4

TL;DR

What can a PhD student on a research stay abroad do about postdocs that are supposed to be collaborators but behave like "helicopter advisors"?

Background

A friend of mine is doing her PhD (fourth year) in Europe (in a STEM field) and she asked her PhD advisor for the possibility of a research stay abroad. So the advisor told her to contact some professor-acquaintances of his and one of them (at a very famous US university) had a project she could work on but no funds to pay her. She therefore applied for funding and stipends in her home country and managed to scrape up enough money to go and stay for some months. Half of this time has passed by now.

The Situation

She is working on said project together with two postdocs who will be co-authors on a possible paper resulting from it. The professor who invited her will of course also be a co-author but he is not very closely involved. The postdocs, on the other hand, seem to believe they need to track her every step and micro-manage her. All while being very demanding since they are looking for faculty positions. They will (both, sometimes one after the other, sometimes together) come to her office on an almost daily basis to be shown any progress she made. Also, they will schedule frequent meetings (in addition to the weekly group meeting) for her to report on what she has been doing and to give her tasks to complete. From what she's telling me, for her these meetings feel like it's two big guys against her. She tried to involve the professor in the meetings but all that did was make it feel like three big guys against her. She has also started working in the library and that has taken some pressure out since now the postdocs won't just come by and demand seeing her progress.

The Problem

However, the feeling of constantly being pushed and having to prove herself is starting to take a toll and I'm seriously worried about her mental well-being. She's not sleeping well, has considered just dropping everything and going home (something she usually never does), and sometimes she seems close to breaking down.

Now on the one hand I don't think the postdocs are doing this maliciously (they haven't reacted negatively to her starting to work in the library), it just seems to me like they have little experience in supervising students (which is odd, considering that they are looking for faculty positions) and interpersonal relations aren't really their strength. I mean not even an undergraduate student should be supervised so closely in my opinion, let alone someone reaching the end of their PhD who is funded from abroad and is basically a visiting collaborator. And on the other hand, to some degree, it's probably also her personality that's making this difficult since she really values working independently and maybe it's a cultural/language thing that has prevented her from being able to make that clear. But all this does not change the fact that something has to happen. Unfortunately, I wasn't really able to give her any good advice on how to make them understand that they're pushing too much and need to give her more freedom.

The Question

So what can I tell her to do when she asks the next time? How can she improve this situation without burning bridges?

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    That sounds like a pretty standard situation in many labs. I don't think discussions on a daily basis and meeting on a weekly basis with a grad student who has only a couple of months experience and a short/strict timeline to finish a project are considered extreme. – Greg Mar 15 at 3:41
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    "I mean not even an undergraduate student should be supervised so closely in my opinion" This is totally wrong. Daily supervision is appropriate for beginning researchers, which is what undergraduate researcher often are. In fact, my department requires that all undergraduates working in labs be supervised constantly. – Anonymous Physicist Mar 15 at 6:07
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    @AnonymousPhysicist Also, there is a wide variety of behavior that counts as supervision... If a guest would come in my lab with a goal to finish a project in a couple of months, I would definitely ask him/her on a daily basis "if everything is going as planned" and have regular meetings. In the case of a student, I would definitely go more in details, especially that he/she may have not to experience basic stuff like safety regulations, ordering necessary items, measurements etc... And let's not discount the factor that this is a story told by one person who talked with a person... – Greg Mar 15 at 8:49
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    Take a look at scrum/agile--specifically, the daily stand-up, 5 minute meeting. But you could certainly try emailing the post-docs at the end-of-day with what you did and what you plan to do the next day. – mkennedy Mar 15 at 18:22
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    I think it's also worth considering that the study-abroad lab experience is located in the US, there's definitely differences between how PhD programmes are run in the US and Europe. – PandaPants Mar 20 at 10:32
14

It's hard to tell exactly what's happening here.

  • It does not seem unreasonable for collaborators to sync up daily. Ideally all three of you would be syncing up with each other, rather than just this student syncing up with her supervisors -- but since she is only staying for a short time and working on a single project, it is sort of natural that there is an imbalance. I wonder if the student is interpreting standard collaboration/teamwork as "pushing" and "having to prove herself".

  • But I can also see scenarios where the supervisors are really being overbearing and negatively affecting progress.

Either way, this is not the student's preferred work style, so I would consider trying to schedule some standing meetings. Maybe send a brief e-mail that says something like:

Hi guys,

I'd like to schedule some additional meetings where we could all sync up on the nuclear waste project. So far we've just been doing these discussions "on the fly", but I think it might be better for all of us if we had a set time for the three of us to sync up. Maybe Tuesdays and Thursdays at 1 PM? Please let me know.

Worried

They may react with

No, things are fine, you're doing great, just keep doing what you're doing

In which case, you can say bluntly:

I'd really prefer to have a set time -- that way I can prepare a summary of my progress/questions in advance, and won't have so many interruptions during the rest of the week. Could we give it a try?

