Thursday, January 21, 2016

What should my Ph.D advisor expect from me?

The relationship between a Ph.D student and their advisor or supervisor is a complex one. I have written before about the importance of both parties having clear expectations and communicating and agreeing on them at the beginning of working together.

Over the years I have seen or heard of some strange things. Below is a list of some things that students have found their advisor expected.

work on my thesis topic

prepare a slide or two about my thesis work that they will present at a conference

write a small grant application for me to fund my travel to a conference

give feedback on their draft grant application that is related to my project

give one of their lectures while they are away at a conference

organise a weekly seminar series

act as de-facto supervisor for an undergraduate student research project that is not related to my project

maintain the group website

spend a morning on the registration desk for a conference they are organising

referee a paper or grant for them

perform maintenance duties around the lab

ignore an off-colour joke they make on just one occasion

maintain the group computing facilities

help paint the lab

"protect" them at all times

teach two weeks of their class while they are away

add "honorary" co-authors to a paper I wrote

provide data, calculations, or text for a paper which I will not be a co-author

prepare slides for a talk they will give that largely does not involve my thesis work

maximise citations to their papers, even when not relevant

promote their pet theories, even when I disagree

spend a whole week editing the abstract book for a conference they are organising

accept the job offer that they want me to take

not contradict them in public

submit a paper they have not read

write a whole grant application for them [see the second last paragraph here].

paint their house

come into the lab on a sunday morning

mow their lawn

babysit their children [Linus Pauling did!]

buy dinner for one of their visitors

listen to long monologues about their political or religious views or their personal life or departmental politics

not report unethical behaviour

let them confide deep personal struggles and emotional issues

let them post 86 poems about me on their Tumblr page

let them verbally abuse me

let them sexually harass me

have sex with them

The list starts off in a reasonable way and then steadily moves towards the unethical.
It is a slippery slope. Somewhere it moves from being a "team player" to working in a sweatshop, i.e. exploitation and abuse of power.

Where do you draw the line? Not everyone will agree on how far down the list the line should be drawn. I would probably draw it after the fourth item. Some of the lower items I might ask a student to do (sometimes with financial compensation), but not expect them to do it. Others will go a bit lower, perhaps particularly experimentalists.
I welcome comments.

How should students deal with this issue?

First, it is important to research an advisor before you sign up. Ask their current and former students. If there is "weirdness" involved find someone else. Don't think it will be any better for you. Second, if they seem o.k. agree on things before you start work.

Finally, if you are in an unacceptable situation get help. Don't endure it.

How should advisors deal with the issue?
See where you are on the list. Initiate discussions with your students.

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