On PhD advisory committees
Joana, year 1
Joana is quite tense, she smiles a little too much. She brought some cookies for the committee, which I find very nice. I eat a cookie and thank her for the attention. I hope it helps her relax. A few minutes later, the chair of the committee thanks everybody for coming and goes through the protocol: Joana will give a forty minute presentation of her work, then we will discuss her project together, then she will leave the room so that we can speak with her adviser in private, and finally she will come back into the room without her adviser so that we can speak with her in private. “You can start whenever you are ready Joana” says the chair. Joana breathes deeply and she starts.
It is the middle of the presentation. Joana is still answering the question of the chair. Her answer does not make sense to me but I nod reassuringly. I am curious as to whether her adviser will correct her. I met him at a congress but I do not know his supervision style.
“What Joana meant to say is that...”
“A protective micromanager” I think to myself. This is rather good for a starting PhD student, but it brings common problems in the third year. As students progress, they want more independence. The adviser wants to help but mostly conveys lack of trust, reinforcing the students’ impression that they are not good enough. There is little to do at this stage so I keep my thoughts to myself.
Joana smiles and continues her presentation. She somehow seems more calm after the intervention of her adviser.
Matthew, year 1
Matthew does not seem to be too nervous. He just sits and waits while the panel members exchange the usual pleasantries. This time I am the chair. We are at my institute and I know Matthew’s adviser quite well. “Matthew, did your adviser explain how this goes?” I ask. “Yes” he answers. “OK, then. Let’s start”.
The presentation is over. Matthew answered our questions in details. He is obviously above average and has looked deeply into the background of his project. One needs passion to go so deep and that’s great to see it in our students.
Matthew leaves the room and we stay with his adviser. “He is good”, I start. “He is excellent!” tops his adviser, “I am so glad I hired him”. “So, where do you see potential problems with him?” I ask. “Well, his immigration process is not complete yet and he complained to me about it. He had to go back to his country for a full month”. “I don’t think we can do anything about it”, I reply, “but we will discuss this issue when we talk to him”.
The external examiner then asks the usual questions. What skills does he need to acquire? How often do you two interact? How does he get along with the rest of the team? ...
I leave the meeting wondering whether we can do anything in case Matthew’s immigration becomes difficult.
Joana, year 2
Joana looks much more relaxed this year. I am looking forward to a pleasant meeting. Her written report suggested that she made good progress and her presentation confirms this. She answers all our questions without difficulty and her adviser barely intervenes. Her PhD seems to take a pleasing turn.
When we talk with her adviser in private, I ask “how do you two decide which experiments and analyses to perform?” “It used to be that I told her what to do”, answers her adviser, “but now she makes her own suggestions. She even suggested some clever controls just last week!” Excellent! I mistook her adviser for a micromanager last year and I am so glad I was wrong.
Matthew, year 2
Matthew’s immigration was concluded swiftly and smoothly. I got the news from my colleague a few weeks after the first meeting. This year he showed even more self-confidence than last time, but with less enthusiasm. Nothing surprising here, motivation keeps going down during PhD.
When we talk with him in private, the external examiner asks “were there any issues with you adviser since last year?” and to my surprise, Matthew answers “well… I am not sure it is relevant”. I listen carefully.
Matthew continues. “I recently learned that this ex-PhD student who left the lab will be co-first author on my paper because she set up the assay before I joined. That’s two weeks of work, while I have been on it more than two years. I don’t know what to do.”
We do not know either. His adviser explains that he has to give first authorship to his ex-PhD student because she left the lab without publication. She worked hard and it would not sit well with him that she got nothing out of her PhD. I hope that Matthew and him will find a compromise on this.
Joana, year 3
Joana announces the bad news: her control experiments have shown that the project has a fatal flaw. She spent this year undoing the work she did in the first two. She is surprisingly calm, but her adviser seems edgy.
The private discussion with her adviser is quite long. “What are her chances to get a publication before next year?” I ask. “The work is well done, but we cannot publish it. Those are all negative results. It is a pity that we committed so much into this research line”. A pity indeed, and none of us suggested that there should be a plan B. The panel made a mistake. Mine was to focus on the relationship with the adviser, at the expense of a basic risk analysis.
I heard later that Joana obtained a one-year extension and finally defended her PhD. Her work was published a few months after the defense but it felt bittersweet. I heard that she stayed in academia for a postdoc but she did not keep in touch.
Matthew, year 3
I knew from multiple meetings with my colleague that communicating with Matthew became difficult. They barely speak to each other now and it is obvious that trust between them is gone. Matthew’s presentation is clear but monotonous, as if he stopped caring.
“How did the authorship situation go?” asks the external examiner. “The work was accepted and will be published soon with co-first authorship” says Matthew coldly. “Matthew is the first listed author” adds his adviser in earnest, “… and the article will appear in the best journal of the field. This is excellent for his career”.
Later, Matthew informs us that his defense will take place in a few months. Everything is organized. Also, he has accepted an offer to work in a company in his country, he has no wish to pursue in academia. “It’s too bad, really” says his adviser in private, “he could have a brilliant career in academia if he wanted to”.
Matthew cared about honesty more than about a career in academia. I do not know whether co-authorship was the right call, but what is certain is that Matthew and his adviser did not speak the same language. The rules of authorship were not clear from the start, which a basic background check would have revealed. Once the conflict occurs, it is hard to get out of it. I often wonder if Matthew found in companies the respect he was looking for in academia. I hope he did.
For many students, the main hurdle of PhD is demotivation and the various depressed states that come with it. I still do not know whether this experience is necessary (or avoidable by the way), but breaking people is nobody’s interest. The leverage of a PhD advisory committee in this regard is small but they can still help.
Joana and Matthew are fictional characters and their stories are based on what I perceive as common causes of demotivation: the first is lack of progress; the second is conflict with the supervisor, especially on the topic of authorship. A third and possibly more important cause is the perception that PhD is a meaningless activity but I merely evoke it here because I do not believe that this is an issue for the PhD advisory committee to deal with. The panel exists for external accountability. It is great, amazing even, that some examiners engage in proper mentoring with the students, but demanding this from every committee is unrealistic in my opinion. More realistically, the panel should safeguard students and advisers from common pitfalls.
A PhD project is as good as its backup plan. The reason that important questions do not have an answer is usually because they are hard. Scientists should try to address big problems, but there is nothing wrong with incremental progress. Some questions are worth answering, whatever the answer may be, and they can be the perfect insurance for a PhD project… which in turn can allow the student to take more risk and address more ambitious questions.
Conflicts about authorship are very common in academia. I have seen extremes of inclusion or exclusion criteria for authorship, and the only rule I could find is that there is no rule. Every lab has its authorship culture. The responsibility is on the principal investigator to disclose it, but I do not know anyone who makes those criteria explicit. Merely asking what the rules are can be sufficient to avoid the most bitter conflicts.
Experienced committees will discover other problems and address them. I wonder what you consider the main risks are and how they should be mitigated.
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