Biocurious is a weblog about biology, quantified.

Overheard on campus: Bad advisors?

by PhilipJ on 2 April 2009

I was walking across King’s College Circle and overheard what I assumed to be a couple of graduate students talking about their advisors. As we were walking in opposite directions I only caught a brief snippet of their conversation, but what I did hear I found very confusing:

Grad student 1: “How do I know if I have a bad supervisor?”
Grad student 2: “I really don’t know.”

Everyone’s advisor is different, but so are the needs of individual students. For different students, the same advisor can have completely different interactions and expectations (in fact, necessarily so: a senior graduate student or post-doc should interact differently with their advisor than, say, an undergraduate hanging around over a summer). It all comes down to whether you and your advisor work well together, which I personally think is only related to your own expectations. Some advisors want you in the lab (or the field, or writing code, or whatever…) 100 hours a week, with group meetings on Saturday mornings. Other advisors are in absentia for most of the year and give you very little hands-on supervision. The balance of supervision, freedom, traveling to conferences, etc: it’s all based primarily on a student’s own expectations.

If I run across these two people having the same conversation again, I think I’ll pipe up with the following: If you aren’t sure, I think there are bigger issues than your advisor.



  1. b    2063 days ago    #

    I think it’s so hard to know because there are no standards for it. The PhD is difficult because it is at once rigorous and a creative endeavor (so much for scientific objectivity). It’s hard to say whether or not you have a dud on your hands — sometimes the less-than-optimal interactions are outweighed by the benefits of your situation. The only thing I can say is: make the best of what you have, but watch out for the flakes and assholes. You should be able to sniff then out within about 20 minutes.


  2. Andre    2061 days ago    #

    b, I’m not sure you can always sniff out the flakes and assholes just from talking. I know people that have been surprised.

    I agree that it’s hard to know sometimes. I think many people suffer from a grass-is-greener problem. That’s why I always recommend caution to people deciding to switch labs. If it’s a really bad situation, get out, but don’t forget to take stock of the good things because you need to make sure you’re not going to end up in a situation that’s just got different problems and isn’t better overall.


  3. a grad student    2057 days ago    #

    Most people can sniff out incompatibility. But this does not mean that the nice, cool person who made you feel confortable in the beginning won’t turn into a nightmare. Yes, think twice about leaving. Sometimes that hole you dug…. you should just suck it up and keep digging rather than starting a new one. But you should have some idea what you want out of your experience, and if you’re not getting that… why are you there?


  4. Biochem PhD student    2054 days ago    #

    I think the best way to find out if an advisor/lab is good or bad is to do an undergraduate research project or work for them over the summer. You get to see first hand how the lab dynamics are in the lab …and find out the dirt on your supervisor before you actually sign up for graduate studies with them.


  5. anup chowdhury    1773 days ago    #

    I have a very good experience guys in my masters with supervisor and supervision. I would like to say that every supervisor would be different it is you whom should try and adjust with the situation as such people are qualified and talented much and much more than you and its just the way they like to supervise.You should try to learn from every supervisor…because they have lot to give….but it sometimes make you little bit sad as you might not get much help from some supervisors but if you hope to learn or gain some knowledge than you have to burn your feet in every desert…..thanks for sharing your experience Andre and others. It a fantastic blog and like to appreciate the work on th web.


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