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I am an electrical engineering master's student in the USA. My research is in a slightly different area than my supervisor's background, and so I suggested adding a co-supervisor at a different institution. My supervisor agreed and the co-supervisor was added.

However, my main supervisor has now mentioned repeatedly that I am not permitted to communicate with the co-supervisor without him being present or involved in the communication as far as the research is concerned. I do cc both in emails, but the issue here is that he said I cannot contact (either by email or phone call) the co-supervisor for any private conversation concerning the research.

Is this ethically right or is there something wrong with him or this situation?

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  • @Giant, how exactly was this request phrased? "Please be sure to cc both of us on emails/schedule joint meetings" seems a bit different from "You must not communicate with Supervisor B unless I am involved."
    – Matt
    Commented Oct 7, 2022 at 16:30
  • @matt. At the beginning he had made the rule that both must be cc'ed and joint meetings which I have been abiding by. However he has mentioned again and again "note that you are not allowed to communicate with B without me. " I can communicate with B without you, but you can not communicate with B without involving me
    – Giant
    Commented Oct 7, 2022 at 21:17
  • It isn't clear why you would want a private communication about the research without the primary supervisors involvement (if only a cc). Can you give a concrete example of the sort of communication that you would not want to share with your primary superviser? As the primary supervisor is the one with ultimate responsibility for project management, the request doesn't seem unreasonable to me. Commented Oct 8, 2022 at 18:14

7 Answers 7

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My guess is that your supervisor wants to minimize the burden on the co-supervisor. Frankly speaking, master's students don't know very much yet, and this includes knowing which questions are appropriate for the experts. So, it would make sense if your advisor wanted you to come to him first, and then he can refer you to the co-supervisor (or any other expert) as needed. This is altogether appropriate.

Another appropriate reason would be that they are trying to avoid miscommunications that happen when the two supervisors are only communicating by passing messages through you. This "noisy channel problem" is sub-optimal at the best of times, and can lead to real difficulties.

But we are just speculating. Ultimately, we can't say if this is reasonable without knowing the reason, and only your supervisor can tell you the reason. So if you don't want to ask your supervisor, I think the best we can do is to say that such a request is not inherently unreasonable, and you should plan to abide by it.

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  • Thanks I normally cc both when it comes to exchanging mails on the research. However I just feel I should be able to have conversation with either of them solely if need be. He doesn't want me to have any personal conversation with the co
    – Giant
    Commented Oct 6, 2022 at 7:08
  • Yes, I can imagine situations where you might want feedback on your performance, or might even want to discuss strategies for "dealing with" your primary supervisor. In this case, being allowed to have unfettered access to your co-supervisor would be beneficial. That said, it's possible that having these kind of conversations with the co-supervisor is not a good idea; without knowing both sides of the story, I can't really say that your supervisor's policy is unethical.
    – cag51
    Commented Oct 6, 2022 at 21:16
  • Yes @cag51. Some situation may call for "the need to want to discuss strategies for "dealing with" your primary supervisor. In this case, being allowed to have unfettered access to your co-supervisor would be beneficial" as you mentioned.
    – Giant
    Commented Oct 7, 2022 at 3:45
  • To one point of speculation: It might make grading difficult, if the advisor does not know what the student asked and hoch much the co-advisor actually shared. Finding one clue or getting a tip makes sometimes a huge difference.
    – usr1234567
    Commented Oct 8, 2022 at 11:58
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My first impression is that he doesn't want you to get contrary or conflicting directions that might lead to trouble down the line. That would be perfectly ethical. If the co-supervisor is somehow also being supervised or mentored by the main supervisor, it could be an additional reason: training of the co-supervisor. This might happen if the co-supervisor is a postdoc or otherwise inexperienced.

There are other, less valid, reasons that could be in play, of course (insecurity, ego, ...), but not necessarily so.

Schedule joint meetings. Copy everyone on emails. Don't treat it as a big deal without further evidence that it is a problem.

You could ask him the reason, of course.

