Selfish supervisors

selfish supervisorsSupervisors of PhD students and Post Docs are there to provide input and discussion on the research project that their group members undertake. Crucial, also, is that supervisors provide mentoring to their PhD students and Post Docs, which is critical to their career development and advancement. Most supervisors mentor their group members well, but in some cases, the focus on research takes over, benefitting the supervisor, but with possible undesirable consequences for the career development of the PhD student or Post Doc.

PhD students in the Netherlands, and in many other countries, are expected to finish their PhD within four years. For one reason or the other, many PhD students at the institute that I work at, take five years or even longer to finish their PhD. PhD students themselves may not see the CV advantages of finishing their PhD in four years, whereas supervisors argue that it’s about ‘quality over quantity’, so it’s good to spend one more year on that one paper that needs writing up. But why that paper, and who is going to pay for the extra year? Even if money is available, on the CV it will still state that the PhD took more than four years.

Does it really matter, you might wonder, if you take a year longer to finish your PhD? Yes, it certainly does! I’ve sat on two committees now that evaluate applications for postdoctoral, personal VENI fellowships funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO). When evaluating the career progression of the candidates, the committee always checks how long someone took over their PhD. If it’s four years with, for example, one or two papers out, that’s great! But if it is five or more years, the committee wants to know why the candidate needed one more year.  If it is merely to write another chapter, this is not evaluated positively. There could be other reasons, of course, like a failed field season or lab disaster, or personal reasons, but this should then be made clear on the CV, in which case the extended time is justified.

Based on this experience, my one advise to PhD candidates is to finish within four years and move on! Finishing within four years is an excellent achievement. It looks good on the CV, especially if you have one or more papers out already (in my field of population biology at least).

And what about the Post Docs? What happens sometimes is that, after finishing the PhD, someone is offered to stay on as a Post Doc in the same lab. This is of course very convenient for the person involved, but in the long run will not contribute to this person’s academic independence. Particularly not if this person has also done her/his Bachelor and Master studies at the same institution. The main reason is that the publications resulting from the post doc will also be co-authored by the person’s PhD supervisor. Funding bodies like NWO and ERC especially focus on whether a candidate is on a path of academic independence, exemplified by publications without their PhD supervisor.

There are many sites and institutions that offer plentiful advise on how to transition from PhD student to faculty, but the role of the supervisor cannot be underestimated as is it is their duty to mentor their PhDs and Post Docs as we all progress in our careers.

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