Edward van Opstal: Communication with your supervisor

The PhD/Postdoc blog series features scientists at different stages of career development as they explore and plan for their next steps. Over the course of six months, Edward van Opstal, Ruchi Masand, Corina White, and Darcie Cook will give monthly updates on their progress. Check back every Wednesday for new blog posts!

Current position: 4th year PhD candidate in Biological Sciences

Program start date: 2013

Institution: Vanderbilt University

Hello everyone,

Being my last post for NIH BEST, I thought I should talk about one of the most important skills to learn during your PhD or Post Doc, communicating with your supervisor. Now, this may seem like a straightforward topic, but getting on the same page as your supervisor when it comes to career development and your future career can be stressful and take a fair amount of negotiation. This should make sense when you think about it. While my supervisor wants me to succeed in my future (he truly does), he also wants me to defend in a timely manner, publish papers, and progress my research project. Especially for students on non-academic paths, you and your supervisor will have to compromise on the best ways for you to get the career development you need while still being productive in your PhD.

So, what are a couple of ways I’ve created a dialogue with my supervisor? 

  1. My supervisor and I take my Individual Development Plan seriously. We have annual meetings to talk through and debate what I’ve written in my current IDP. Through these discussions, my supervisor will be updated on my research progress and goals. However, he will also understand the steps I want to take in the coming year to build experience in non-research topics such as: blogging, advocacy, outreach, and teaching. These meetings act as a great foundation so neither one of us feels in the dark and smaller meetings throughout the year can be more open and supportive.
  1. My supervisor and I will sit and talk about my non-research related commitments. To most, this type of talk must sound terrifying and cause a lot of anxiety. Who wants to approach their boss and say that they want to participate in activities that don’t directly related to their lab work? I’ll tell you that this scary proposition is not only necessary for good lines of communication, but can a beneficial experience. Imagine it like practice for job negotiations. You and your supervisor will have some different priorities for your PhD and you have to work towards a fair compromise. I will usually come to my supervisor’s office with 10 different experiences that I would like to participate in this year, but I know that I need to prioritize and we will probably come to an agreement of focusing on 4-5 of those experiences. This is how jobs work and I appreciate my supervisor treating my proposal with respect, knowing that I’m out of my mind if I think I can be productive on my research while working on 10 other projects.

While some negotiations will be harder than others, it is always important to remember that you and your future matter. There will always be a balance between lab work and career development and your voice should matter as much as your supervisor’s. Don’t be afraid to stand your ground and state your case for why you want to go after different opportunities in graduate school.

I’d like to finish by saying that writing this blog has been a pleasure and extremely rewarding. I hope that what I’ve written these past 6 months have helped my readers. I may have been lucky to discover this blog series, but there are so many opportunities develop your career interests during your PhD or Postdoc. We are a commodity and no matter where you are, there are experiences waiting to be created to teach, advocate, write, and network.  Before I close out, I encourage you, make your PhD and Post Doc work for you. Career development opportunities are more readily available during this point in your life. Make your time count.


And so:

We have future goals that don’t always align,

With our lab’s direction and our thesis outline.

Our PIs should be our mentor and a lifeline,

Working towards your future should not be clandestine.

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