When young(ish) scientists are lucky enough to score a 1-2 year contract to participate in a research project, they may ask themselves this question: “I wonder if I will enjoy the research?”. Arguably, the more important question they will need to ask themselves is: “How much of an insufferable bastard will my supervisor be?”.
Sure, it’s possible to throw countless hours at a scientific problem to get the results you require to tame the academic beast. But it is not possible to change the nature of a being that has been molded by the academic environment. Just like the variety of species that have evolved on earth, supervisors are the result of natural selection; survival of the fittest, or perhaps more commonly, the most ruthless. Different environmental factors will reward different personality characteristics and only the most well-adapted academics will survive.
During my time in academia I have seen my fair share of supervisors. I have been lucky with the ones I have had and any of my misbehaving supervisors I have been able to quickly tame with a quick, metaphorical tap on the nose. If academics had spirit animals, I am certain that they would consist of these:
The Queen Bee
This type of supervisor is the head of a very, very large research group. They tuck themselves away busily giving birth to new PhD students who they’ll set to work as post-docs in their labs. They are the academic parent of most, if not all, in the lab. Should the queen bee academic move to a new university, the worker bees will travel with them.
Just like dogs, this supervisor will try their absolute best to be your friend, forever. That doesn’t mean, of course, that they are not good supervisors, it’s just that the dog academic will often invite themselves to afternoon/evening drinks that they overhear their students/postdoc organising. Don’t feel bad for them, all this supervisor is doing is trying to claim back the youth they lost while they were fighting their way to the top of the pile – They’ll even buy you a fuckload of drinks. Kindhearted and loyal, this supervisor will do anything they can to help you in exchange for a belly rub and scratch behind their ear.
The Black Mamba
Fuck this person. The black mamba is the most aggressive snake on the planet. Also, in agreement with the euphemistic naming convention, this person is also a big dick. This supervisor lives for passive aggressive emails and intimidation. They leave behind them a contrail of destroyed careers. There’s no confusion about how this person made it to the top of the academic ladder – they fucked people over the entire way. Often this person will feel guilty and attempt to make themselves feel better by organising a group lunch. Don’t be fooled, they are listening to your conversation to create a catalogue of psychological pressure points to hit when they haven’t made someone cry that day.
The Arctic Tern
The Arctic Tern travels 44,000 miles (70,811 kilometers) in its migration pattern. This, my friends, is the academic international traveler. Chasing their favorite seasons around the globe in the name of ‘collaboration’. This academic has collaborations all over the world – so many in fact, that it starts to look suspicious. Why do they always collaborate with people in tropical places and near good golf courses? The air miles these supervisors accumulate could pay off the US national debt. If you end up with the Artic Tern as a supervisor get used to completing your project via email at any time of the day or night.
The Prairie Dog
This pesky little shit is always in everyone’s business – we have ladies and gents, the micromanager. Get used to everyday meetings, continuous feedback and for them to have your mobile number on speed dial. You think that is your research project? Nope. You are their extra pair of hands which wipe someone else’s bum hole.
At the end of our list is the supervisor we all wish we had. This supervisor doesn’t need to show off. They are successful and gracious winners of the academic arms race. They don’t need to prey on other people’s careers to get ahead. They’ll put in the effort and are happy to drag others along in their success slip stream. This type of supervisor is also quite a bit older than their competition and it appears like they will never die. In fact, they haven’t changed in appearance for 30 years, as evidenced from the departmental photographs hanging in the hallway.
Remember to let me know what your supervisor’s spirit animal is!