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This is the LabSpaces site blog. You will find news and site updates here or posts on press or other coverage of the LabSpaces community

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

This is a guest post by XrayManCoUk about his experiences as mentee and mentor as a crystallographer in the UK.

They say you never forget a good teacher but to be honest this is somewhat, erm, crap, you never forget a bad teacher either. So in short you never forget a teacher. Unless they were wholehearted bland. So this is wholly transferable to you never forget a good mentor or boss. In my somewhat chequered life I can remember the woes and follies of my supervisors and the purity and talents of my bosses. How I tried to learn from them and then put into practise their mistakes and triumphs.

My own experience as an underling

In academia we have always got some sort of hierarchy, the lecturer lectures to us via whichever medium they can utilise to get the job done. In my day blackboard and if lucky photocopied handouts, then OHP transparencies and photocopies of OHP transparency as handouts. Then came powerpoint and photocopies of powerpoint print outs, now a whole world of technology is there to transpose this information.

So whilst my PhD supervisors (I had two) had of course gone through this mellay of learning themselves, no one had really stopped along the way and given them any sort of formal training on people management. This was on the job training which sadly had the unfortunate downside that when they failed it was not a badly copied print out that was the result but a dropped out PhD student or even worse a failed one.

My two supervisors were in reality as similar to each other a chalk and cheese, yes both started with the letters 'ch' but for then on forth they differed greatly. One laissez-faire the other authoritarian both I guess a product of their own experiences. I whole heartedly enjoyed this randomness for about 30 seconds after which I often felt wronged by one and under appreciated by the other. Oddly I desperately wanted to be friends with the laissez-faire supervisor and appreciated by the authoritarian boss. I am being very careful now not to mention names, it would not take but a second to discover who the hell I am on about and I will of course make sure that I leave this piece in such a way that they are in no way wronged.

Their two approaches did see me through my PhD in good stead. I think perhaps it irretrievably damaged my "friendship" with one and the other well they never really seemed to notice. I am still to this day in contact with them both and when I need a reference I feel in no way ashamed to ask for one from both of them. I know full well that one will give me a professional and glowing reference whilst the other a more human'ised reference which may not be enough to get my foot through the door but in no way lacking or negative. And I've not even started to talk about my first "postdoctoral" supervision in place at my first job. Where I really had a real boss, a line manager, a senior line manager and in my case all was perfect - no really.

One thing that stands out more than any other is perhaps the event which fundamentally ruined my relationship with my authoritarian boss.  In one single act I stubbed his honest and genuine attempt to change his management style of me and by doing so forever put a wedge between us. Sadly I can not go back and try to fix that point in time but perhaps I can right here and now alert others not to do the same.

It all happened in a somewhat unusual circumstance where I was waiting with a bunch of friends in the lab to leave for the night. These friends were managed by a different group boss and his style seemed to be the ideal (grass greener and so forth) but then my boss walked in and in a genuine attempt to see where and what had been going on in the day (something I had longed for, this more personal interaction) started to ask me about various things. Me being stupid and in front of my mates, like a child of course acted up and cut short any attempt to get information with" I've told you this"," you know that" kind of comments which looking at back almost 10 years may be 11 still makes me cringe.

From that day on, all returned back to the open door policy and with that brought a harsh end to any possible change in style.

So that is sadly the easy way that many supervisors do it. You either have organised 1:1 meetings which often can build up a sort of negative tension or you have an open door policy - come and find me when you have a problem that leaves a student often feeling a tad lost and sometimes self alienated. Yes I know this means that there is no right answer to this. There is a third way though.

My experience as a boss, a boss of PhD then boss of postdoc and a mentor - what a cock-up

I was somewhat surprised when I became a PhD supervisor. I got the role via the odd circumstance of being there by default. The original joint supervisor who was supposed to co-supervise the student was leaving and I had been selected as their replacement. So I was very honoured and took on the role the best I could. I have had three co-supervised PhD students in total and the third the best of the bunch. But I also mentored one other PhD student during this period and it is this experience I will briefly digress on.

Learning from my supervision heritage, I selected to take what I learnt and try to merge the two together. I would pro-actively make sure that I visited my mentored student at least once a week as a sound board and had an open door for them whenever they needed to find me. An approach I wanted to use with my own students who to my annoyance I had no real power over or interaction time with but for when they got pissed off with their other supervisor, just because of the logistics of distance - but I digress on this digression.

