10 ingredients for a successful supervisor/PhD student relationship

A professor shares his recipe for building a thriving relationship with his PhD researchers – and why it’s not like it used to be

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Dr. José M. Torralba has supervised 28 PhD theses and 90 diploma theses as Professor of Materials Science Engineering at Universidad Carlos III de Madrid. Here, he suggests ways to build a healthy professor/PhD student relationship — and with that, a healthy research group.

A good relationship is the basis for a good performance in science and a way to promote collaboration and the success of all the members in a research group. At the core of all the labs relationships is the professor/student relationship. If this works properly, it can be the seed for the whole lab relationship.

Yet, as higher education has transformed over the decades, so have traditional relationships in academia – some more effectively than others.

Dr.  José M. Torralba, PhD, in his lab at Universidad Carlos III de Madrid, where he is Professor of  Materials Science and Engineering. In most disciplines, the supervisor/PhD student relationship is established through the bonding process that occurs during the development of a doctoral thesis, where the student is supposed to be guided by the professor. This relationship, during a specific and limited period of time, can generate links that endure over the time, far beyond an employment relationship that is established for the fulfillment of the objectives of a project.

Decades ago, this relationship was based on the authority of the master over the disciple. The professor/student relationship was a sort of dictatorship where the student had to follow any small desire or suggestion of the professor. The professor was a superhuman that possessed all the knowledge and wisdom, and the student was obliged do what the professor said without any doubt or discussion.

This does not happen today, at least not in most of the advanced research centers. Previously, the authority of the professor was based on their supposed possession of all the knowledge and the nearly absolute dependence of the student on the decisions of the professor. Now, we live in a society where access to knowledge is almost unlimited, and the professor's preponderance over the student is based fundamentally on experience more than access to knowledge.

Also, whereas the student’s success used to require obedience and unwavering loyalty to the professor, the modern student has no need for such dependence. This has been lost in an open world, in the entire global village. Today, students have a contract and labor rights, so their survival does not depend on the whim or arbitrariness of a professor.

Apart of this, when a professor/student relationship begins, there is a need to combine two wills, each with their circumstances, to achieve a single objective. This objective is usually linked to a research project and usually leads to a doctoral thesis. Years ago, this was usually just a manuscript.

But today, the thesis is not enough; we must add on to it. From this professor-student relationship, other fruits grow, such as articles in journals, conference papers, patents, and collaborations with other research groups, some of them abroad.  PhD students in my research group have gone on to work at research centers in the Netherlands, Italy, France, Sweden, Switzerland, Germany, Austria and the United States as well as in other parts of Spain.

Fortunately, there are modern tools and platforms that can connect researchers and help them track the progress and impact of their work.


Tools you can use for research and collaboration


Normally in this relationship, the seed of the idea for a research topic comes from the professor. The professor introduces the idea to the student and provides all the necessary means for growth: laboratories, libraries, consumable material, trips (if necessary). It is the student who takes the shovel to nurture the seed with soil, water it and monitor its growth. The professor must also watch that everything goes well so the tree can grow. If problems arise, such as a plague, hail or drought, the professor must provide solutions and the means to reach them advised or helped by the student, of course, who cares directly for the tree and probably knows it better than the professor. But the main responsibility to find solutions belongs to the professor.

When time has passed and the fruits appear, they will be the fruits of both of them. Both are responsible for the final product, and both will benefit (or experience harm) from what has been achieved.

 Prof. José M. Torralba, PhD (fourth from right), with members of his research group at a graduation ceremony at Universidad Carlos III de Madrid in 2017. From left to right: PhD students Elena Bernardo, Roberto García and Nerea García; Associate Prof. Mónica Campos; and postdoc Paula Alvaredo. To Prof Torralba’s right are Prof. Elena Gordo, PhD, and Associate Prof. Elisa Ruiz-Navas, PhD  — who were PhD students in his research group — and PhD student Rocío Muñoz.

For this relationship to function well, there must be rules, which will ensure this co-responsibility becomes an eternal and enduring positive relationship over the time. When a student believes that their thesis is good or bad because of the professor, or vice versa, it is because the norms for the professor/student coexistence have not been followed.

These are the ingredients for the recipe for a healthy and fruitful relationship:

1. A relationship between equals. The professor, from the first day, should establish a personal relationship of mutual respect, equal to equal. The student will respect the professor (who is usually is wiser and older) but starting from the reality that it is a relationship between equals. Mutual respect must be the basis for the relationship.

2. Inspiration and creation of ideas. The professor should be a source of inspiration and creation of ideas. But also, the student will endeavor to learn the state of art that allows him or her to propose alternative ways in the creative process. The student must generate, from the beginning, ideas that enrich the work.

It is normal for ideas to come from the professor. Usually, when the first contact is established, the professor has a running research line established, often with funding allocated to the project. But the idea must be taken by the student as their own, and the student must strive to expand the possibilities of the work thorough their own input.

3. Means. The professor must provide the student with all the necessary means to carry out their work, including a decent salary. At the same time, the student will make every effort to make the work evolve to achieve the objectives set by the professor, and to take advantage of everything that has been put in their hands.