If they still push back after that, you may have to accept that this is how the group operates.

  • Although perhaps MWF would be better given that the current standard is daily. Another alternative is to do these informal exchanges via Slack or similar, rather than in person. – Dawn Mar 19 at 21:21
  • My thinking behind twice per week was that it sounds like there is already a weekly group meeting that involves the professor, so this would be three per week total. But hard to tell from here what the best number is. – cag51 Mar 19 at 21:35
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It's possible that we do not know how to address the real issues here because we do not know exactly what is being said between the supervisors and the student. However, overall it seems like you have unreasonable expectations for how supervision should occur.

  • Daily meetings are perfectly reasonable for a PhD student working in a new environment. Some PhD students do not need to have a meeting every day, but some do. It should take months to figure out the appropriate meeting frequency.
  • Supervisors should, in fact, push students to do better work. If this is done appropriately (we do not know based on your question), the student should feel they are improving themselves, not proving themselves.
  • Avoiding the supervisors is not appropriate, professional behavior.
  • As @cag51 says, it is appropriate to request that meetings occur at predictable times.
  • If supervisors express themselves in a way that is not constructive, it is appropriate to ask them to rephrase their criticism as constructive feedback. For example, "What would you like me to do to improve X?"
2

There is clearly a mismatch in how your friend is being supervised and how she is most effectively supervised. Resolving this will be both helpful for her and her postdoc supervisors: your friend will learn how to create an effective collaboration and her supervisors will learn that supervision requires a certain empathy and understanding of the person you're supervising.

For me personally, for example, the behavior of those postdocs would drive me up the wall. I have no problem whatsoever with daily progress reports and supervision, but a feeling that I'm being pushed/rushed is very counter productive to me. I'm very capable of pushing myself. I would also be quite surprised if a fourth year PhD student who has managed to get funding for a research stay abroad needs any sort of external motivation.

Obviously, your friend working in the library to avoid her supervisors is not a workable solution and will lead to an ineffective collaboration.

Your friend should probably reach out to her supervisors to discuss exactly how they want to structure the collaboration. If I had to have a conversation like this, I'd touch on the following points: everyone wants this project to succeed in an ambitious time frame, she's grateful for the amount of time the postdocs are spending on her and there's nothing wrong with daily progress updates. However, the way they are currently structured (your friend should mention more clearly what she finds difficult) is counter productive because they are unduly stressing her out and this is close to influencing the quality of her work. Maybe they can find a better solution?

1

It seems possible that both of these things are true:

  1. The situation is fairly standard, there is no intentional disrespect or interference, and your friend's input is valued
  2. Your friend's colleagues are failing in important and unnecessary ways to contribute to an environment in which she can be happy and productive.

We don't really know about #1, but IMO it's best to assume that's the case unless it becomes very clear that it's not.

You ask what you can do, and I think the most important thing is simply to listen, and affirm/validate her take on the situation, and encourage her to talk it through with you.

Beyond that, she might focus some careful thought on who her strongest (potential) ally in the university is. It might be somebody in the department that she relates to and communicates with well, or it might be somebody she doesn't know very well, but who has a lot of experience managing student projects. She should talk to them as well, and see if there might be some insights/nuances she is not picking up on due to linguistic or cultural barriers. Since there are real and/or perceived professional consequences for each of her co-authors, she may have an opportunity to build a better relationship with the "helicopters" by demonstrating that she is mindful of them, and can contribute to positive outcomes in their own careers.

I think the key is to find a way to broach the subject in a clear, non-judgmental, and non-confrontational way. More or less, "You may not realize it, but my work style is easily disrupted by frequent interruptions. Do you think we could find a way to change our communication patterns so they have a better effect, but with less negative impact on my work routine?"

Doing that with the input or participation of an ally who understands the significance to her would probably help.

1

Seeing that many answers that seem to actually come from the US find the described supervision pattern good/normal/expected, I'd like to put in a (slightly old-fashioned) European STEM perspective.

However, I'd first like to say that this cultural difference is somewhat unexpected for me. I did a research stay in Canada between finishing my Diplom and beginning my PhD (so a bit earlier than friend) and the experience was quite different from what is described here: true collaboration as opposed to checking up on progress.
So together with the other answers, I'd say that the cultural difference probably does play a role but inexperience of the supervisors probably also adds to that (not recognizing that the close supervision isn't needed and actually hampers progress).


