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I'm doing a PhD and I have two people listed down as my supervisors for the project, who I will call supervisors A and B. I get on really well with supervisor A, he makes constructive suggestions in a constructive way, and I always come out of meetings with him feeling better about my work. In many respects, I couldn't have asked for a better supervisor than A, and I feel I can be quite transparent about how my work is going with him (including discussing soft skills like working effectively from home during the lockdown, managing time and so forth). Supervisor B is several decades older, extremely well-regarded in the department, had numerous awards named after him and has made significant contributions to his area from what I gather. Things have panned out so far in such a way that I've seldom needed to meet supervisor B in order to make progress with my work - technically he is listed as a supervisor for my research project but it's more of a "he pops in when he's interested"-type arrangement.

However, the main reason I prefer to stick with meeting supervisor A is that I often encounter supervisor B around in our department and he has a way with people which comes across as incredibly abrasive and overly critical, often casually undermining people in conversation, asking questions to people in a condescending way or even just making unnecessary verbal "snipes" at people. He is infamous in the department for this, and has supervised many of the academics when they were PhD students, but it seems that nobody has pulled him up on his rudeness because of his authority (when it comes to him supervising students) and his academic reputation. Many anecdotes about him from his former students have originated, for example, in reacting badly and inappropriately to former students of his having children, going on holiday or taking part in extracurricular activities during their doctorates with him. These are normal things that people can expect to do without being penalised by most (sane) supervisors. Supervisor B is incredibly knowledgeable, and has some interesting stories to tell, but is not an enjoyable person to be around and I try to avoid meeting him unless I absolutely have to (once every couple of months versus once a week with supervisor A).

However, because of his reputation, people have alluded that a reference letter from supervisor B would be a golden ticket to get a postdoc/industrial position wherever I wanted, as he is an incredibly well-established name in his field. This leaves me torn as to whether I want to involve him much or not in the project. As far as I am aware, not including him in meetings regularly does not seem to be posing supervisor B (or A) any major issues, apart from a whinge on supervisor B's part once or twice which ended without any repercussions. If I did involve him regularly it would certainly benefit my career in getting publications with him and a recommendation letter from him in the end, but being supervised by him regularly would have a negative impact on my confidence and mental health. I'm a mature student in my area (so I'm rusty with some things), so I already lack confidence in my abilities and could do without someone potentially making me feel worse.

Some may diagree, but I feel that it is vital that a PhD supervisor is someone who you can establish a positive and professional working rapport with. I think it's often an aspect of doing/choosing PhDs which is often not talked about, despite PhD students effectively needing to work with the same person for 3-4 years and there being many "horror" stories of students who have quit or failed as a result of clashes with their supervisors. One of my former professors from during my undergrad also told me that the rapport/personality of a supervisor is just as important as the research area, if not more (although obviously there's no use having a supervisor you get on really well with but whose research area/interests don't line up with yours).

I'd be interested to hear about any input on this - am I dodging a bullet here or simply shooting myself in the foot career-wise?

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    I had the experience with those hotshot but arrogant people and trust me: they are not good for your productivity and mental health. Can you just have him at arms length so you can get his reference letter without involving him in your project directly? – CoderInNetwork May 13 at 21:47
  • I could ask my precedessor, as he also did a PhD with the two supervisors. However, his thesis only contained supervisor A's name because I gather he didn't meet up with B very often or want to seek his involvement on a regular basis, so it could be that supervisor B declined to provide him a reference or put his name on the thesis. – epsilonD3LT4 May 13 at 23:10
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    Also, a recommendation letter is not as effective as your actual publication record so don't worry too much. – CoderInNetwork May 14 at 0:33
  • "some may disagree"..i guess no resonable person could disagree. – user111388 May 14 at 16:31
  • Supervisor B sounds like someone I know. I bet, he/she loathes poor quality work and is impatient. He/is much faster than your average person, and spends more time on research than anyone else. My advice: ignore the emotional side, and try to ensure your work is up to his/her level. I bet he/she is only focused on work, and that's the only aspect that he/she will notice. – Prof. Santa Claus May 14 at 21:49
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Something that is not a direct answer but may be worth considering.

There is an issue of independence when a supervisor/ referee is Big Name X. Not only the reputation (positive or negative) follows the candidate, but more importantly the candidate often needs to convinve others that the research is of own initiative and accomplishment. Simply put, it is the difference between sharing someone else's light (professional ability and creativity) versus having your own. You are unavoidably branded as "Big Name X's student" and a lot of your success is attributed to him, his guidance and expertise, although the truth might be very different. Having to convinvce you are not an elephant can be very difficult, and it is something worth discussing with former PhD students of famous academics to get some perspective.

