PhD: Why choosing a supportive professor over an intelligent one helps

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By Adron Ung

I know that some of you are interested in pursuing a PhD position. Some students love their position and some students don’t, and any negative warnings should totally be taken to heart because it is not just that the discontent students have a problem with lacking optimism, but that they are being realistic.

If you join a PhD lab at a university, you will work for a major professor who is your supervisor. The most important thing is not that your professor is intelligent. Most professors are intelligent. It is that your supervisor is supportive.

Even if your research project is not the most exciting thing to you from day one, if your supervisor gets excited with each an every one of your successful experiments and not too rudely critical of inconclusive experiments, you will enjoy your project more and more each day. Not every day will be good. Some will be bad. But you will feel like you are going somewhere.

An example of a supportive supervisor behaves (not a function of scientific knowledge but general human decency) like this:

1) Your project isn’t working but you are trying really hard and testing a lot of conditions. Your supervisor respects your hard work, and tells you that breakthrough discoveries in science don’t happen without a lot of failed attempts. There is at least one condition that works, and thousands of conditions that don’t work, and they are not ignorant to this.

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2) You propose an idea to your supervisor. It’s not a perfect idea. But your supervisor gets really excited that you are coming up with ideas on your own. Your supervisor may tell you that one of your assumptions is incorrect, but (s)he sees that you are on the right path to finding a solution to your problem. That doesn’t mean your supervisor will tell you the answer to every question. Your supervisor wants you to develop critical thinking. But if you are on the right path to solving your problem your supervisor will offer advice to reach your goal. Their goal!

3) You feel at ease talking to your supervisor as if you are working TOGETHER to solve the same problem.

Someone that you should ABSOLUTELY REFUSE to have on your thesis committee or be your supervisor is anyone who has the negative version of all those traits.

Antithesis of 1) Your project isn’t working. You are trying really hard, though. This person expects you to fail and would be absolutely shocked to see you succeed. Why? Not because they recognize the experiment is difficult, but because they have this image in their mind that “you” are incompetent by default. Avoid this person at all costs. Never talk to them, have them on your committee, or anything. It doesn’t matter how smart this person is. They are cheering for your failure. They are gaslighting you.

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Antithesis of 2) You propose an idea to your supervisor. It’s not perfect. Your supervisor feels insulted that you would propose an experiment that is not perfect, and your supervisor points out every mistake that you make and none of the things that you got right. They are cheering for your failure so much that they even try to convince you that your good ideas are bad. They are gaslighting you.

Antithesis of 3) You feel uneasy talking to this person or being in their presence. They have a superiority complex which means they enjoy making you feel inferior. They are gaslighting you.

Gaslighting is when someone makes you feel incompetant and question your own sanity and memory by saying things like, “I never told you that”, “you never did that”, “you don’t know what you are talking about”. Gaslighters love having a position of power of you. They love power, and they exist in academia.

No matter how intelligent someone is, doesn’t mean that person has human decency. An intelligent person can use their knowledge to be a really good gasligther.

Also, gasligthers do not target everyone. Some people they just don’t like and they will never like. Never allow them to be in a position of power over you. Never communicate with them. Absolutely doubt their intelligence. If they abused everyone then they could never convince anyone that you are crazy. They know this in some sick sadistic way.

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Some professors are good, some are bad. Most are smart. The reason gasligthers exist in academia is because there is a ranking system in academia. Professors have earned their rank, but some people are attracted to this position because they love power over others which it gives them to abuse others.

You can talk to anyone in your graduate program for advice. They don’t have to be on your thesis committee or be your major professor. Only select people to be on your committee or be your supervisor who WANT YOU TO SUCCEED. That’s infinitely more important than whatever it is they research and how similar it is to your work.

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