Saturday, November 30, 2013

is there something like a "perfect supervisor"?

When I think back about myself as an undergrad and a grad student and how I perceived more senior people around me, I'd say that a lot of them appeared to me as authorities. Authorities in a sense that I would take their opinions serious and I'd respect the time they'd take for me as well as their knowledge and experience in general. When I'd been given a task by them I'd try to complete it in a timely and satisfactorily manner. Authoritarian people were my professors, my direct undergrad and PhD supervisors, other more senior people in the faculty, collaborative partners of our group,.... . For most of them I had and still have deep respect even from a personal point of view. For some of them I had not much respect regarding to their general character, but still for their scientific expertise and experience. Recalling the behavior of my fellow students back then I'd say most of them shared a similar view on what makes a person an authority and how to behave in that context. In that sense we were a very homogeneous group and I never had the impression that our professor treated some of us different to the others.
Looking at myself now, a few years out of my PhD and after having supervised a bunch of students, I wonder if I am perceived as an authority by them - or not at all. What I didn't like as student were people who tried to build their authority on "impeccable knowledge". People who'd never admit a mistake or a gap in knowledge and who had a talent to make you feel crappy if your own knowledge is not as flawless as theirs. I think this behavior stops real learning and inhibits good research, which is never flawless, and I never wanted to become like that. 
However, some my students seem to demand this kind of behavior. They seem to expect that I have to know everything about their research topics even before they have done a single experiment and they express their disappointment when I don't. I can see my "score" on their respect scale drop significantly in that case and it rises again when I appear "knowledgeable enough". This seems to be a constant and very tiring game and they play it not only with me but with everybody from student to professor level - sometimes more, sometimes less obvious. Instead of working together on an interesting project acknowledging each others abilities and experience I feel like I am under constant surveillance and rated against some imaginary "perfect" supervisor. The only way out seems to be to play the impeccable supervisor. But that would be tiring as well and against everything I'd like to be as a supervisor. So, how to be an authority in this case without pretending to be someone I am not?
I am convinced that the way you decided to lead your group has to fit your personality. But I am convinced as well that to do so you have to be able to choose the students you want to work with to avoid major personality clashes. At the moment I can't choose the students I work with and most likely it will take a few more years until I can if at all. And even then it'll always happen that the expectations of a student don't fit with your style of heading your group. Some people seem to be naturally authoritarian not matter what kind of situation they are put into or what kind of people they have to deal with - unfortunately I'm not. 
So how can I deal with a group of very diverse students with very diverse expectations about what a good supervisor should be like? How much personalized care does every student need, how much do the students have to adapt to the supervisor I am and how can we still work together to improve our scientific output? How much distance is necessary and how much interest in each other beyond the research? How can I keep everybody motivated if what motivates them is so different and often not even clear to them?

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