Posts Tagged ‘Supervisor’

If you have been following my blog – or if you know me IRL – you know that I am a bit provocative at times, and you are probably cynically rubbing your hands at the title of this post. Tsss. This is serious.

So, we’ve seen already how students should choose their research topic (here) and how they should select their supervisor (here). Fortunately, we supervisors also have a say in the matter. In fact, many of us receive loads of applications, and we have to make a selection. So, what are the criteria of this selection? Or rather, what should they be? I mean, apart from the check in the envelope.

Someone made a retrospective study about this, looking at criteria that matched best the less and most achieving students (here). Her finding, quite unsurprisingly, is that previous research experience is the largest discriminator. Not the university grades. Nor the university of origin. The previous experience. Successful, or course: recommendation letters from previous supervisors are one of the most important items in your application file.

This shows that having done some research internships, preferably several, in several places (abroad is even better), is a big plus. Or in this era of ultra-competitiveness, not having done several might be a big deterrent. Also, it is noteworthy that in the European system at least, but it is true elsewhere as well, supervisors tend to take their own Master students into PhDs, both because they know them (and know they get along, that’s important – see here – and how well they work) and because the student has advanced on the project. But then the students were often selected for the Master because they had an earlier research experience.

So it is very clear: if you think you want to do some research later on, stack as much research experience as you can, from early on. If you don’t know, doing an internship in a lab will help you know.

Ultimately, everyone has his/her own system for selecting Master and PhD students. Some rely overly on grades (probably unwisely), some solely on previous experience at earlier levels and some mostly on gut feeling. The Chair of the Anatomy Department of Cambridge once told me that he had, for years, recorded the speed at which graduate students walked in the corridors of the lab, and that it was highly correlated with scientific production. I believe him. Obviously, each one of us has honed a personal method of appreciation over the years, but it seems safe to say that to get that Master/PhD it is easier if this is not your first research experience. And if you don’t come in dragging your feet.



Personnaly, I use the very effective selection method of paper plane throwing

Students of today… not only students, the young in general! Pfff… when I was young…

Take these two quotes, by famous people:

What is happening to our young people? They disrespect their elders, they disobey their parents. They ignore the law. They riot in the streets inflamed with wild notions. Their morals are decaying. What is to become of them?


I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on the frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words. When I was a boy, we were taught to be discrete and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise and impatient of restraint.”

This seems very fitting to our times, right? The first quote is attributed to Plato, 4th century BC, while the second is attributed to Hesiod, 8th century B.C. There are similar quotes dating from a papyrus of pharaonic Egypt of 3000 BC, or on a Babylonian clay tablet even older. If this shows a thing, it’s that “mature” generations always tend to see the replacing ones as worst than their own.

I cannot recall the number of times I’ve heard that students now were really bad at this or that, and that the general level of knowledge and competence had really decreased a lot. That in our generation students were stronger in science, more dedicated, more autonomous, working harder, …

The truth is, previous generations of students have probably never known the current level of competitiveness and difficulty to get an academic position. As a result, most students now know very early on a lot on stats, how to program in R, how to write papers, how to present their results orally or analyse and criticise a scientific paper.

I’ve supervised perhaps over 75 students by now and few were bad. In fact, most were better skilled and more knowledgeable than I was at the same study level. My seven PhD students were all brilliant, and some were even stunningly bright and competent. I wouldn’t want to compete now for a job with this generation. Very few of us would.

This is a very nice thought: the science of tomorrow will be in good hands.

Especially with our generation as mentors (because without our wisdom, these little ungrateful pricks would do nothing good).


When you were a kid, you probably have at least once fantasized about meeting your dream actress/singer/sportsman/whatever. And in your worst nightmares, when you actually met them, you were unable to say something that did not sound stupid.

Now that you are all grownup, you may be confronted to a quite similar situation. Imagine meeting a scientist whose work you admire, or whose lab would be a tremendous postdoc place for you (it should go together). Now imagine (no, really, do it) meeting that prof, and having the opportunity to tell him/her what your research is about. “Hello, young anonymous student, what’s your research about?”. And imagine that you come nothing structured with. That you stutter trivialities and forget the essential. And that you keep the rest of your PhD thinking “I should’ve said that!”.

But fear not, my friend, for I come with an advice!

That advice is quite simple really: “be prepared”. Don’t wait to meet a prospective employer/collaborator to know how to expose optimally your projects in a tiny amount of time. Now let me develop a bit (or that post will be too short, and I will again be yelled at): if someone, at a congress or elsewhere, asks you “so, what’s your research about?”, there are only two things you should know.

