Some graduate students and post-docs have reported serious problems with their advisors and supervisors. Some of the problems are severe enough to be career ending. Not all problems can be avoided but it is possible that some can be if the student or post-doc takes some actions, especially in their first days of the new position. The goal is to build a solid and positive relationship with the advisor from the beginning so that small problems later don't escalate.

What can a student or post-doc do, starting in their first days and weeks, to help assure a strong and positive relationship with a supervisor?

There is no assumption here that it is all up to the student, but what can a person do in a new environment to maximize their chances of having a good and lasting relationship?

Students who have done this successfully and faculty members who can help students fit in are invited to give advice.


Note that I'm not looking to collect horror stories here in which things went terribly wrong. What can the student do so that the horror scenario is unlikely to ever become an issue.

I would say that one of the largest things that a student/post-doc can do to foster a relationship with their advisor/mentor is establishing expectations early. This can be in the form of goals, research statements, or mutually agreed upon research plans. One of my former universities had a research statement form that students and mentors were asked to fill out. It specified what the goals of the partnership would be, what types of funding would be provided, what publications (with authorship order) were foreseen, etc. The partnerships that actually took the time to fill out the form had a much lower "failure" rate in their relationship.

In my experience, many of the issues that arise between mentor and student center around differing expectations. Expectations about timeline, work load, authorship, copyright, publication rate, etc.

Now, of course, this is easier said than done. As a student, it can be hard to tell an advisor that you want to discuss "expectations." Some advisors would feel affronted by being asked to establish goals and plans. One thing that I have seen students do in this case is present their advisor with personal goals that the student wants to establish for themselves. This communicates several things to the mentor:

  1. A willingness to be forward thinking and take responsibility for one's own work. It shows a "communication starts with me" approach to the relationship.
  2. An actual structure for the mentor to build upon. It is much easier to advise a student that can build a basic framework for the metrics of the partnership.
  3. A willingness to ask for feedback as a means of improving.

I will add an sort of post script to my answer: Some mentors are anything but. Vetting an advisor can be very important for ensuring that your relationship with you mentor is positive. Part of having a good relationship with your advisor is selecting a good advisor in the first place. (Which is much easier said than done). Not every mentor is in academia because they love students. That is a reality that does need to realized here. Some professors are in academia because they are too combative to survive in the "real" world. Attempting to foster open communication with a potential advisor can act as a litmus test in this regard.

Choose a good match between supervisor and student

I think that having a good relationship with a supervisor starts with the match between supervisor and student/postdoc. Not every supervisor is a good match for every student, so it is not as simple as "good" supervisors and not.

I think sometimes students make foolish decisions about how they choose their supervisors: they join labs only because they are accepted or because of the reputation of an institution. They join labs without seriously considering other options, without interviewing in person, without meeting their PI, without having outside support systems.

Admissions systems in some fields and in some countries make it worse, and abusive people can be skilled at hiding it, but the advice I always give prospective students is that advisor choice is the most important grad school decision.

Post docs can be a bit more independent, and so they may benefit more from a fancy name or pedigree, but they should still consider what they will get out of a lab and how the mentor/mentee relationship there will fit their goals.

Communicate regularly and honestly

I think a good mentor/mentee relationship means that communication happens freely between the parties. For mentees, it is important to share information with your mentor at all phases of work and especially when there are difficulties. When students try to hide negative results, bad things happen.

As a student, be prepared to deal with (and not fear) criticism and to learn and grow from it rather than be afraid. Because you are learning, you will not be perfect. Expect that, and be prepared to make and learn from your mistakes.

Additionally, it is important to communicate expectations and goals at all phases of work. For every paper/project, figure out up front who is responsible for what, including authorship expectations. Check in with updated schedules as intended goal dates come and go.

Along with my first point, prospective/interviewing students and post docs should be asking current students and staff about the communication style in the lab and get some sense of whether this type of honest communication will be supported or not.

Develop other networks of support

Sometimes, advisors might be too busy to meet all of their mentees' needs even when everything is going well in the mentor/mentee relationship. Students can avoid getting into a situation where they are stuck if they build other networks of support. Many graduate programs encourage this by forming thesis committees early that consist of other professors who can be the start of a broader network, but even if this isn't mandated students should be looking for these opportunities.