In former times, where a research activity often progressed thanks to the goodwill of the participants, who had to overcome what seemed like an obstacle course where even the tools to be used were not provided, is a nonsense today. Any research endeavor should ensure the basic resources in order to be developed with enough guarantees for success. The times where PhD work is done under the principle of generosity have passed. There must be enough funding to allow the research to progress, and the focus of the student should be the development of their creative work.

4. Progress of the work. The professor must monitor the progress of the student's work at all times. The student must help the professor find solutions to the seemingly unresolvable problems that will surely come up along the way.

The times where the professor does not “give audience” to the student, waiting on their “throne hall” for the “vassal,” are long gone. In today’s research environment, if a professor does not have time to supervise PhD students properly, the supervising activity must be redefined. Also, the student must put all effort and energy in trying to solve the problems by themselves before discussing it with the professor.

5. Cooperation. The professor will become the first ally (partner, associate) of the student in the performance of the work. And the student must go to the professor whenever there is any problem or contingency related to the work along the way. The basis for the cooperation is communication. It is quite normal that students try not to disturb the professor, even though most of the time, the professor could solve the problem faster than any other person. Both professor and student must consider the work relationship as teamwork.

6. Encouragement. The professor should always encourage the student (in the best positive attitude), especially in those moments when things do not go as expected.

There are many disasters that can occur during PhD work. I have heard (even by myself!) phases like: “I am going to leave the thesis.” “This is my last day – I can’t stand this!” In these moments, the supervisor must be the first person to encourage the student to keep going, to maintain high spirits and help revive the interest and enthusiasm to continue with the work. A supervisor must be the student’s a coach, not only in the academic sense. When things go wrong, the student often thinks their problems bother the professor; that’s not true in most cases, and the professor is the first and the best advisor for the student.

7. Discrepancies management. The student will discuss with the professor any possible discrepancy of criteria that may arise in the development of the work. The student will comply with the decisions of the professor, decisions that will be the result of a prior discussion.

When discrepancies appear, the best way to reach an agreement is discussion, discussion and discussion, and then reaching an agreement. Sometimes, discrepancies appear because someone fails: the professor in the guidance or the student in the execution. In those cases, before starting the discussion the first step should be communication, trying to explain what’s happened.

Failure to comply with this rule will generate a great mutual distrust that can end with a mutual hostile attitude that can, in turn, make the project fail.

8. Knowledge transfer. The student must be aware that having accepted the supervision of the professor, he becomes an essential link in the propagation of the knowledge previously accumulated by the professor. The professor will try to put all their effort in giving international relevance to the work of the student, which is also is the professor's work.

In the today’s society, knowledge transfer is more important than ever, so both professor and student must assume that one of the main objectives in their research work is to promote, as much as possible, the transfer of the generated knowledge to the society. This can be done through scientific papers, patents, spin-offs – and scientific divulgation today is a must. This task, easier now thanks to social networks. Even when using social media for self-interest purposes, scientists that have high impact in social networks are cited more in academic metrics, according to a 2016 study in PLOS One.

In this effort to disseminate the knowledge, the student plays an important role as the main link between the professor and future students.

9. Professional projection. The professor should be aware that no matter how much he or she gives to the student, that student is putting into the hands of the professor several years of their life, in their moment of more physical and intellectual splendor. The professor will seek the greatest professional projection he or she can provide to the student.

The better the future of the student, the better the future of both of them. One well promoted student is the best way for the professor to assure future scientific networks, future collaboration and future projects. Today’s students must be future partners. To promote your students is actually a way to promote yourself.

10. Relationship forever. The professor, from the moment he or she accepts the student, must be their mentor forever. And the student must expect and ask for advice and help from the professor for the development of their later professional career.

If both are intelligent people (which is supposed), they will try to maintain, forever, this mentor/mentored relationship. With time, the student could even play the mentor role with their former professor. Both of them will grow personally and professionally, and this will allow them to help each other. If the relationship is an equal relationship from the beginning, with the passing of the years, it will be much even more egalitarian, if it is possible. This kind of relationship could promote connections as strong father/mother and son or daughter. And this could be one of the best ways to enrich the personal lives of both.

If professor and student both comply with these simple rules, it will be difficult for them not to complete the work successfully and build a relationship that endures well beyond the duration of that first project.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Assistant Prof. Sophia Tsipas for her help in revising this text. She wasn´t my PhD student, but she could have been.

Tools you can use for research and collaboration

Prof. Torralba’s research group uses a variety of platforms to find out about the latest related research, manage their research and connect with researchers around the world. The most used are Elsevier’s ScienceDirect and Scopus as well as Web of Science and Google Scholar. To manage citations, they use Elsevier’s Mendeley in addition to EndNote and Zotero.

They also track the impact of their research in non-traditional ways. One tool to do that is Elsevier’s Plum Analytics, which provides insights into how people are interacting with research online – for example, on social media and in the news. Elsevier has integrated Plum Analytics into ScienceDirect, Scopus and other research platforms.

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