First, you should be receptive to the attention span your interlocutor is likely to devote to your response. Is it likely to be short? Like you can see behind that someone is already waiting to steal the prof’s attention? Or is it longer, like you’re sitting together in the bus to the tour congress?

The second thing is to prepare for two types of response: one short, and one super short. If a long one is needed, you don’t really need to prepare it. The super short one is what I’ve heard called “the Elevator Talk”: imagine you’ve entered in an elevator with that prof, and she/he asks you what’s your project about. You know you don’t have minutes before one of you leaves. You have to be able to explain not only the question, but also the interest and the approach of your project in about 20 seconds. So the best is to prepare that in advance. Write a few sentences. Straight to the point, but as appealing as possible. About 100-150 words. It should be sufficient to explain what you are doing and why this is super-interesting.


The short version is if the attention span is likely to be a bit longer. For example, you meet the prof in the poster room, or during a coffee break or if after the Elevator talk, you hear “that sounds great, tell me more!”. That’s the “Hall Talk”: you’ll have a bit more time, but you should still prepare what to say and how most effectively and interestingly describe your project. Aim for a few minutes, something like 500 words (but be flexible, pay attention to the prof’s responsiveness, to reduce or expand).

Of course, if you are able also to make a nano-short response, that can be handy; like answering in one single sentence, but in such a way that one wants to hear the rest.

There. That’s all. Oh, and yes, needless to say, for all that there is a third thing that you should know very well: what you research is really about.



(it’s a mere cat)

Have you ever had this feeling, that everyone in the lab is much better than you, and that they just haven’t yet realised how inadequate you are? That they perhaps are sincere when they seem to appraise you, but truly, that’s because they don’t know. Because you are better suited than anyone else to evaluate your own intelligence, skills and qualities, and frankly, you know that you understand less and know less than almost anyone here. And you dread the day they find out you’re a fraud, while feeling guilty to have so much undeserved trust put in you. Have you?

Be reassured, it’s not only you. It’s not even only undergrads. I’ve had this feeling (and sometimes still have). Many of us established scientists have. Even some great scientists have, I’m told. In fact, it’s so common, it even has a name:

The Impostor Syndrome.

It’s quite natural, and it can be fought. And it’s important to fight it, as a lack of confidence can be very detrimental for your carrier. A nice compilation of posts on the topic is here.

So stop feeling guilty, stop feeling stupid, ignorant and unskilled, start building confidence on any little achievement you can. It may take a very, very long while to one day suspect that, if everyone is convinced you are not that bad, and that you do seem to succeed, then maybe you’re not that much of an impostor after all (or at least you’re not the only one). Meanwhile, focus on your real, proven limitations and work on them.

Now, I write this assuming that you are very bright and skilled – all my readers are of course – but perhaps you are actually an exception, and a true impostor. You probably are better suited to know…



It may come as a surprise to some, but it is completely by coincidence that I ended up working a few years in a row with several very pretty female students. And three to five pretty women together seldom go unnoticed, whether in a lab or in a conference. So after a few years, some had apparently decided that it might not have been entirely accidental.

Funnily enough, I’ve also had a few quite handsome male students during these years, but I’ve never had a single remark about that (apart from the women in my group, who where always rather quick to notice that).

Of course, I could have been offended by the insinuation that I select my students on criteria as irrelevant as beauty or charisma. You can imagine that it wouldn’t be a wise choice to succeed in research anyway. But if I was irritated, it was for my students. Because it implied that they were not here for their intellectual capacities and research skills, but because they had pretty smiles. And if they are going to be judged during their entire professional life by their peers (that’s how it works folks, there’s no job under as much peer scrutiny and criticism as researchers), it’s not fair that people start to think they are less competent and got their position because of their looks.

This shows two things. First, there are still strong biases in science, despite what we would all wish. We still do not treat men and women equally. Physical appearance is more easily noticed in a female student than in a male student. Second, we tend to think that very pretty women a priori can’t be brilliant as well. Look deeply into yourself, and you’ll see that even you can be victim to these preconceptions. That may seem a frivolous topic, but in this era of ultra competitiveness for research positions, imagine when an entire jury doesn’t even wait for you to start your presentation before cataloging you as “can’t be that bright” just because you’re stunning.

