to Diamandis, is a kind of mild exposure therapy: Regularly schedule brief meetings and try to make the atmosphere a pleasant one. Can it be that easy? Diamandis reports a success rate for this strategy of 100%. Yet, the sample size is small (n = 4 affected students in more than 30 years and n = 1 for the supervisors) and there is no information on a control group…

The students’ view: Supervisors need to be good mentors and show empathy

(image from Dizanna)

Diamandis’ appeal to tackle a student’s phobia of their supervisor proactively elicited an immediate response. Two letters from the European Association of Students and Post-docs in Synthetic Biology and David McDonald, postdoc at Duke University, found that Diamandis focuses too much on the PhD student’s duties. They take the supervisors up on their promise and call for more empathy for the needs of new students in the lab and to take their role as mentors seriously.

How about you?

After all, it appears to me, the difference between both positions is to be found in the priorities, while the ideas are complementary, not opposing each other. Nevertheless, it might be an excellent opportunity to ask yourself: What do I expect of my supervisor and how can I get it?
So, what do you expect of your supervisor? What is your strategy to approach him or her?
Let us know your answers, we’re curious!

Author: Christoph Heuser