Dependence Tightrope

I recently overheard a research horror story, so terrifying it may even be worthy of campfires and marshmallows. For now, I guess, we will have to make do without. Feel free to use your imagination though. *hiss, crackle, etc.*

A friend of mine has been working with some clinical samples for about a year now, along with a few others who have been involved for two to three years. One of their main hypotheses regards a group of proteins which should be present in a particular cell type within said sample. After a lot of struggling with nailing down gene expression, let alone protein quantification, they went back to square one to check their collection and storage methods. Lo and behold; the methods the group had been using had rendered their cells of interest inaccessible. The clinical samples they had been gathering over a period of years were worthless for testing their hypothesis.

Now, whose fault all of this is, is debatable. Shouldn’t the supervisor have known better? Shouldn’t the students have double checked? Either way, the horror story demonstrates the extreme skinniness of the line between trusting and questioning your supervisor.

While a good student does as their told, doesn’t a good scientist “question everything”? While this probably shouldn’t be taken too literally (have you ever tried talking while brushing your teeth?!), a PhD student who never ventures beyond the face value of their supervisor’s advice probably isn’t destined for a highly successful career in science. Whether the advice is sound or not, assessing its value is all part and process of doing a PhD (…and, probably: life).

As a naturally inquisitive but also dubious and pessimistic individual, I have literally given myself nightmares about what would happen if my supervisor turned out to be wrong. I am ALWAYS asking questions (most of which start with, “What if…?”), and I can assure you that it’s not good for your well-being. I am constantly left wondering which circumstances are appropriate for me to doubt my supervisor’s advice.

I suppose all I can hope for is that: learning when to ask questions and when to Shut Up  And Get On With It is just one of the many skills that I will develop in the process of obtaining my PhD.

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3 thoughts on “Dependence Tightrope

  1. I can see the metaphorical torch under your chin…*shudders*

    I have no training in protein/genetics, so I don’t know how much the student ought to know (or know enough to question their supervisor). But what can the student do when it comes to aspects where the student doesn’t even know they’re supposed to ask – especially areas involving “soft skills” (eg. dealing with examiners)?

    • I suppose it depends on what your supervisor is like, and how accessible they are. If you don’t feel like you are going to get the opportunity to i) start a casual conversation about it or ii) squeeze some questions into a regular meeting slot, then don’t forget there are sooo many other resources at your university than your supervisor. Do you have a Post-Grad or Student Support unit? Or a Counselling Service? This service is not just there to provide emotional support, but also logistical. I promise you there is someone at your uni whose job it is to answer any one of your questions; you just have to find them – and that’s what the these support units can help you with.

      I would like to think that most supervisors would be supportive in helping with these kinds of queries, but if you have an inkling that your supervisor might consider these duties ‘beneath them’, find your support elsewhere. Your uni wants you to succeed!

      • oh don’t get me wrong, I’ve never doubted my supervisor’s ability or willingness to provide support during my PG time (both in “hard” and “soft” skills). I’m just extrapolating the problem in your post, ie. to what extent can a PhD student trust their supervisor, vs. having to do their own thinking. I just thought that students have little room to doubt supervisors on issues relating to career outlook, tacit knowledge etc.

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