The message of this post is for professors, juries, referees and all other colleagues in position to provide assessments to be extra careful not to judge too quickly a pretty female student as possibly less intelligent or able than any other student. I know that may be paradoxical, but that happens often. For female students I have two specific messages. First, if you are really pretty, know it won’t be neutral on your carrier; it may come handy to be agreeable, but realize that people will have as many preconceptions about your mind or personality as they will, unfortunately, with ugly people. Second, it you are really, really pretty, then contact me, I may have a job for you…



I know you like controversial topics, you little rascals, so here is one just for you. How familiar should you be with your supervisor (or with your student if you are a supervisor)? Very good question, I’m glad I asked.

A PhD Thesis is a heavy commitment with (at least) another person during a very significant proportion of your life. It is a journey into enthusiasm, elation, revelations, pride and joy but also into doubt, disappointments, discouragement, stress and exhaustion. It is a journey made of choices and it is built on trust. And it is a journey with a working partner. Neither the students nor the supervisors want to enter lightly into such a journey, with a working partner on whom one cannot depend fully, but also one you don’t like. However, you can like your supervisor/student without befriending him/her. So, should you keep strict neutral, professional relationships, or can you share beers and personal conversation about your brother or your favourite TV shows?

Opinions are not unanimous on this. Many colleagues keep their distances with their students. Many other treat them like a mix between good pals and offspring. I did not bond with my supervisor. Which does not mean that I didn’t like her or respect her. She was nice and she did good, but we seldom ate together or for that matter shared any social event. Same with my two postdoc supervisors. But I tend to bond with my students and postdocs.

I don’t think bonding with any of them has been a problem for either them or me, but it is true that it can be sometimes problematic when the time comes to say “no” or “work harder” or “this is crap”. And I’m sure my students find it hard sometimes for their own reasons. Of course, I can recognise students that would be uncomfortable with this, and I adapt. It takes two to bond. But otherwise, I always found that bonding had made it easier to overcome the unavoidable stressing times, to avoid or forget the resentment, and to enjoy more fully the happy times. In the long run, I think that to bond is globally better for me. And I’d be happy to hear your personal experience on this.

bondsAnyway, whether of not to bond with your student/supervisor is not really a choice, and this post is not about what you should choose to do, because it’s difficult to change the way people interact naturally. So this post is more about whether or not you should fight a natural tendency to bond at work, if you have one. If that’s the way you function better, and the other one seems to be that way too, just don’t feel guilty not to be entirely “professional”. Academia is a special world when it comes to hierarchical interactions. Just do what’s best for the working relationship. But hey, I only said bonding, easy tiger!

Do you have what it takes to do research? Not just the insane passion, the flawless motivation, the mind-numbing hard-working endurance, the monomaniac nerdiness and all the other hard-to-find qualities related to the amount of effort needed to achieve something in this ultra-competitive world. No, I’m talking about intellectual capacities. Do you have them up to a sufficient level? Do you? And do you think I will give you ways of knowing? No, that was just a mean trick to get you to read this post.

I don’t really know what it takes to be a good researcher. Clearly, one has to be intelligent, but that would need to define intelligence and all the definitions I agree with exceed by far the domain of research. Plus, I know a few very good researchers whose intelligence I would not bet my life on… So yes, clearly you have to be able to grasp complex concepts and link dots even when connexions are not obvious. But there are other things; over the years, I have come to think that there are two ways of doing good research, and that most researchers are positioned along a gradient linking two broad qualities: rigour and creativity.

My personal experience convinced me that most of the best researchers out there are one of these two types. There are those that I call the Rigorous, the very quantitative types, juggling with equations and five-syllable words that I can’t even remember for this post. And there are those of the Creative type, who have very original ideas and twist studies in innovative ways you always wish you had the idea first.

Of course, I’m not saying that creative researchers have no quantitative skills or that rigorous researchers have no ideas. But in general, some are better at digging deeper and faster while some other will contribute more to science by going wider and in new directions. And both are needed, obviously.

All this to say that – in answer to a question over my blog – it doesn’t really matter if you think you are not creative enough, especially at the early stage of your carrier. Creativity is not something that will be obvious at the very beginning, and it is anyway not compulsory for doing good research, or even to regularly come out with new findings.

 2Scientists At which extreme would you put Walter Bishop?

Yet, with this metaphor, moving towards one extreme of this gradient pushes you away from the other one, and you can’t really have the right set of mind to think outside the box if you are overly methodical and thorough, and vice versa. So are you close to an extreme? Which one, more Rigorous? More Creative? Or rather, well balanced between the two?

But of course, I know in ecology some geniuses who mysteriously marry the two qualities to make the most elegant, exciting studies. And those make this post totally meaningless, thank you very much.

