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I'm a postdoc at a US university and I have a truly wonderful research advisor. Sometimes, during our regular meetings, I find out that things are particularly tough for my advisor this week. The regular pains of academia (stress, hard work, external pressures) as well as any weeks when he needs to spend nearly 100% of his time on just teaching and departmental service, plus any issues in personal life, can take a toll on my advisor from time to time. I always notice that when I see that he's not as excited/happy/motivated during our meetings. He nevertheless is always there to talk with me and to help me research-wise as much as he can (he almost never cancels our weekly meetings for those reasons).

Because of how much I value him as my academic mentor, I'm wondering if there is anything that I could be doing (or anything that I should not be doing) as his postdoc during these tougher weeks to help him (even if it's simply helping him have a better day afterwards) and help our group. What's most sad for me in those tough weeks is that I know how wonderfully we progress in research together when we both approach science with a clear mind and excitement. So it's really sad for me when he's in the distracted mode, because I think our whole group loses out on that great experience.

Some of the things I've been trying so far, although I don't know if they really help:

  • Before we jump to talking about research, I briefly ask him how he's been doing. Sometimes he tells me the reason why he's been tired. Sometimes we spend 10-15 minutes just venting about things.
  • I try to stay generally positive and smile during our meetings.
  • When I describe the research I've been working on, I'm trying to sound enthusiastic, to help us stay motivated about our research.
  • When I see him particularly tired, I try to discuss only the essentials and end the meeting quickly.
  • I'm trying to catch up with his Ph.D. students to find out if they have problems with anything. If they do, I spend time helping them so that my advisor doesn't have to.

Is this enough? Should I be offering to help in some other ways? I'm looking for some perspective and guidance on what else/more I could be doing. I will especially value answers from those who are advisors/PIs on what kind of support would you personally like from your postdoc in a similar situation?

Note: My question is different from this question because I don't necessarily need my advisor's weekly input to keep going in my research work. By now (at the postdoc stage) I know how to propel my progress even without external help. So I don't ask: how do I get research guidance? but rather: how do I support my advisor and his research group?

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    Well, one thing I noticed is that so far, it seems like you've already decided/assumed what the problem is and came up with solutions based on that assumption. While friendly chit-chat, smiles and enthusiasm are probably welcome, maybe they aren't actually doing anything to address the root cause. Maybe your advisor is simply overworked, and what would help is to find a way to reduce the workload on them. Or it could be something else entirely. Nobody here can know, but you - you can find out. Nov 19, 2023 at 20:39

3 Answers 3

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I would just directly ask him if he needs your help and let him know when you’re in a phase of your postdoc with more “free time”. But really I would trust him to tell you if he needs you to do something. After all, he is the lab head.

Also, there is no need to exaggerate your enthusiasm about your work or interfere with his students’ projects (unless he or they ask for your help). Just be genuine, and maybe use the lab meeting times to tell people that you’re happy to help if needed.

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    +1 As supervisor I very much hope that people would not try to force themselves to smile or come over as more enthusiastic than they really are. As far as I can detect such behaviour, I really don't like it and it makes me uncomfortable. In particular it means that the person who does that robs me of the chance to get a clear impression of how they are doing, which as a supervisor I'd very much like to have. Nov 19, 2023 at 23:43
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    Thanks leonos and @ChristianHennig for sharing a helpful perspective. I can definitely have an open discussion with my advisor and ask where I can help.
    – student
    Nov 20, 2023 at 10:20
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You could try to put your last bullet point of helping the PhD students into a slightly more formal and regular setting. Pick a time when your advisor has a little more time and suggest to be some kind of co-supervisor for the PhD students. The PhD students will have regular meetings with you, your advisor or both of you together depending on the week.

This can be a win-win-win if it works out nicely. The PhD students have two senior people to get advice and guidance. Your advisor can pass on some of his work to you. You get some experience in supervising PhD students which will be useful for your future academic career and can be put on your CV. Of course this means extra work for you, so think carefully whether you have the time and energy to do this and do it well. Otherwise it is not helpful to anyone.

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The things that go for me in those super busy times are things like organising the lab journal club, remembering to make it to weekly lab lunch, making sure there is coffee, tea and milk in the lab break area.

Also things like organising a lab social programme - games evenings, lab hikes (during office hours, obviously). So perhaps just saying something like "we haven't had a social event in ages, shall I organise one?".

Also, rather than monitoring students projects, warnings about failing interpersonal relationships between other lab members.

All in all its the little lab culture this that get forgotten. A friendly supportive and productive culture is hard to create, and can easily get lost. So perhaps you can help with that.

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  • Thanks for sharing your perspective! So far, I haven't sensed that our lab culture is hit by that. I think the group mostly misses out on inspiring and interesting scientific discussions with our advisor in those busy weeks. There are some ideas or insights that I still can't come up with as a postdoc, but my advisor can.
    – student
    Nov 20, 2023 at 10:27

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