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Choosing a future supervisor May 15, 2009

Posted by fetzthechemist in Uncategorized.
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Although this is written in the classic boss-employee mode, a lot of the concepts apply to the professor – grad student/ post-doc situation, too.

The interactions between a supervisor and you can range from making success of possible to making it impossible. If you work under someone who is a resource and aid, you can thrive. On the other hand, a boss who adds to your difficulties can make a highly-successful project seem fraught with torture. Everyone understands these relationships once they are in place, but can you manage your career better by assessing them before they happen and choose the better paths?

Although most people are aware of the importance, few look at them in the one critical time in which they have control and a decision-making power, the period in going after a new position. Everyone is so engrossed in the competition for the coveted position and in its technical challenges that they forget that this position will be them working with a supervisor.

If they have any interactions with the potential supervisor during an interview, it is in the defensive mode of not wanting to say the wrong things. They do not have their radar on to gather insights about the potential boss or what the working relationship might be like. They especially do not ask many questions about management style, leadership, team building, and other important issues. They do not want to appear to be a potential “trouble” employee.

This attitude, although psychologically understandable, is not good since it avoids finding out if the future position will be untenable. At a minimum a person should observe the potential boss and ask potential colleagues about work environment, team dynamics, and organization. The answers may be encrypted, but the wording and tone can give hints of possible dangers. If the answers are forthright and positive, then there are lesser chances of problems. When the answers are not straightforward or are phrase diplomatically, then these are warning signals.

Before starting interviews you should think about what can and cannot tolerate in a boss, as well as the corollary things that you value. Among your lists there may be certain items that are absolutes, ones where your future boss must do them or cannot do them. These define your minimum acceptance level. If you have such things in mind, then you can at least try to see if the good ones are there and the bad ones are absent. Signs that this limit is not met should tell you that the best sounding position within a fabulous organization might still be a living hell if you have a boss that you cannot work for.

The same ideas should be had by students looking at graduate schools or post-doctoral positions. A research advisor/ principle investigator is in the role of supervisor in many ways. Personality and attitude clashes can be even more detrimental in these early stages of a career.

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