One of the reasons I wanted to go down the PhD route was to eventually have my own PhD students and to teach them the myriad joys of science (they’d figure out the tear-jerking pains all by themselves – and I’d totally be there to console them). I was spurred on even further when I encountered the overwhelming, and somewhat baffling, diversity of PhD supervisor personalities: from dictators and crazed work-a-holics to the fabled benevolent teacher. So, in an attempt to give you a handle on what to watch for, here are some of most common supervisor archetypes I’ve heard people talk/lament about.


The Wanderer

Appearing in the lab for maybe a week or two, the Wanderer arrives amidst a flurry of hugs and confused faces to dispense a few words of wisdom or sharp criticisms and bombard you with new information from their latest adventure, before dashing off to the next conference, meeting, expedition, or sabbatical. You’re not really sure what it is they’re doing and they’re never around to ask – it’s probably important, though. Right?

Support will be low but eccentricity is going to be through the roof. Plus, you’ll (have to) get good at being independent.


The Task Master

There simply aren’t enough hours in the days (or reagents in the lab!) to satisfy the Task Master’s desire for you to be running every conceivable experiment in parallel, while also attending all departmental talks, giving your own talks, writing their talks, networking with other scientists, managing other side projects, arranging conference flights, and of course writing your Nature paper(s).

Expect to see seven-day work timetables in your inbox, or helpfully added to your Google calendar…


The Buddy

You guys are totally in this together: project, supervisor, student – you’re just working things out and doing science! Woo! This is awesome. You’re basically Maverick and Goose. The Buddy totally gets that you’re new to this research thing and there’s a lot to get through, and yeah, it’s stressful, and yeah there are deadlines, but we’ll worry about that later. Right now, they’ve got your back. You’re basically doing the same stuff!

Coffee breaks in that cool café down the road, pub lunches, zero formality, the occasional lack of personal space, and proper support are on the cards. You hit the jackpot.


The “Who are you, again?” Supervisor

This supervisor is probably Head of Department or something by now and, to be completely honest, struggles to keep up with their own workload and plethora of university admin chores, let alone remember which student you are or which project you’re working on. Unlike the Wanderer, the “Who are you, again?” Supervisor will always be around – you’ll see them flitting between the labs, in an out of offices, arriving at your lab meeting halfway through and looking completely distracted – but they won’t really have time to lend much support.

You’ll add their name to your thesis and papers, but make friends with the post-docs as that’s where your supervision will be coming from.


The Armchair Professor

“Come into my office. Let’s talk about your research. Have a seat on the Chesterfield sofa. Sherry?” The Armchair Professor has been in science for quite some time now has accumulated that air of knowledge and gravitas that comes with having seen it all and more importantly, done it all. But of course, now doesn’t spend any time in the lab. When it comes to those one-to-meetings, they spend a great deal of time asking why you did those experiments; why you think you got those results; what you think this means for the project; and whether or not you’ve thought about the follow up experiments that you just know they’ve already totally mapped out in their brain and probably even know what the results will be!

This is probably going to be pretty intimidating but, in all likelihood, you’ll end up a much better scientist for being intellectually poked and prodded so frequently.


The Sneaky Buddy

You got a high-five after your weekly catch-up meeting. The two of you worked through the complexities of flow cytometry. You’re even chatting about the ridiculousness of the weekend when you found yourself hitting the town with a bunch of Freshers, and suffice it to say, you feel less than fresh right now. But it’s okay, because you’re buddies. Your lab meeting’s today and you’re confident that that with Buddy Supervisor in tow, you’ll smash it. Midway through your second slide, you’re interrupted with a “Ahem. Sorry. How did you control for that? And have you considered how the recent work from the Jones lab essentially makes this work a bit derivative?” You peer through the gloom of the meeting room. Was it the PI? That cranky post-doc? Nope. It’s your supervisor! Your buddy. And you’ve been stabbed right in the back. This will be a common theme: you’ll hop from high-fives to scathing and almost personal criticism, without any warning.

This isn’t the Buddy; it’s the Sneaky Buddy. You’re not really friends. Watch yourself.


The Benevolent Teacher

There’s always someone in the lab who knows someone whose friend has the best supervisor, ever. That person’s supervisor is like a sagely aunt or uncle: definitely not your buddy, but full of helpful advice, and fully aware of when to hold your hand and when to let you figure things out on your own. The Benevolent Teacher gives you pointers but let’s you draw your own conclusions. When things go wrong – and they will, a lot – the Benevolent Teacher isn’t judgemental but rather takes the time to understand why you thought things would go to plan, helps you gets things back on track, and invites discussion about how to improve your research methods. The Benevolent Teacher also has time to read your thesis chapters and give prompt, insightful feedback; point out relevant scientists that you might not have encountered yet; and helps you prepare for things like vivas and interviews. It’s said that some Benevolent teachers travel to the lab on unicorns with rainbow-colored manes, fueled by the tears of bitter PhD supervisors who think students need to go through a trial-by-fire because that’s what they did. But I’m pretty sure that’s just a myth.


Which type of supervisor did you end up with?