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I would wish to have some summary advice for the specific scenario of looking for a new postdoc position and trying to avoid ending up with a terrible supervisor. Let me narrow this question down by saying that the most important thing to avoid would be an unsupportive/pressurizing/controlling supervisor, while competence is much less important. As long as the supervisor is really nice and lenient ("laissez faire"), the rest does not matter. Then again, the real nightmare is of course when the supervisor is both extremely controlling and incompetent. (A controlling supervisor is not that bad if at least they do not pressure employees into crazy and pointless tasks/projects.) The field is experimental psychology (in case that matters).

So far I have just two ideas, but both are far from perfect.

(A) Check how they performed during their first 3-5 years in academia (i.e., from their PhD start), since high output (especially high-quality first-authored articles) during that time is I think a strong indication of competence. (Publications/achievements afterwards are always questionable as people for whatever reasons rising in ranks have increasingly more power and opportunities for potential swindling and extortion.) However, the problem with this is that it is only useful in case of high output, since low output does not necessarily mean incompetence (e.g., they may have had a terrible supervisor themselves), and it has in any case very little to do with being just a nice and decent person.

(B) Ask current and former employees. However, the problem with this is that these people, especially in case of a really terrible supervisor, may be extremely intimidated and/or even brainwashed. This is especially true for current employees, but, in case of former employees, they might simply be happy to have done with the place and might not want to get involved. Also, some may have become accomplices. In general, no one has a strong incentive for telling the truth (to a helpless stranger).

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    I would not think it is too broad, but this may be subjective. However, it is not a shopping question. I am not asking for a recommendation for any individual supervisor, but only about the general approach of how to spot bad ones.
    – pencroft
    Jan 1, 2023 at 9:01
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    Definitely not a shopping question. A shopping question would be if OP was asking for a list of good advisors. OP is instead asking for general principles for finding a good one
    – Darren Ong
    Jan 1, 2023 at 11:18
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    And then there are the many complaints here about the hands-off supervisors the OP apparently wants. The problem is that humans are not one-dimensional and human-human interactions are complicated. A supervisor one person likes may be anathema to another.
    – Jon Custer
    Jan 1, 2023 at 15:30
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    "high output (especially high-quality first-authored articles) during that time is I think a strong indication of competence." If we are discussing indivdual thinking and therefore experiences, I can assure you that your thinking is wrong. I would go as far to say that high output indivduals in the first 3-5 years are individuals who either had a very demanding and competitive supervisor (but this does not say anything about competence) or indivduals who were very aggressive in their publications and exploiting others in projects where they were placed by their supervisors.
    – EarlGrey
    Jan 2, 2023 at 14:19
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    Ask members from other labs in the same department. You are more likely to get the straight dope from them.
    – Outsider
    Jan 2, 2023 at 16:29

5 Answers 5

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After you had your in-person interview with the potential supervisor ask if you could talk to some people in the lab. Maybe go for a coffee with someone and just ask them what they think. Of course they will not tell you that this supervisor is terrible but from a lack of excitement and/or sheepish smile you should be able to tell (you are working in psychology after all!).

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I have always believed that, for larger, established labs, the by far best metric for overall supervision and work environment quality is looking at the success (or lack thereof) of previous holders of similar positions. Have previous postdocs gone on to good careers (in academia, if that's what you are looking for)? Has the publication track record of previous postdocs improved after taking the position, relative to their PhD work?

Some particular red flags I would watch out for:

  • Multiple postdocs leaving for industry in less time than the typical postdoc duration in your area (people leaving to faculty positions is no red flag at all, but people quitting their postdoc to go to industry may be indicative that people lost interest in academia when working with that advisor).
  • Promising candidates not publishing after joining this lab.
  • Promising candidates publishing much more shoddy work than during their PhD.
  • Candidates moving internally to working with other faculty in the same university (this is possible in some universities, but often indicative of some sort of fallout).

All of these things are visible, or can at least be guessed, from the outside with some detective work. Sure, you don't really know what's going on specifically, but do you really need to know if an advisor is incompetent, a micromanager, has poor leadership skills, or if postdocs are burned out in grunt work?