Work -  Life - Balance

We hear a lot about job burnout these days. I don’t know whether we had a more strategic approach to work in the old days, but that does seem to be an emerging disease. Burnout is a long-term exhaustion associated to a decreased motivation for work. Some jobs are more likely to trigger burnout. Some even after the very first day of work. Try telesales operator or stun gun tester for example. But, over the years, works like researchers (in the broad sense) are likely to make you insidiously accumulate fatigue and stress to make you burn out all your energy. Being passionate with your job, when it is a tiring and stressing one, can lead to burnout without you realising. Worst, in the extremely competitive world in which students are now pushed, a PhD Thesis can become synonymous to a marathon race at the pace of a sprint.

It is important to maintain a carefully managed equilibrium between personal life and work. It is essential not to get swallowed into the vortex of ever-more work, because it’s a never-ending story. There’s always going to be more work to do and at the end, the work doesn’t get tired, you do.

And what happens when you’re too tired anyways? You’re not efficient, you’re slow, you’re less creative and less rigorous, in a word, you suck. Ok, that’s two words. In a word, yousuck. So you get tired for nothing, bad strategy. In that case, have a break, go running, gaming, clubbing or whatever it is you do to unwind. And you’ll see that when you’re really rested, body and mind, you’ll work better the next day and you’ll like it better. Same goes for the long term. Don’t forget to take long breaks, disconnect, go on vacation. Even when you have a huge deadline and you feel you can’t even stop to pee for two weeks, sometimes taking just one day off is going to boost you for the rest of the days and you’ll achieve much more than if you hadn’t stopped.

And don’t forget to have a life. Balanced people are not only better at work, they are also nicer in general.

I’ll give you a final example. Now you’re procrastinating and surfing on the Internet, browsing over pointless blogs and such. You’ve been going that for some time. Now restore the balance, and GO DO SOME WORK!

Should students ask questions in seminars? The answer is so obvious that, if you are a student you shouldn’t even be reading this. Go away! Well, let’s pretend that you knew the answer and wanted to read because I likely was going to explain why you should. Oh really? Well, you should know the answer to that one too: because seminars are not articles, they are with a speaker, who speaks, so that you can ask questions and, unlike an article, the speaker will answer. Cool no? Ok, that’s not what you meant, I get it. You meant: but WHY AREN’T students asking questions in seminars?

Good question! There are many reasons why scientists in general, not only students mind you, don’t ask questions after a talk, however inspiring it was. One is that you may judge your questions too uninteresting for the audience. One can be that you think this will be seen as a show off move and are afraid to be seen as challenging the speaker; another one is that you are too shy to express yourself in public. All these are understandable but should be fought against.

Another set of reason is far less okay. If you never ask questions because (a) you are afraid to show that you didn’t understand something or (b) however hard you think, you never ever come up with a single question, then you should be worried. You shouldn’t be afraid that you misunderstood something because chances are that most of the audience missed the same thing (most likely because the speaker was unclear), and they possibly missed other things as well. And if you misunderstood something – which is fine by the way – you shouldn’t stay that way; just ask. If it’s rather because you don’t have enough critical thinking to come up with questions then you should exercise yourself, as critical thinking is the crux of the researcher. That and the test tube, but many disciplines do without test tubes.

Now I have heard of a proposition to keep the students after the talk, so that they can discuss more freely with the speaker once the senior scientists have asked their questions and left. I’m not too sure this is a good idea, but this is perhaps an idea worth thinking about.

Asking questions in seminars and congresses arguably is as important as reviewing manuscripts for journals. It is an exercise and a formative task. It helps develop critical thinking and formulate ideas, concepts and interrogations. It also helps fight the insecurity feeling that most of us have felt in these conditions and that have neither sense nor utility.

Any question?



Bonjour les petits lapins!

Now that you are totally convinced that your supervisor is more going to influence your PhD success than the subject would, you are wondering how to identify a good supervisor. If I tell you “that’s the one that proposes good PhD subjects”, you’re going to throw me carrots, so I’d better develop a bit. I said “a bit”, but that’s a figure of speech. Difficult to develop it in just one paragraph and one cartoon.

It may seem ridiculously obvious, but I think a good research supervisor primarily needs to be a good researcher. First because I don’t believe it is possible to show well the ropes of any profession if you don’t master them yourself; second because it may be even harder to transmit the compulsory need for passion for doing research if you’re not good at it. And also, I am a strong believer that you learn much by seeing what you like and dislike in the way your supervisor does research even if it is not an explicit lesson. I believe in “leading by the example” even if I can resort to “do what I say, not what I do” when I mess up. So your supervisor should be someone you want to take example on. Better choose a good scientist then. Perhaps I’ll post one day on what I think this means. I don’t have enough enemies yet.

