career academia advice soft skills graduate school

Managing Up

Why might your advisor become distant from your work and how can you bring them back into it?

Figure 1. There is a lot of behind the scenes work to research experimentation which often includes reading and writing by the Principal Investigator (PI). The top circle is often much more of their involvement than the bottom circle, which is usually completed by graduate students and undergraduates alone. However,feedback and guidance help that bottom circle progress much more rapidly and happily.

The career path of an academic is not logical.

A PI’s life has been eventful.

It all starts with an interest in investigation.

They progress rapidly if they’re good at experimentation.

As they work through the ranks, they are trusted with more mentorship opportunities,

Leading to less time at the bench in exchange for more writing and guidance responsibilities.

This system produces advisors who don’t know how to manage people or deliver what their trainees ask

And got promoted out of hands-on lab work because they showed proficiency in those very tasks.

Even sometimes when you are lucky and your advisor shows prowess in this managerial position

Life happens. They are stretched too thin. You feel like being their mentee is an imposition.

“Where’d you go? I need your help. I’m still a trainee.”

“I’m here for you and I’ll be more present. I didn’t know what you needed until you told me.”

Open communication with your advisor can change the game.

Have those awkward conversations. If you need something, ask for it, without fear of them loathing your name.

Express to them how often you need to meet, and for each meeting share your goals ahead of time.

Things flow smoother when your advisor has been primed.

Sending reminders will also keep you on the ball.

These meetings are a tool for accountability, which is needed by trainees, by advisors, by all.

Check in on experiments and write-ups regularly. Your PI’s advice is something you’ll need to hear.

But don’t forget to talk about overall goals and progress (make an individual development plan) at least once every year.

After all, you have so many projects to keep track of.

When you manage your own guidance, work grows to become something you love.

More From Thats Life [Science]

Dialogue & Discussion