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  • Thanks for the reply. In this case the co is actually the higher mentor to the main and both are not in same institution. I just avoid asking him to avoid some issues
    – Giant
    Commented Oct 5, 2022 at 21:07
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    The maybe the co is the one insisting behind the scenes. Probably above our pay grade.
    – Buffy
    Commented Oct 5, 2022 at 22:53
  • No, the co is not the one. I actually enquired from the co if this is a kind of unwritten rule or something but he said no, that as far ashe is concerned in his own institution, the student can contact either of supervisors personally on research if need be. He asked if I could call for a meeting for us three to address but I said no. Because I know the main is likely to take it out of context
    – Giant
    Commented Oct 6, 2022 at 7:12
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    If the cosupervisor is more senior, then the primary supervisor is likely worried that you will make them look bad. Many Masters students overestimate their competence. They want to keep an eye on you so you don’t embarrass them.
    – Dawn
    Commented Oct 6, 2022 at 19:22
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    It is not necessarily insecurity: the supervisor may not trust you yet. Furthermore, keeping a good impression in the eyes of senior faculty is important to the politics of promotion, so it is a reasonable concern.
    – Dawn
    Commented Oct 7, 2022 at 15:40
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If the co-supervisor is not at your degree awarding institution, your supervisor has responsibility for making sure your master's is marked correctly, and that you are treated fairly, that reasonable workloads are put on you, etc, etc.

It's actually pretty reasonable for the supervisor to insist on being kept in the loop, as they have to monitor all this. If co-supervisor sends you off in a different research direction, or asks you to do a much more intensive project than supervisor thinks you can reasonably complete in the time, this could cause you problems. By insisting on staying in the loop, supervisor can head these off, and also monitor your contributions. As it is supervisor awarding you a mark at the end of the process, it's reasonable to check that you're not being inappropriately spoon-fed or pressured by co-supervisor.

This is the main difference between a master's and a Phd - as a Phd student, this would be a little strange, as you're expected to be forming your own research bonds, and you've got a bit (not a lot) more time to go down rabbit holes that supervisors might send you down.

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    Indeed, I could not help but to think, that if the OPs supervisor didn't ask to be kept in the loop, then the OP would be back here in a year or two asking about help with a dis-engaged supervisor ...
    – CGCampbell
    Commented Oct 6, 2022 at 14:10
  • I feel there is more to it than being kept in a loop tho.
    – Giant
    Commented Oct 6, 2022 at 14:38
  • @lupe, your last paragraph is actually where my concern is because Indeed this is a 2nd masters and I am not just a fresh graduate from honours and infact I should have got a PhD or almost done if I pursued it earlier. But that's not the matter just to let you know am not a fresh graduate and have been in research for a while which makes it kind of worrisome if I can not contact my co for some private mentoring on that subject considering he is the one who has more knowledge in the area
    – Giant
    Commented Oct 6, 2022 at 14:49
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    @Giant - I think that's fair, but we'd treat all master's students equally. The one thought I'd have is that prehaps your supervisor has concerns of you getting pulled off track? Is it something they've spoken to you about? This sounds like a thing my old boss would do if he had a smart but slightly distractible student
    – lupe
    Commented Oct 6, 2022 at 17:31
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    I'd add that concerns might even be.greater if you've been round research for a while - a masters is extremely time compressed, there's not a lot of time for research tangents that you might be used to following
    – lupe
    Commented Oct 6, 2022 at 17:35
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Seems to me that your supervisor is trying to create and maintain order in the communication process. There are tons of reasons why he might be making this request. Here are 10 potential reasons (which are not exhaustive) why he might be asking you to go through him:

  1. Co-supervisor is at another institution, you are not a student there, so the onus is on him to make sure that you aren't chewing up resources of another institution inappropriately as you work on your thesis.

  2. He probably just wants to stay in the loop. It may be just as much about getting your supervisor up to speed in this new field as much as it is getting you up to speed. Academic types are naturally curious folks and he may want to learn from your co-supervisor too.

  3. It's just good etiquette to loop him in.

  4. He may want to further cultivate his relationship with the co-supervisor and build a productive working relationship for himself. Grad students are ephemeral connections they tend to move on, it would be better for him career-wise to own that relationship.