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    Multiple postdocs leaving for industry in less time than the typical postdoc duration in your area I can see why there's a taboo for quitting academia ...
    – Allure
    Jan 2, 2023 at 1:05
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    @Allure I have no problem with people going to industry, most people do. But if people start a postdoc and then quit midway to go to industry that's not indicative that they enjoyed working in that lab a great amount.
    – xLeitix
    Jan 2, 2023 at 8:29
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    I've seen highly successful academians come out of some real pressure cooker dog-eat-dog postdocs. Jan 2, 2023 at 16:25
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    @ScottSeidman let's hope they do not consider the pressure cooker as a formative experience (I am unfortunately pessimistic).
    – EarlGrey
    Jan 3, 2023 at 10:27
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    @EarlGrey they go on to run high pressure labs, if they survive. Jan 3, 2023 at 12:32
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You have a difficult problem for many reasons. One is that you probably don't have dozens of opportunities to choose from so may need to take a less than perfect position. Another is that it is difficult to judge from afar, even with feedback from "former employees" whose needs may be different from yours, along with the honesty issue.

It isn't easy to manage, but if you can make face to face contact with some of the professors current students and postdocs you can get a sense. "How is X to work with?" is a useful question, but only if you can see the immediate reaction, including facial expressions. That would give you a hint about difficult-to-work-with supervisors, but the actual answers, if informal and off-the-cuff, might give some indication of how helpful or standoffish they tend to be.

You need to judge for yourself what level of interaction you want in a supervisor and the experiences of others can give you some hint about that, though imperfect. But email exchanges or phone calls won't help much and might give misinformation.

You could, perhaps, sit in on a seminar that the professor leads with current doctoral students an/or postdocs. Just watch for interactions and reactions from everyone.

I think your "A" option is probably not going to tell you much. How they did and how they interact with people might not be highly correlated. There are also reasons for low productivity initially in some (many?) fields, such as getting a new research program started. Too much noise in the data, I'd guess.

But, I don't think there is nay real substitute for on scene observation over a couple of days. Hard to manage, I realize.

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Here are some questions you can ask current/former employees.

About the supervisor:

  • Is he more hands-on or more "laissez-faire"?
  • How often did you meet with them/how often did you need to report to them?
  • Would you collaborate with them again?
  • Can you tell me about the process for your last paper? (Notably how/when the PI was involved)

About the lab:

  • What is the profile best suited to succeed in the lab? (Anything along the lines of "must be able to bear pressure" is a clear red flag for your question)
  • How often did you collaborate with other students/labs? (It will give an idea of the degree of autonomy)
  • What were the authorship rules in the lab? (Sometimes, PIs explicitly define that their name must be added to absolutely all papers, even those where they have no expertise, and that is imo a red flag)

An other indicators can be the diversity of the lab: are there many women? people from other countries? people with young children? Are they publishing/supported as much as other people at similar career stages?

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If you have a specific supervisor in mind, you could try asking some of that supervisor's current students what working with them is like. If they give mostly negative accounts, then it's likely that the supervisor would not be a good fit. However, I understand that this is especially difficult if you're not surrounded by people in your lab before you move to the institution at which you will be doing a PhD.

It could also be a good idea to find out where that supervisor's students ended up going after their PhD finished. If most of them decide to quit academia altogether after their PhD, that could be a red flag in itself - a PhD is a challenging endeavour even when the supervisor is good, but if people are being supervised by a particular member of faculty and then thinking "screw this" when they reach the end, then it could be a sign that that particular supervisor led them to the conclusion that academia wasn't for them. A PhD should be challenging because of the nature of a PhD, and shouldn't be unfairly soiled by the person you are being supervised by.

A valuable piece of advice I was given when choosing PhD programmes is that the relationship you have with your PhD supervisor is arguably the most important factor in your success, perhaps more so than how well your interests align. Obviously there's no point choosing a supervisor who you get on really well with if your interests don't line up, but just remember that people are multi-faceted and that just because your research interests might line up perfectly with a certain supervisor, it doesn't mean you'll get on well in all aspects.

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