This mentoring approach had an odd effect on the mentored student as to be very beneficial for him which I do feel rather warm and fuzzy about. He had no ends of problems with his PhD supervisor, which by now I had noticed many, many postdocs telling tales of how they hated their supervisor, and he was no different. He was and still is one of the brightest people I have ever had the honour of working with. He was able to put his hand to anything he sore fit but with this intelligence came somewhat a degree of arrogance. His supervisor, a young female academic for whom success had come quickly and surprisingly, had unfortunately made many mistakes and had resorted to becoming the "enemy" and had taken the role of tyrant dictator. Being a neutral zone a Switzerland or sorts I had the dubious role of mentoring because the actual local mentor (my line manager at the time, long story) had the opendoor policy and was in many ways trying to stay clear of the car crash which was unfurling - fail.

I felt that my role was to support, to nurture and to guide. I was not there to have all the answers. I am not google. But I was there to throw ideas at and sound ideas from. We worked out timelines together I did not dictate them and if they needed anything, my door was open but I would always be around on a random day to pop in and chat for an hour to see where they were up to and what they had got done. The random time meant that there was no feeling of routine that they will leave all their problems for this day at this time to tell me. It therefore re-enforced the open-door policy. But at the same time it did not build an invisible barrier that often forms by having that "open" door way.

I really missed that my PhD students were not located on my campus that I must go to see them or they would see me for just a short period of time. Oddly not what was said in their contracts but academics often have a way of overlooking these things when they get the money, with me being the loser but I think the student is the loser in such a situation.

With  my third student I made it clear from day one what my role would be, how I would supervise them, and gave them it straight. I did not have all the answers, we would discover them together. He was and still is the best student I have produced and he is still to this day a friend. But enough of this inane dribble!


Damn and blast the lot of it all to hell in a big pot of smoke. Micromanagement -  really it is NOT the way forward. It really isn't. In its very nature it breads in stupidity and removes the individual from responsibility! "But you did not tell me to do this" becomes the key phrase used when the building is blown up and all the expensive chemicals consumed.  Those who think it works are actually stupid. They are not really understanding that it is working for them because it is being driven by fear! Fear is the motivator not the minutiae of management and through this fear they get results. They would get the same results by threatening people directly rather than by infinite deadlines and timelines and meetings, etc.

So it was somewhat of a shock that when I got my first PDRA of my very own what an ultimate mess I made of it all. The reason I made a mess of it was the simple fact that I tried to be a friend and boss. This is very hard to do and actually does not work. You get one or the other. Until you reach a certain level of respect and at that level then you can have a collaborative relationship. But from the start you must be a boss. You must do two things, you must NOT do everything for them and by doing so make them think this is how their postdoc is going to be "easy". But you must have in place some sort of clear framework and structure. That is to say you must NOT allow them to think that they are in fact the boss. I did the reverse and so things went horribly wrong as I tried to switch from role of friend to boss. This again made worse by the stupid fact that I was their boss, but because of the way the money was being used to fund them, they were being employed somewhere else and therefore, yet again, had another boss! Ironically, this was the same boss who was co-supervisor of 2 of my joint PhD students.  Unfortunately, this PDRA chose to consider the other professor their “Real” boss, even when asked directly in front of me who they worked for.  So of course at some level I had to micromanage to compensate for that.

Now I must state at this point that I am actually "qualified" to supervise people, I have got bits of paper that say I am from many different learned organisations. But just like having your cycling proficiency certificate it does not stop the car knocking you off your bike. Having a piece of paper saying ILM3 certified leader does not stop you ruining another person’s week or making a complete hash of supervising them.

Is it all a misunderstanding?

In short when we go into a restaurant we select from a menu; some select fish others steak, some even go for the salad? "Do you want your steak to be cooked in a particular manner?" Medium, rare, well-done and so on. So it is clear that in life we require direction, encouragement and discipline in very different ways. This makes it very difficult to be the best mentor or supervisor. Where some will feel broken and trodden on by a micromanaged overbearing dictatorship others need this type of structure to get the best from them. So the best mentor the best supervisor is one who adapts their personality, their leadership to each person in such a way that we all feel equally supported and often equally diminished. The foolish and very worse supervisor is the one who feels that the same stick works as well for all.

I wish I could therefore end this blog with some sort of wisdom some sort of set of golden rules for becoming, being or having a good supervisor but I can not. I can say that remember that both parties are people, they are both individuals and they may not be there of their own freewill. A pay cheque is sometimes the difference between homelessness and happiness so understand that often they are making do and you should not do the same you should take the time to motivate not dictate. In short you must respond to the circumstances and above all honesty is the best policy. From day one things should be clear. Do not assume by saying you can drop by at any time that they will. The door may only be two inches of wood and glass but in reality it is a million miles thick when the experiment has not worked.

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