  5. He may want to provide his knowledge, opinions, and expertise to any conversation.

  6. He may have dealt with this person in the past and had a bad experience, and is trying to protect you from a difficult personality.

  7. He may be protecting you from conflicts of interest.

  8. He may be trying to teach you a lesson in professionalism within academia.

  9. Training grad students might be what he likes about his job. He may want you to come to him because he wants to see you learn and grow.

  10. He might have an ego issue going on, by requesting the co-supervisor in the first place you put him on notice that he wasn't what you want or need. Even worse, he acknowledged that it was probably true. I'm not saying that this is for sure going on, but he may be a little bit wounded. You should recognize this and give him some grace because he did show a large amount of humility by allowing you to get the co-supervisor in the first place.

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  • Thanks @Ryan, I definitely relate with what you mention in point 10
    – Giant
    Commented Oct 7, 2022 at 3:41
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    If you would put the list as a pool, I am quite sure you would have an overwhelming majority of 2, with a bit of 3. Regarding point 1, using resources from another institution for free: it would be a dream for many :D
    – EarlGrey
    Commented Oct 7, 2022 at 14:01
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Two legal reasons I can think of: your advisor is doing research on a sensitive topic, i.e. DARPA funded or something. There are laws saying what you can and can't share and they could be trying to make sure they abide by them.

Similarly, even if your research is not sensitive, your advisor may be considered that the communication across institutions looks suspicious, especially if boarders are crossed. For example, here is a case of a professor who was arrested but later all charges were dropped due a misunderstanding by the FBI about what he was collaborating on with foreign institutions.

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The obvious hypothesis is that your supervisor is a micro-managing control freak, which would not be unheard of. However, there may be all kinds of reasons your supervisor might be uneasy about letting you talk to the co-supervisor alone, independent of whether you've given him a concrete reason for it. We don't know enough details to decide that, and I'm not sure if it would be wise to share too many more details here. This leaves you with all of the hypotheses already posted here, (and I came up with some additional ones,see below), and you still have to figure out what to do about it.

So, what to do about it?

I think the best way for you to decide this would be to either talk to your supervisor about his reasons directly or (if that thought makes you nervous) to someone else on the team. They might have some additional insights that can help you decide whether to challenge the order. If you do, my strong recommendation would be not to directly give your position but rather to ask your supervisor to elaborate on his reasons, make sure that you understand those reasons, and only then state why you think it puts a burden on you. You are much more likely to get a positive reaction if you can demonstrate to your supervisor that you understand his concerns, and can make a plausible claim that relaxing the requirement would help you without causing an issue.

I think that course of action should also minimize the risk to your MSc project because you probably don't want to quarrel with your supervisor while trying to do science. Even if you conclude that your supervisor is in fact a micro-managing control freak, you might still want to go through with your thesis project, so it's better not to burn bridges.

Some more hypotheses to test

All of the above seem like possible scenarios, and I have more:

Your supervisor may be worried that you misrepresent some of his own work to the co-supervisor, or that the co-supervisor might have some misconceptions which you might unwittingly reinforce. So he wants to be present to stay aware of (and occasionally correct) how his colleagues at another institution perceive the work being done not just by you but also others at your university. The same applies in the other direction.

And, more generally: He might want to cooperate with these people in the future, and that can be a difficult diplomatic rope to walk. He might be worried about you getting on the co-supervisor's nerves, naïvely or accidentally disclosing or misrepresenting something commercially or strategically sensitive, or otherwise affecting his relationship with the co-supervisor in some way, and he does not want to put the burden of responsibility for these things on you. I know academics who have blocked each others' papers and cancelled collaborations over technical disagreements, and others reacting very strongly to the idea that their collaborators might try to use some information to gain an unfair advantage in an area where the two institutions are competing for grants.

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Yes, your supervisor is possibly worried about your ideas or his/her ideas being stolen. Whatever you are working on is part of the research that goes on in your lab, so your conversations might also involve information about other projects. It might be due to not trusting the co-advisor enough but it does not have to be, if you mandate a rule like that, you prevent a lot of damage. I have seen people experience this and almost always it was at the student's cost, and of course also the supervisor's and at times lab's.

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