It’s often said that in graduate school, whom you select as your Ph.D. adviser is one of the most important decisions you will make. A supportive adviser can inspire you, teach you, train you, and recommend you for a job or other opportunities, while a micromanager can sap your love of science, isolate you, and make you wish you didn’t work in chemistry.
I’ve heard stories of some advisers who do multiple walk-throughs of their lab a day. That level of scrutiny doesn’t offer their graduate students much time for deep thinking, or even just taking it easy for an afternoon. The student becomes the dreaded pair of hands, and young chemists who are subjected to this kind of routine micromanaging lose their sense of independence and passion for their work.
In fact, this kind of micromanaging can lead to what some call “submarine chemistry.” I’ve heard stories of graduate students who, under such a stifling environment, begin performing experiments counter to their adviser’s instructions, or they don’t tell their adviser about the experiments they are working on. This surreptitious science probably goes on all the time, but it happens more in some labs than others. What’s the best way to deal with disagreements with your adviser on the direction of a project? If you’re considering taking your research undercover, should you do it?
If you’re new to a lab, I suggest avoiding doing your work in stealth. Once you get settled in the lab, I suggest talking with your adviser and expressing your desire to have more control of the experiments that you’re working on. While your adviser likely has specific project goals related to publication and long-term research plans, ask what it would take to offer you more freedom and what conditions you would need to meet.
What if the conversation does not go well? Find out how other, more senior students have learned to work with the professor. How have they earned your adviser’s trust or worked out compromises? Are there other professors at your institution who work particularly well with your supervisor? Seek out their advice on how to communicate most effectively with your adviser.
If you’re considering joining a research group, find out if your potential supervisor is someone whose work style might clash with yours. If you enjoy working independently, you’ll want an adviser who will give you space and let you take the reins on your research.
Under what conditions do I think running experiments contrary to the adviser’s wishes is a good idea? I am reminded of the laboratory adage “Never talk yourself out of a simple experiment.” If you think there is a simple experiment that has scientific justification, doesn’t take up a lot of time or resources, and would solve a difficult problem—and your boss would be none the wiser—go and do it! When time, resources, and materials become scarcer, these decisions can be harder to make. Have only 30 mg of a key intermediate left, and that’s enough to run only one or two more experiments? Is this a key result for a grant or a publication or a presentation? That’s when going off on your own will become riskier and may incur the wrath of an adviser who was waiting for that data.
This dance between what the boss wants and what you want to do as a student is going to be repeated many times throughout your career, with different bosses, different projects, and different desires on your part. You don’t have to either knuckle under resentfully or furtively pursue your own experiments. You can speak your mind, offer your data-driven opinion to your boss about where the project should be going, and negotiate a compromise that builds trust and meets both of your needs.
Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.