My practical suggestion to be to avoid B as much as possible and to create alternatives. Your description, as pointed earlier, shows unpleasantness but not malice, and such people might be quite helpful if they take a liking at you. A reference from B can be both an asset and a hindrance but as tempting it may sound it is not the only way to get a future position. To be clearer, asking for a reference is reasonable and valid, but don't let the presence of Big Name Reference distract you too much from other avenues, or even by closing doors to less renown but effective referees.

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Your situation doesn't seem dire as you state it. Some of the reputation of advisor B may be unearned, of course. B may just be impatient, not actually evil. But I can't say and you don't indicate that you have evidence except hearsay.

You actually have a good situation in that you get support from A. I think, under those circumstances, as long as you don't have actual evidence that B has tried (or succeeded) in actually sabotaging someone's career, then you would probably do well to just put up with it as long as it is tenable.

But if you personally get abused or know of situations where B has negatively affected someone's career then you should separate yourself as much as possible.

There are a lot of different kinds of advisors, some better than others. Depend on A for the things you need. You can also, perhaps let A intercede for you a bit if B gets to be problematic. But if you can manage to stay on B's good side and earn their respect then it might be worth a bit of trouble.

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being supervised by him regularly would have a negative impact on my confidence and mental health.

If this is true, then your best path is to avoid him. Actually, your career could be at stake. The most important thing you need in order to get a good postdoc/industrial position is successful research: in the form of papers, a good rec letter from your supervisor, and possibly connections developed at conferences or internships. None of this can happen if you are unhappy, and all of this can flourish if you continue to be confident and healthy.

It is undoubtedly true that a rec letter from supervisor B can have a huge benefit on your future career compared to one from A, but only if it does not come at the detriment of your research productivity. If it undermines your productivity at all -- which it sounds like you think it might -- then on balance, it is unlikely to be a good idea.

Of course, this assumes that your statement is true -- it is possible that you could manage to work closely with supervisor B and somehow stay confident and remain in good mental health. However, my gut feeling is that you should not play dice with this sort of thing. I have certainly talked to a number of PhD students in similar situations, who tried working with the advisor despite their concerns, and things went badly.

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Your have a supervisor who is powerful, but not very pleasant. If you tolerate the unpleasant behaviour, and manage to please your supervisor, they might reward you with a golden ticket to a postdoc. If you don't, you are on your own in this quest. Sounds like a great many stories I've read as a child.

I think the answer to your question depends on do why you want a career in academia. If this is about a relatively secure and relatively well-payed occupation, then struggling through a relation with a difficult boss is definitely something that many people experience at the beginning of their career. This narrative is a firm part of office folklore and became a driving force of many popular films, e.g. The Devil Wears Prada, etc. This narrative then comes from the secondary culture back into our professional life (via people telling each other things like

the rapport/personality of a supervisor is just as important as the research area, if not more ...

ultimately forming a self-fulling prophecy. We believe in stories about wise and powerful Jedi masters, who train, challenge and choose a new generation of padawans to become masters themselves. We trust that these incredibly knowledgeable people have good intentions at heart and only challenge their students when it is necessary for their own good. We accept that struggle is an important part on the way to progress and improvement. These ideas are a fundamental part of our modern culture (or at least the mainstream western culture). The advises you receive simply reflect this larger narrative of a wise, strict but ultimately kind ("god-wise") teacher.

Now, is it true? Of course, it partly is. But we also know the flip side of the same story: genuinely abusive supervisors, favouritism, and other manifestations of the old boys' network. We often hear how people who made wonderful careers praise their supervisors, even admitting that the relations were difficult, but ultimately very helpful. At the same time, we have to acknowledge that these success stories form a survivorship bias, because we don't hear from people whose careers were stopped in their tracks because of abusive and unhelpful supervision. You probably see both sides of this coin rather well now.

But maybe you are looking for a job in academia because it is a huge joy to seek and to share knowledge? Or maybe because research is ultimately a search for the truth, and on this way you depend on your own skills rather than on someone's opinion of you? In this case, you maybe don't need a golden ticket. Maybe a golden ticket can actually rob you of your chance to test your own ability to independently establish yourself in the academic world? Maybe you want to be recognised for what you achieved using your own efforts, not compensated for the difficult times your supervisor gave you? In this case, perhaps, you'd prefer to make your own way rather than to rely on a recommendation letter from your supervisor.

Apologies for the long answer - hopefully it gives you something to reflect on.

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