Inspirational supervisor: a portrait drawn by trainees

Much has been written of how to be a desirable student or post-doc. We thought it would be helpful to turn the tables around and write a short manifesto of what we think a great academic supervisor is all about. The inspiration for our views comes from many printed and living sources. This insightful piece on what to expect from your adviser in Science Careers is refreshingly frank and clear. Several other good articles make very helpful guides for mentors such as this one in Nature, Science or ESA bulletin and references therein. Much of the advice and guidelines written for the mentors are of course applicable to supervisors too. Let us clarify: your supervisors do not need not to be your mentors, but ideally they are. Irrespectively, they should propel you forward and fulfill the highest standards of supervision.

So what are the goals of outstanding supervision?

Overall, it’s pretty simple really!?! An excellent supervisor gets the best out of each and every apprentice he or she takes on. Be it the odd undergraduate student, the hard-working PhD student or the aspiring post-doctoral scholar. An excellent supervisor is able to guide their apprentices according to their specific needs, character and future career goals. Of course, there is not one type of supervisor that fits each and everyone’s needs. Some people need very close guidance; others cannot stand it and flourish only with the ‘hands-off’ approach. Some people want to be networked and others seek technical expertise. However, each and everyone will benefit from supervision that has been thought through and aspires to the highest standards.

Of course, this is an idealistic view, yet we think it is always best to start with the highest aspirations. It is easier to lower the bar later on than to correct already muddled standards. So let us paint you a portrait of an idealistic supervisor, a ‘rara avis’ that may not exist and that we have never been ourselves. Nonetheless, getting as close as possible to it is our ultimate goal.

1. Truly care about your people

It is obvious that something is wrong with science as an industry. We are producing too many disposable and interchangeable PhDs and post-docs. We offer too little career opportunities for the masses of aspiring scholars. Some call it The Life Science Bubble. For many trainees, understanding this can lead to a sense of isolation, low self esteem and even depression. It will make a difference if you truly care about your people. Most people have only one shoot at a successful PhD. It’s success can make all the difference in peoples’ lives in the current economic climate. So treat your trainees as persons and not as minions. Support them and show that you care.

2. Lead from the front and by example

A boss is not always a leader, but a great supervisor is.

3. Build scientific integrity in the wake of your own scrutiny

Now, this is very important. It is a fundamental role of a great supervisor to foster scientific integrity. This is one place where you need to be inflexible with your trainees even at the price of appearing ‘not nice’. Many of us, who are still in the game at a later stage of their career, choose to stay in academia for the joy of performing science. So nurture it in others and show how it’s done for real. Teach your folks proper statistical analyses, logic, experimental design, repetition and controls. Science is nothing without it. Show that you care about good record keeping and organization. For your graduate students (and post-docs) the training in scientific rigor and scrutiny you provide will coin their future approach to science.

4. Be human and stay humane

Life is not only about science. It is so much bigger and so much more diverse. So let your people have a life outside the lab, even though you might not have much of one on your own. This was your choice and not theirs. Supporting your folks during family hardships, pregnancies and the first months of a newborn is simply the right thing to do. It makes your lab a more relaxed and appreciated environment. In addition, treating every member equally independent of their religion, race, gender, desire, ethnicity and social status is simply the ultimate goal of a fair civilized society.

5. Network and support your folks

If you ever going to make it in science you need to be connected. Politics is a huge part of science. That is one point in which science and Bavaria countryside politics, now and 25 years ago, are pretty much the same. People trust you more if you had a drink or two with them and know your face. Also the simple recommendation by an influential figure in your field can be very far reaching. So sending your folks to conference where they can give poster presentations and talks will only help them. Well-written and supportive reference letters are an absolute plus for everyone’s career no matter if you apply for a tenure track position or a job in industry.

6. Teach with transparency the skills of becoming a successful group leader

It is hard to learn a skill if no one ever showed you how it’s done, or at least everything is easier once a great teacher instructed you. This is particularly true when it comes to writing a successful grant, submitting a cover letter for a paper or serving on a review panel. Leading your lab with transparency and involving people in writing grants, reviewing papers and mentoring will only do them good. They not only will feel involved and being a part of a team, they will also learn how it’s done and what they might want to do differently.

7. Guide and foster ideas and careers

What is a professional success in academia? Have you ever thought what constitutes your own ‘Impact Factor’ as a scientist? One can measure it in papers written, grants received and the titles acquired. But there is another ruler: you can measure your success by the number of people whose careers you fostered. These would be former students and post-docs who are now prominent figures in your field or in industry. These would be the people who gather around you at conferences to take a ‘lab alumni’ group picture. A great supervisor is not only the one who can attract best students and post-docs but also the one who can guide their careers, give credit for their ideas and eventually let them go.