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This bugs me a bit. I understand that technically the advisor or supervisor relationship may be a bit different from the more senior-level collaborations, but I can't help but think when I see people say "thanks to my supervisors/advisors for their help with this project" (i.e. on Twitter press-releases of research, at the beginning/end of presentations at conferences) that it is a bit infantilising... I am not suggesting it is a particularly important problem, but from many PhD students I know and from my own personal experience, the supervisor role can certainly be very much equivalent to normal collaboration between other academics. I think it makes a PhD student sound more independent and capable if they were to refer to their co-authors on papers published during their PhD as their collaborators - even if they are in fact their supervisor/advisor.

Keen to hear others thoughts!

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  • 47
    Advisors typically provide a very different kind of help than other collaborators (both quantity and quality) and identifying them as an advisor serves to acknowledge that. Jul 29 '20 at 23:26
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    I always had the impression that the choice of words between "advisor" and "supervisor" was mainly cultural; "advisor" seems to be prevalent here in the US, while "supervisor" seems more common in Europe. Maybe it's just terminology, or maybe it reflects an actual difference in how advising/supervision works; I don't know. Perhaps a different question... Jul 30 '20 at 1:47
  • 6
    You're overthinking this. "Advisor" is the easiest/least awkward way to refer to your advisor, and people are generally aware of the fact that advisees have largely varying levels of independence. Jul 30 '20 at 7:06
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    @kosmos : 'supervisor' is a weapon to exploit students? That's quite a claim?
    – T_M
    Jul 30 '20 at 10:56
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    This seems more like a statement of the OP's opinion than a question. Jul 30 '20 at 12:53
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I think you're correct that the supervisor role can be equivalent to normal collaboration in that the student will bring their own unique ideas, knowledge, and experience to build on a mutual project collaboratively. However, where I think there is an unavoidable difference (at least, in every student I have met including myself) is the conception of viable projects. In my field I've never heard of a student (masters or PhD) conceiving from the ground-up their entire project. They're always built from a project advertised to prospective students, or developed with the supervisor (often from previous work) where a research relationship already exists.

As a student, you're learning to become an independent researcher. This means learning what is and isn't scientifically interesting and viable, how to search the literature and theory for relevant information, etc.. This is what a supervisor is teaching, and this is a very specific relationship that isn't properly conveyed with "collaborator".

This distinction is most important when there are multiple co-authors on a paper, including co-authors that are not the supervisor. The non-supervisor co-authors fit the description of collaborators and still should be described as such, no matter their academic "rank".

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    Indeed. The point of a PhD is to learn to be an independent researcher. Thus, by necessity, the PhD student isn't and independent researcher when they start. It is the job of the supervisor to guide the student on the journey from dependent to independent. Some students will be need more guidance than others. Jul 30 '20 at 10:53
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    Thanks for your input. I agree with what you have said. I have come across some people that have very much had a ground-up approach and I suppose that is where one contradiction appeared for me. I suppose another element that spurred this is for a project I am doing I worked with what would be a 'collaborator' for much of a chapter of my thesis with my 'supervisors' doing far less actual supervising than the collaborator. Again, just seemed a contradiction that made me question the terminology.
    – sleepy
    Aug 1 '20 at 4:16
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I don't think I have ever seen anybody ever "thank their advisor/supervisor(s)" (in a presentation or press statement) without explicitly name them. One of the purposes of such a statement is to communicate the existence of a particular student-advisor relationship. There is a number of reason someone might want to do so:

  • The relationship will immediately provide some additional context to the scientific work being presented for people in the community familiar with the advisor/supervisor.
  • Acknowledging the relation provides appropriate credit to the advisor. This is particularly important when the advisor is a junior faculty, since the successful supervision of students is one of the criteria they are judged upon. Seeing students of a researcher appear at conferences plays a role in reshaping how the community views a junior researcher as a viable more senior candidate.
  • The reputation of the advisor can be used as leverage to help people take a student more serious, especially when presenting research that is a bit "out there".
  • The reputation of the advisor my help shield against some members of the audience being particularly nasty.
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    +1, The last point is actually two, a good advisor and his group will additionally already have roasted you with nasty questions before the conference, so you wouldn´t actually need him in the audience as a sentinel, but could defend yourself. ;)
    – Karl
    Jul 30 '20 at 20:09
  • Thanks a lot, very interesting points - I agree that inheriting the reputation and using them as a human-shield is something unique to a 'supervisor' versus 'collaborator'!
    – sleepy
    Aug 1 '20 at 4:17

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