Workshop: Scientific Work — Positions & Advisers

“I’ve been in the academic world a long time … I can sleep with my eyes open, which is an important skill for those of you considering jobs in middle and upper management.”
Professor Ralph Noble, professor of psychology

After talking about the requirements in the last posting, how does the journey look like?

I think the most important thing to remember when it comes to your first position — where you do your PhD thesis — is that these positions are qualification positions. It is not enough to do the work, it is not enough merely to finish them — you have a limited amount of time to do your thesis and qualify yourself for a scientific career. Whereas it is possible for a career to take off during the post-doc phase, it is much, much harder.

So, when you look for a position where you can do your PhD, keep in mind that you have to qualify yourself — and the position must allow for this qualification. I can only reiterate what I wrote in this posting:

To put it differently: You are highly qualified people who should not be wasted in the wrong job. You are ambitious, in the sense that you want to accomplish something, be advanced, move forward. Choose the right environment if you can. PhD positions are qualification positions — it is not sufficient that you do your work well, the work must also allow you to move forward and improve/qualify yourself.

Goal: Feedback (improve your current and future work)

I think one of the most important things you can get out of a position is feedback — information that improves your current or future work. Being a scientist is a very complicated job. You never stop learning and you need feedback the whole way of your career — and especially in the beginning. You can get some feedback “simply” by observing others or yourself, reflect about it, and use the conclusions you have drawn. However, direct feedback is crucial as well and you should make sure you get it. Randy Pausch said during his “Last Lecture”:

“When you see yourself doing something badly and nobody’s bothering to tell you anymore, that’s a bad place to be. You may not want to hear it, but your critics are often the ones telling you they still love you and care about you, and want to make you better.”
Randy Pausch

I totally agree. Constructive feedback is vital. You get it “automatically” when you submit papers for conferences and publications — and peer review can be very hard (and devastating) feedback. But you should also get it from your advisers and colleagues (and students/student assistants if you have them). BTW, seeking feedback does not mean that you are incompetent. Studies show that good people seek feedback that tells them how to improve their work. They want help in getting better and doing it themselves. The ones who do not seek feedback (or want the solution on a silver platter) are usually … not that good. Also keep in mind that you do not need to implement the feedback as it was given. But in many cases it points you to issues you should address — in your way.

The best example for good feedback I have ever read is also from Randy Pausch’s presentation:

“Randy, it’s such a shame that people perceive you as being so arrogant, because it’s going to limit what you’re going to be able
to accomplish in life.”
Andy van Dam to Randy Pausch

As Pausch also said, essentially van Dam says that Pausch is a jerk, but he does so in a way that makes Pausch accept the feedback. Giving this kind of feedback is not easy, especially not in the fast-paced time-starved world of Academia. It requires that the feedback giver:

  • really get to know the person (point of career, attributes, character, specific strengths and weaknesses)
  • knows the field (community) and the specific advantages and disadvantages this person will have there
  • knows ways to use the advantages and reduce the disadvantages
  • gives feedback in a way that the person can accept and use this feedback.

That’s at lot and very hard. Nevertheless make sure you find people who can give you good feedback. This begins with your adviser — and the way this person leads.

 Leadership Style

When it comes to advisers it can become a touchy subject. Sure, you have to do the work yourself, but you need feedback and guidance to actually learn the job.

While there are no perfect advisers, there are better and worse one. How a professor leads his workgroup is not a matter of preference — leadership, even in Academia, has consequences for the fluctuation of employees (e.g., whether you or your colleagues quit and leave) and scientific output. Unfortunately, many professors do not see themselves as leaders — or see themselves too much as the leader.

There is a nice study by Schmidt and Richter regarding leadership in Academia. What you need is an advisers who leads in a cooperative manner, meaning that this person takes your position and motivation into account, is interested in the development and encouragement of his employees, leads by example and shows his or her esteem in the way this person communicates. To quote Mark Twain, a great person who “make[s] you feel that you, too, can become great”. What you should avoid is laissez-faire style (avoids giving directions, leaves employees to themselves) and autocratic style (hierarchical differences are emphasized, authoritarian style, does not take interests into account). With the former you are left on your own and acting as a lone warrior costs a lot of additional effort (and is not what science should be like), with the later you avoid the person and learn little (besides fear).

Of course, there are mixtures in leadership style and the style can differ according to the employee.

Estimating the Climate/Leadership style

In the best case you already know the department where you want to apply. If not, ask around. Be careful with websites and flyers — you might be evaluating the PR department, not the place where you might work. One of the advantages of the social web is that you might find people who know someone who knows someone who has perhaps studied or been there.

