You’re turning into your supervisor

This week I met up with some collaborators. This was the trip that led to a chance encounter with fellow OT blogger Austin:

Fortunately Eva is more on the ball:

Over lunch my colleagues and I were chatting about our supervisors and their different approaches. One idea that came up was the extent to which we, as students and postdocs, had inherited some characteristics and habits from our supervisors. This has become apparent, for us, in the small things – approaches to meetings, or email etiquette – but after our discussion I started to think about the extent to which this might be true of more fundamental aspects of our science.

The working relationship between a student and a supervisor is unusual (and not always easy). It is different from that between a boss and an employee or a teacher and a student. The time working together normally spans several years, and can be intense, so it is not surprising if both parties pick up habits from the other. But is it possible, or even probable, that more broad questions of scientific approach, such as whether to take a risky or more conservative approach to projects, whether to try new things or to perfect existing techniques, are also handed down supervisor-to-supervisee. What implications does this have for students in their future careers?

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6 Responses to You’re turning into your supervisor

  1. Oops. Sorry, Erika. After a certain age one is entitled to some senior moments… Or perhaps I just get you Golden Triangle types chronically mixed up.

    I’ve only solo-supervised a couple of PhD students in my time. In an odd turn of events, both are on the Faculty here. One is a senior lecturer/instructor, now more senior than me, while the other is a lecturer and runs research in areas which have something in common with the stuff we did together long ago.

    As to whether either of them has inherited any of my habits and characteristics… well. they’ve both done well, so I’m inclined to think not….! Though you’d have to ask them, really.

  2. Steve Caplan says:


    I have absolutely no doubt that just as scientific training is passed down from supervisor-to-supervisee (and I mean thoroughness, controls, and so on), so are “research strategies.” So I would agree that a student in a successful lab that takes risks and tries to initiate new methodologies and systems–will be more likely to follow this when he/she is independent later on. I know that I myself have consciously adopted many of the strategies (and even management styles) of my own mentors–which i hope are serving me well. on the other hand, I think perceptive students can also consciously avoid picking up habits/characteristics/traits that he/she sees as not being useful.

  3. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    My PhD and postdoctoral supervisors were like chalk and cheese, so I think any effect either of them may have had on my personality probably cancelled each other out! But I know I did learn a lot from both of them about the culture of science. And I also learned, from the very beginning of my career, how to work with very different types of people – which has been absolutely invaluable in my current job, which involves interacting with dozens of PIs.

  4. Erika Cule says:

    Thanks for interesting comments, all. I agree with Steve that students will consciously avoid morphing into a supervisor whom they did not like. (At least one student expressed some degree of “I hope not!” when they read my post.) And I have noted approaches used by both my supervisor and my peers which I try to adopt with the aim of extending the number of ways I can think about a scientific problem. As Cath says, working with a range of types of leaders can be an asset when your career extends to one involving more people than just a supervisor-supervisee relationship.

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  6. kannan says:

    can anyone guide me to find out a supervisor for my management course….all European universities are compelling the student to find out the supervisor first before continuing our enrolling process..finding potential supervisor is always difficult….i communicated many professors but no response…i am frustrated…


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