Should you choose a man or a woman? If you’re more confortable with either sex (but that’d be odd), then chose it. Otherwise, it’s an irrelevant question. Should you find a young scientist or an old one? Well, a young one is less experimented but probably has a smaller lab so more time and perhaps more enthusiasm, so there’s a balance here that means both can be good. One thing that is for sure is that he/she needs to like supervising, and to devote to you a significant amount of his/her time. That doesn’t mean just above 0.05, even if a precise percentage would be meaningless here. People have different ways of supervising, some leave more autonomy and are available upon request, some sit with the students in front of their computer to show them how to do stuff. Some spend a lot of time discussing ideas, or interpreting results. Regardless of the specific way, the importance is availability.

Your supervisor should not impose one immovable PhD subject but should instead build with you an excellent project that is tailored to you, that you will enjoy doing. That does not mean letting you work on dolphins or chimps because you’ve always loved them, but to show you what the lab does, understand what you seem to be most interested in and adapt the most topical subjects so that the subject will be gradually adapted to fit you while still being relevant to the lab and the most sexy, head-smashing brilliant subject ever. That subject will evolve with time during the three years of your PhD. Because science changes, because you will change, and because your first results will probably shift your initial priorities and interests. Your supervisor should encourage you to become gradually independent and to shape you thesis with his/her guidance. The subject has to become your baby, the one you work for, you wake up for, you fight for and are ready to die for. Ok, maybe I’m getting a bit ahead of myself but you get the idea.

Over the course of your PhD, your supervisor must be prepared/able to show you, directly or indirectly, how to write research papers and grants, how to review papers for journals, how to prepare posters and talks, how to communicate to the public and how to prepare the next steps of your career. The two of you will form a team, so that’s one that has to be strong, to work on trust, and to aim for pride and success of the team mate. And it goes both ways.


Still there? Ok, you’re half way through the post, bear with me. So, how to you know who has at least some of these requisites? There are several ways. First, remember that the PhD interview goes both ways. It is also a way for you to assess whether the prof would suit you, seems to think the way you expect about a supervision, and if the lab more generally would suit you. I often say that students should be able to ask profs for recommendation letters from former students/postdocs, which they obviously can’t, but that’s a pity. Still, they can contact former students and lab members, ask around when they visit the lab and generally try to get info from students and staff alike, either upfront or more subtly according to the circumstance. Ask about the style of the supervision (not the quality, subtlety I said). Your supervisor should be proud of your work, let you present your data in meetings and mention your contribution when he/she presents it. Obviously, he/she should not put two or more students in competition over the same subject (and not have too many students anyway), write papers in your place, take ages to read and edit your drafts, fail to be encouraging or supporting of your limitations, deny you opportunities to take courses or to visit other labs to learn new methods/techniques. Your supervisor should not expect a given number of hours or day in the lab. If too much emphasis on this, then this is suspect. If your project is your baby, you’re not going to count the hours yourself, so why should someone else? Also, when you visit the lab (which should be proposed), try to assess the ambiance, if the students seem generally happy to be there (don’t confuse stress with discontentment). Finally, look also at the scientific output of former students, the number and quality of the papers they produce, as it’s likely to be indicative of your own once you’re there.

The perfect supervisor doesn’t exist, don’t look for that. But there are tons of very good ones over there, and I’ve given you some keys to find them. But most importantly I think, I’ve told you that it’s more important to make your choice over the supervisor than over the topic. Ah, and one last thing that I think is essential. You should like your supervisor, or at least not dislike him/her upfront. Whether or not to bond with students/supervisor is a very interesting topic per se – one that I’ll treat later – but just… no, I said later.

Now, I’m of course not trying to imply that I’m all that. Supervising is not easy and even if you know what you’re supposed to do on paper, managing to do it on a daily basis is not that obvious. Plus, a supervision is a two-ways relationship and it cannot work well if the student is not fully in the game. And believe me, finding a good PhD student is at least as hard to find as a good PhD supervisor. Ah! Just to end up on a nice note: I’ve been very lucky with all my PhD students so far, and totally blessed with the last two.

So, obviously, next post: how to fool your potential supervisor into believing that you would be a good PhD student. Or my own personal expectations during student interviews.