Just like every job in life, science relies on people talking to each other while struggling to uphold the unwritten code of professional etiquette. This means you’re not allowed to openly call the other person a “self-serving fucktard”, but you are allowed to think it and smile whilst imagining what it would look like if you set their hair alight and put it out with vomit.
In no other part of science is this unwritten code tested to its limits than between a supervisor and “their” student/postdoc/lab monkey. At the beginning of a science career, supervisors appear to be all-knowing, Qantas Club frequenting, vessels of facts and knowledge. After a couple of years of working under their guidance it becomes apparent that, for the most part, they are just better practiced at sounding like they know what they are talking about while having no real understanding of where the lab is and how long it takes to do that “quick experiment”. Looking deep into their eyes will reveal self-doubt and panic also found just before trusting a fart during a bout of food poisoning.
Just below the surface of every demanding supervisor is an overworked and love-poor shell of a person who can’t remember what it is like to have someone say “well done”. Here are some excellent ways to ensure that your non-sexual (hopefully) relationship with different types of supervisors is in tip top shape.
The control freak
This supervisor is fucking insane. It’ll get to the point where you start to suspect that if they hadn’t done science they’d be a serial killer. You’ll receive emails about work stuff at 2 am and they’ll expect you to do the same – don’t. They’ll want to know the intimate details of everything you have done, will do and are thinking about doing. Remind this supervisor that you are not them by wearing a mask of their face and removing it in front of them. This way they’ll see that you are a completely different person (NOTE: Do not attempt if you look like your supervisor).
Mr/Ms hands off
You have to be the psycho ex-partner in this relationship. Hassle them every day, night and afternoon. Don’t expect that paper draft you’ve given them to be taken home or even leave their desk. If you want something done, conduct a quiet but firm protest in their office until it is done – they will lie about having plans to complete the task. This supervisor doesn’t want anything to do with you or your project but gets a kick from telling their friends they have students.
Tired international traveler
Be prepared to conduct your student-supervisor relationship over email. The good thing is, just like an intimate internet relationship, you can lie about how much you care about your own personal hygiene. A mix with one of the previous two types can be a disaster waiting to happen. To ensure smooth sailing with this type of supervisor, email regularly and make the most of their time in the department. Having a second supervisor that is scared of air travel will also help.
The one who is as surprised as you that they are a supervisor
This supervisor is one of the lucky ones. They are the product of right-place, right-time career success and know it. This person will be the very best of what a supervisor can be as they genuinely sense the looming University restructure and need you on their side. Sometimes this supervisor can be a little too friendly, the result of a recent divorce and youth spent doing science. They’re not harmful, but politely remind them that they are not invited to your party on the weekend and no-one remembers who Duran Duran is.
Navigating around interpersonal storms will become a well practiced and valuable skill should you decide to submit to a career in science. If everything else fails and the relationship falls apart you can always poo in their office when they’re on an international trip.
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