If you have any chance to get actual information about the department ask yourself:

  • Do they have a sense of purpose? A mission?
    Sure, you have to find the topic interesting, but having an environment where people want to achieve something (other than their personal careers) is very helpful. You are more likely to use chances and be motivated in the long run.
  • How is the climate in the department? What is actually lived?
    Take your feelings serious enough to ask (yourself) questions. If being there feels depressed, if people don’t laugh or look dispirited — ask yourself: why? Is this the normal attitude or did something bad happen (e.g., an important paper was rejected, a person died or got seriously ill). Be very careful with prevalent irony or sarcasm, it’s rarely a good sign.
  • How do they talk about other departments?
    Some departments are rather arrogant and not matter their past achievements, it will hinder their future ones.
  • What can you realize or take with you?
    Have a look at the opportunities you have there, what you can learn (techniques, contact with specific groups) and take with you when you leave.
  • How many PhD students did finish their thesis — and with which results? Why did some not finish? How did they like it there?
    Know the situation you are getting into.
  • How do the Post-Docs look like?
    Strong influence by personality, skills, etc. aside, this might be your future if you stay there. Make sure they could be a role model for you.

Make sure that you can work there — and here “sufficient” or “good enough” is actually enough (and realistic). There are no perfect departments and due to the unpredictable job there will likely be problems. Still, it matters where you work.

Get to know the actual adviser

In a lot of cases the department head will not be your actual adviser. He or she might give some input or set the general direction, but it is more likely that a Post-Doc will do most of the day-to-day advisory. So make sure:

  • that you can work with the actual adviser
    The matching must be “good enough” — you do not need to love each other, but you have to work together professionally for a very long time.
  • that the actual adviser knows how to publish
    A long publication list (where this person is not always the first author) is a good sign here. Make sure that the former PhD students were first authors as well. There are some Post-Docs who try to highjack the work of their PhD students. If it is your work, you should get the credit (note that with some projects which are already fully planned, the person who planned them gets the credit, but the work for your thesis should be under your name).
  • that you negotiate the expectations
    Make sure that the actual advisers sees you as a unique person and does not simply transfer his prior experience on you. Prior knowledge, interests, etc. differ and you might request additional/different information that prior students. Do so.
  • that you explicitly negotiate the time schedule incl. the times for the meetings
    A PhD thesis is not only a research project, it is also something that will not run smoothly because you are learning to do research at the same time. So it is complex and often messy. This makes it unlikely to win against the fully planned projects the actual adviser already has. Don’t let your thesis fall behind even if other things are “time critical” or “easy to do”. To avoid getting neglected you have to make sure you stay within the schedule and that the (bi-)weekly meetings are kept.
  • that you update each other regularly and communicate openly
    It is important that your actual adviser knows what you are working on and what you have to do at the moment (not only to intervene if necessary, also to avoid getting too much work). The aim here is transparency and open communication. Like written, you do not have to love each other, but you need an open communication to avoid resentments which will fester and grow and poison your work relationship. I think you can say everything as long as you do it respectfully. If you criticize, take care to criticize the current behavior and not the person — you can change the behavior more easily than the person.

Recommended Literature

  • Jorge Cham’s PhD Comics
    I could have done a whole presentation just by showing PhD Comics — but no-one would have believed me. A lot of these comic strips are — (un)fortunately — true.
  • Pausch, R. (2008). Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams. Carnegie Mellon University. / Last Lecture at Carnegie Mellon University
    Excellent book (and talk!) what you can do in academia.
  • Sternberg, R. J. (2003). Psychology 101 1/2 The Unspoken Rules for Success in Academia. Washington, DC: APA.
    Very useful, especially if you are the first person from your family to study. It does not only apply to psychology but also to other disciplines as well.
  • Patterson, D. A. (2009). Your Students Are Your Legacy. Communications of the ACM, 32(3), 30-33. doi:10.1145/1467247.1467259
    A brilliant argument for good advisory — and what makes good advisory. Should be required reading for everyone who advises students.
  • Schmidt, B., & Richter, A. (2008). Unterstützender Mentor oder abwesender Aufgabenverteiler? – Eine qualitative Interviewstudie zum Führungshandeln von Professorinnen und Professoren aus der Sicht von Promovierenden. Beiträge zur Hochschulforschung, 30(4), 34-58.
    Schmidt, B., & Richter, A. (2009). Zwischen Laissez-Faire, Autokratie und Kooperation: Führungsstile von Professorinnen und Professoren. Beiträge zur Hochschulforschung, 31(4), 8-35.
    Both articles are in German but they are very interesting — more information on them in a posting about them.


Luc Beaulieu has two interesting postings on thesis advisers on his blog: Questions you should be asking your future thesis advisor and Which type is your thesis advisor? Very interesting.

Next up: Colleagues & Networking (incl. dealing with interpersonal problems)

See also:


  1. Hoi Luc,

    thank you for the comment — interesting posting, yup, there is something to it 🙂

    All the best


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