Like a Boss

– written by Dendrite –


Disclaimer:  I actually like my boss, which is more than many of my friends can say. 

This does not mean our relationship is without conflict, nor that he doesn’t make me want to pull my hair out sometimes.  As a graduate student for the past few years with two advisors in two very different programs I’ve noticed a special kind of conflict occurring between academic advisor-bosses and their students.  I believe this conflict is a little bit different than some more traditional boss-employee relationships. 

I like to compare the relationship of advisor/graduate student to a concept in biology known as the “Parent-Offspring Conflict”.  In the case of an animal (let’s say a bird), it hatches out very helpless chicks that require lots of feeding and care.  The baby bird wants more more more and will not stop begging for food until some time after it leaves the nest (sound familiar parents?).  The parent bird may have more than one chick to care for in the nest and thus cannot give all food resources to one baby.  Additionally, all this provisioning of food is energetically costly to the parent.  Evolutionarily, bird parents want to provide enough food to each chick so that it successfully leaves the nest and goes on to have babies of its own, but not so much that they risk having less successful chicks in the current nest or in the future.

I’ve found the advisor-graduate student relationship to be a sort of reverse parent offspring conflict.  My advisor (as the baby bird) wants more more more work out of me, potentially at a cost to me.  I want to give him enough to successfully “fledge” a few papers and to make him like me, but not so much that it puts too big of a strain on other areas of my life.  Now, my advisor does seem to be okay with me having a family and some kind of life outside of graduate school, but this does not stop him from asking for more work than is really achievable considering that I also have to sleep sometimes. 

Additionally, I want to spend some of my time developing myself professionally in other ways.  I don’t necessarily want to be a tenure-track professor at a top-tier research university (shhh don’t tell!), which means I’m trying to broaden my skill set to include teaching and public science communication.  These activities mean that I produce less in terms of research than a student that is in lab 24-7.  And while both myself and my advisor are generally okay with that sometimes the conflict comes up between what I want and what he wants from me.

Now this boss-underling conflict may take place in companies as well, but I would argue it is strongest in academia.  With lab productivity and potentially tenure on the line these advisor-bosses can take the conflict to a whole new level.  Advisors that spend a lot of time mentoring students and investing in them monetarily may have extra incentive to push their graduate students to extreme levels of work and/or stress. 

In addition to the pressure put on us by our bosses, I think most graduate students struggle with exactly how much we want to be like them.  They are obviously successful, as they are tenured professors often well-respected by their peers.  It took me a few years to realize that as much as I admire my boss I may not want to be exactly like him. 

YES I CAN say no to my advisor sometimes, and I must be proactive in pursuing those other skills that will benefit me in my future career.  I’ve been working to strike that happy balance between a satisfied advisor and taking the time and energy to forge our own paths through academia.  I’ve spent a lot of time on things other than research that are important to me and my boss doesn’t hate me too much yet so I’m hoping I can keep that up until graduation.

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