About the cultural difference:

For European PhD "programs*" a sufficiently good Master is typcially the prerequisite. So any PhD student** in Europe is a fully qualified professional (though I do see recently a tendency to tell the PhD "students" that the PhD is still part of their qualification program/schedule)

  • The Master thesis demonstrates that the (then-still) student is able to work out a research topic of manageable complexity (6 - 12 months) essentiall on their own, i.e. with slight guidance by the supervisor.
    (The more guidance the lower the mark)
  • A PhD thesis in this framework demonstrates that the candidate is able to work out a fairly complex (3 years FTE) research topic on their own. On their own means very importantly means that they'll organize themselves, get collaborations going etc. Of course they'll discuss with supervisors and peers, and of course senior scientists have far more experience of a wider fiels - however in the narrow field of the PhD topic, the "student" is expected .

I wrote above that this is a slightly old-fashioned point of view: things develop into the direction that PhD students are less free in their choice of project and milestones (but paid more) and also more closely supervised.

If the friend comes from a group with the old-fashioned European perspective, the described micro-management is not only unpleasant as micro-management, but for the student it may carry the unspoken notion that the student is essentially failing: if they were doing fine, such a close supervision would not be necessary.

So what can I tell her to do when she asks the next time?

Maybe you could reflect with your friend whether this is a contributing point to the issue. If so, I'd suggest that

  • knowing about the cultural difference may already relieve the friend's stress a bit, and
  • explaining to the collaborators (incl. professor) that this difference a) unfortunately means that the current close supervision causes a lot of stress and b) friend is actually used to and able to work far more independently and would wish to do so already there.

I've been in a micro-managed research group (in Europe) after 8 years in various not-micro-managed research groups and found it quite stressful and prone to conflicts. For me it certainly diod carry the impression of distrust in my work/professional abilities. It took a considerable amount of reflection to realize what exactly was going on. I decided to refuse that suggestion. I think this kept me healthy - but it certainly did not make me a meek member of staff (i.e. from their point of view: difficult to manage). I'm emphasizing this here because getting to that decision and not just becoming mad at the supervisor took considerable mental energy.

  • I find that being in a foreign country with a foreign work culture (even if within the Western cultures) and probably foreign language already requires more mental energy than just living "as usual" at home.
    Here this may mean that friend's mental resources are already strained without the difficulties at work. Which firstly hampers reflection about what is going on. Secondly, even with reflection she may not be able to brush off of the micro-management as she'd be able to do at home.
    However, she may still be able to communicate this to the collaborators. The collaborators in turn may realize that micro-management is counterproductive here if that is clearly pronounced. (At least, there's a chance)

  • Another nuance to this is that at some point during my stay I got homesick. But I didn't realize it until long afterwards that that's probably how it is called. Nevertheless, it didn't help in terms of equanimity - I'm afraid I became quite grumpy. I'm writing this because what I remember is that I felt decidedly hampered and restricted (by external circumstances, not by collaborators - but I do smell a possible relation to what you describe). That could be a contributing point that doesn't have to do with the collaborators themselves - but again reflecting and communicating this may allow them to help her.

  • What is worse than micro-management is the combination of micro-management with unspoken rules. So I totally agree with the call for clear spelled-out rules and explanations in some of the other answers.
    One such communication could be to say (friend) that she does want to productively collaborate with her supervisors. As the current mode is hampering her due to the stressful experience/connotations she cannot help (for the moment), she suggests to turn around the mode: the supervisors will let her work undisturbed, and she'll call on them (alternatively, schedule meetings).

  • Possibly, also the style of the meetings could be changed. The description in the question is supervision, not collaboration: supervisors hand out tasks and check completion. Collaboration means that they all should also work on the subject together. (To put it a bit more bluntly, pushing and checking completion of tasks is management, but not an intellectual contribution to a paper in itself). Maybe friend can close her description of what she did with a description of what her next steps are going to be. The collaborators of course can suggest changes, but they'll need to convince her, as she ultimately decides what she does next.

  • There is no description in the question whether the collaborators actually do think together with friend through her recent results and discuss these scientifically and intelligently. Acting as such discussion partners to help friend to sharpen her thoughts and ideas and contributing their insights are proper contributions on the side of the collaborators.
    @OP: maybe you can reflect together with your friend whether such scientific input does take place. If so, that's what she's actually come to that group for - it may be helpful for her to fully appreciate this. First for herself and then also to communicate to the collaborators that she does realize and appreciate this.
    If on the other hand this is lacking, I'd say she should clearly formulate her expectation of such a collaboration.


* they are often not very much like anything that is usually called a program. They are almost pure research.

** In German, they are not even called student (nor do they have to enroll to university as students - although they are allowed to do so in order to get some benefits such as cheap bus/train tickets)

0

Seems fairly normal to me. Suggesting alternative meeting spaces or meeting types may be the right solution.

Your friend may suggest an alternative meeting space under the pretense/reasoning that it would be "more conducive to productivity" or "offer a change of atmosphere".

  • Pre-schedule the meetings like others have suggested.
  • Pick a neutral location she feels comfortable in.
  • A co-working space with unrelated others around.
  • Suggest keeping "impromptu" meetings remote via Zoom or Skype.

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