Tuesday, September 24, 2013

On the importance of a good supervisor

One day, a fox was walking through the forest when he met a rabbit sitting outside a rabbit hole reading a pile of papers. "What are you doing?" the fox asked the rabbit. The rabbit looked up at the fox and replied "I'm doing the literature review for my thesis. It's on the superiority of rabbits over foxes. Would you like to come inside and discuss it?". The fox hungrily licked his lips, followed the rabbit into the rabbit hole, and was never seen again. 

Some time later, a wolf was walking through the forest and saw the rabbit sitting outside of his rabbit hole making notes on a thick pile of paper with a big, red, pen. "What are you doing?" the wolf asked the rabbit. The rabbit looked up and replied "I'm revising my thesis". The wolf asked the rabbit "What's your thesis about?" and the rabbit said "It's on the superiority of rabbits over foxes and wolves. Would you like to come inside and discuss it?". The wolf hungrily licked his lips, followed the rabbit down the rabbit hole, and was never seen again.

Some time later, a hare was walking through the forest when he saw the rabbit sitting in the sun with a big, satisfied grin on this face. "Why are you looking so happy?" the hare asked the rabbit. The rabbit looked at the hare and said "I've just been awarded my PhD. My thesis was on the superiority of rabbits over foxes and wolves. Would you like to come inside and discuss it?". The hare, curious about such a topic, followed the rabbit down the rabbit hole into the warren. In one corner of the rabbit's room was a pile of fox bones. In another corner was a pile of wolf bones. Sitting between the two piles of bones was a lion.

So you see, it doesn't matter what your thesis is on, as long as your supervisor is a lion.

A newly published article (discussed in more detail by one of the authors here) has examined the influence of several factors that may determine how successful a scientist is in their career, where success is measured by the number of publications the scientist (biologists in this case) has. While factors such as gender and language had some slight effect, the factor that was most influential was the number of publications a scientist had before completing their PhD.

In other words, someone who has learned to produce papers before they finish their PhD is more likely to be able to continue producing papers after they have finished their PhD. To me this seems analagous to saying that someone who has learned how to drive can drive. Apparently, stating the blindingly obvious is original research as long as it uses statistics.

Who does a pre-PhD learn this paper-production skill from? Most of the time, from their supervisor. A supervisor who produces a lot of papers, and includes their students in the process of doing so, will produce PhD graduates who have the skills to produce papers post-PhD. If the supervisor doesn't teach the student how to publish, where else will they get this skill?

The most disturbing implication of this is that if a student chooses the wrong supervisor, they will have little chance of a successful career. The article linked to above states that the institution that the PhD graduates from has no influence on success and the influence of other factors is weak. As an aside, this reinforces something I've been saying for a while - that the reputation of an institution is good for marketing, but says little about the quality of the staff there.

The sentiment behind the story at the top of this post, is that as long as your supervisor is a good supervisor, you will be successful. This makes choosing the right supervisor probably the most critical decision an aspiring academic can ever make, yet they must make it when they have little knowledge and no experience on which to draw to make that decision. This is a huge problem - how many perfectly capable researchers have had their careers destroyed, before they have even begun, by a bad choice of supervisor? More importantly, how do those of us who are post-PhD stop it from happening in the future?

I really wish I had an answer to that question.