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I'm finishing my first year as a PhD in a STEM field (say field A), although my main field is B. I have two supervisors (say S1 and S2, both very well-known). I usually work with S2 (younger, less famous), and report to S1 (older, extremely famous).

Much of the work in field A can be applied in field B. Indeed, coupling the research lines is highly beneficial and much appreciated.

My supervisors have been trying to do this coupling in the past without experts from B. I noticed it very much since day 0 because most of their solutions were poorly implemented or didn't make sense.

So, I expressed my discontent and willingness to fix these issues by adequately implementing the solutions.

However, I received a strong "NO" from S2. He literally told me: "I don't care about field B; I don't care if the method from B is well applied or not; I just want you to work with my models, using these methods (his), and obtain results". Nonetheless, S1 is always very interested in what I have to bring, although I don't have many meetings with him.

I even re-implemented in two weeks what a student from S2 did in the past (again, not an expert in field B) in a proper manner, obtaining realistic and accurate results. However, S2 told me: "why did you spend time on this? The models were right. Just focus on the method." Indeed, I focused on the method as well...

It is painful for me to hear that. It is like an engineer telling a doctor that using gloves during surgery is not necessary, and if the doctor argues about it, the engineer replies: "I don't care."

After a year, I decided to implement in parallel my own improvements. I don't even bother about telling S2 about them anymore, although I do tell S1.

Is this normal? Is this an ego problem? I would like to hear some opinions :)

EDIT WOW, I was not expecting so many useful answers! Thank you.

I will mention some aspects to consider:

  • I could work directly with S1, but there are two issues. First, the relationship between S1 and S2 is close (essentially, S2 works for S1), and I want to avoid raising drama between them (although I am not afraid of raising concerns, I'm quite straightforward). Second, S1 is extremely busy, which may affect my supervision.

  • Indeed, I now realize my project is following a direction based on S2's authority, which actually detours from the original description of the PhD (which was extremely interesting to me).

Based on your advice, I now want to raise my concerns to both S1 and S2. Any advice on how to do this without creating too much drama?

Thank you!

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  • It might depend on what you mean by models and methods. Can you make your own improvements and still keep S2 happy?
    – Oliver882
    Oct 22, 2022 at 18:40
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    What are the reasons to work with S2 instead of working only with S1? If S1 is interested in what you bring, and S2 is not, I wonder why you work with S2. I, of course, can imagine some possible reasons, but the question is whether they are in fact important.
    – Dmitry
    Oct 22, 2022 at 18:58
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    You write "... solutions were poorly implemented." This sounds like the sort of issue where there is room for disagreement on how much it matters. For example, when pure mathematicians write computer programs they typically don't care a hoot whether the program is "well-written" as long as it works, and are totally mystified if someone with a more software-engineering background wants to spend masses of time rewriting existing code to make it more clear, robust, elegant, etc -- to the mathematicians this is a total waste of time. Oct 24, 2022 at 6:49
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    ... So, is it possible that S2 might have a point when they think that spending 2 weeks reimplementing existing stuff "in a proper manner" is just time wasted that could have been spent doing really new work? At least it might be worth starting a discussion (possibly with both S1 and S2 involved) about how much this sort of work is valued. Oct 24, 2022 at 6:53

3 Answers 3

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It sounds like an ego problem, or a dominance problem. But worse, it sounds like S2 is prioritizing their own career at the expense of yours. That is something that a supervisor shouldn't do.

Maybe a talk with S1 would help. But if S1 has sufficient authority to get you finished in spite of S2's behavior, then you may already be doing the right thing in disengaging from S2.

S2 also sounds like they have decided what the outcome should be and wants to impose that in spite of evidence. Not a nice trait. But note that "results" from any given method can be negative and still have research/intellectual value. Knowing that something doesn't work can be just as valuable as knowing that it does.

So, if it is a test of the method itself, rather than a claim that it must (absolutely must) succeed, then it might be a valid line of research. The other behaviors remain problematic, of course.

But your supervisors individually and collectively need to work to assure your success. Anything else is an ethical lapse.

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  • @Trunk, my reading is that S1 is the superior here, not S2. S2 reports to S1 as per the OP.
    – Buffy
    Oct 22, 2022 at 20:08
  • Yes. Apologies. Nomenclature should make it easier but seemingly not to me.
    – Trunk
    Oct 22, 2022 at 20:13
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It sounds like your relationship with S2 is pretty much busted. You do not respect S2 and S2 does not respect you. That is not a good foundation for an advisor relationship.

What to do about this depends on the culture and the system. Sometimes it is better to give in, sometimes it is better to get out of a bad relationship.

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I think @Buffy's answer is quite useful. I also think the second superviser wants to make you use their own methods to further their career at your expense. You have something that works better, and they don't want it, because it's proving their models and methods are suboptimal.

Whether you like it or not, you and your second supervisor are fundamentally at odds, regardless of the ego issues. Unless you cave and do things their way, you won't be working well together.

I cannot advise what you should do, because I don't know how much can S2 hurt your career if you keep disengaging from him. But, if they don't have any leverage on you, it's not worth doing what they tell you.

Also, telling S1 you're going your way, may backfire if the two supervisors are on very good terms. In my case, I remember my postdoc supervisor had a situation like this and he simply decided the two people involved (a postdoc and a graduate student) should stop working on the same projects together. I would assume S1 could find a solution if you bring up this problem as a conflict between methods, rather than people.

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  • +1 Yes, so much depends on how OP reads the sensitivities around and between S1 and S2. But OP can't go on like this - it just isn't a working life.
    – Trunk
    Oct 26, 2022 at 12:07

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