Along with my first point about choosing a good match in the first place, students and postdocs should consider these other peripheral support networks when deciding on an institution. Don't get stuck in an institution where only one professor does anything remotely similar to what you want to study. Don't go to an institution where these other support networks are discouraged. Ask people about these things before you go.

Moving on

These alternative networks will be critical if your relationship with your primary advisor deteriorates, which will sometimes happen even if the mentee does everything "right." It will always be easier to move on earlier on rather than later, when too much has already been invested. Still, it is important to address issues as they come up, before there is too much baggage.

By addressing problems early, it will be more clear whether the situation can be salvaged or not. If you wait to solve problems and try to hide or ignore them, they are unlikely to just go away and you will be stuck deeper.

Yet again, back to my first point: choose a supervisor who works at an institution that will support you if things go wrong. There should be policies in place to support students who have problems with their advisor. Avoid institutions who do not have those sorts of policies in place or that have no support system outside of your one advisor.

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    This is really good answer! How the student can know whether the institution would support student, my ex-institute has been known by freedom and being supportive, however, they had protect my ex-PI although he did twice for me and another senior student. – Monika Oct 15 at 17:59
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    @Monika Nothing is ever 100%, which is why I give suggestions like building your own support network outside of your advisor. If the institution fosters and supports those networks, that would be a good sign. Having some sort of backup plan gives you more options. If your one advisor is the only person you can possibly work with in that institution, there isn't a lot the institution can do if you run into problems besides putting pressure on that one person, which is not likely to result in a positive outcome for you. – Bryan Krause Oct 15 at 18:03
  • How anyone (assume PhD student) who is working under an advisor can find his own support network unless his advisor allows him to work and/or discuss technical findings with them? – Mithun Oct 16 at 5:47
  • @Mithun If an advisor doesn't allow you to discuss technical findings with anyone else, I would suggest running away. Sharing research is a key part of academic work, and other academics are important sources of feedback. – Bryan Krause Oct 16 at 15:40
  • Agree. By the way, does the ‘own’ network of the student refer to the persons who are not colleagues or collaborators to the advisor? In general, an advisor often shares the research findings to his network, however seemed reluctant to share with outside of his network. – Mithun Oct 16 at 16:35

Do your due diligence before choosing a supervisor

Many people skip this step, but it's incredibly important: talk to the prospective supervisor and their group, as well as any common contacts you may have, before signing on.

In particular, it's important to maneuver the interview schedule so that you have the chance to talk to the current students and postdocs of the group in a setting where the supervisor isn't present, and with enough time to let the conversation relax into a pace that allows for all the relevant aspects of the group's culture to bubble to the surface in a natural manner. And, if it is at all possible, do this in an environment as far removed from the strict halls of academia as possible (coffee, dinner, drinks at the pub, whatever you can get).

Don't just ask "is it nice to work here?", because the response will be polite and will therefore gloss over all the hiccups that can develop into serious problems. Ask the tricky questions: how is lab time allocated? how often are people left wanting for lab time because their project doesn't have a high enough priority? how often do students actually meet with the supervisor? how long do students generally wait to get feedback on drafts of papers or theses? how is authorship decided? have there been any issues with a student before? how were they resolved? is there e.g. resistance from the part of the supervisor to use the formal support mechanisms at the institution? how does the supervisor behave if they perceive that a student is under-performing? does the supervisor thrust sundry administration tasks to students or postdocs? if so, what kinds, and is due credit assigned properly?

There's a lot of things that can go wrong in a research group, and you won't find out unless you establish enough rapport with the existing students that they feel comfortable telling you. One effective technique is to provide a 'mirror': tell a horror story that you have personal experience with (someone you know, someone at your institution, etc.; the closer to you, the better), and it will often prompt them into saying things which are more specific and therefore more useful. And above all, be as honest as you can yourself, which will make it much easier for them to be honest with you.

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    I wish I had did this before, as now I have suffered from toxic lab ending up resigning after one year. Actually I did that to many potential lab and telling them what I have experienced, almost of students had listed what they feel honestly, which makes to me more complicated or in other terms moving from worse to worst. Honestly, now I am looking for a lab and I am doing that, but I cannot find a good lab at the moment, and contemplating whether this is the norm in academia, in other side, my ex-PI managed to get two new students although all of the violations he did to me and others. – Monika Oct 16 at 13:36

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