Career, Science

Managing upwards works! Until it doesn’t

“You are not working for me, I am working with you on your project”

This is one of the first sentences in a document I have written for new starters in my lab. I want to be explicit about the expectations I have of them. And being proactive and independent is very high on my list.

It’s OK to be pushy!

Screen Shot 2014-07-02 at 21.35.15

I also give all new starters a copy of Kearns and Gardiner’s Nature article The care and maintenance of your adviser:

“Maintaining your adviser means asking for what you need rather than hoping that he or she will know what to provide. …

[A]lthough it is natural to complain about your adviser — and can even be cathartic — it is not enough.

If your adviser is not giving you what you need, you need to go out and get it. “

I think this is very helpful advise for students and postdocs: It is Ok to be pushy!

The way I understand this part of a supervisor-student relationship is: If you need me I’ll help you in all ways I can. But you need to tell me what you need.

One specific example Kearns and Gardiner give is organizing meetings:

A comment we often hear at our workshops is, “My adviser is lovely but he/she is just so busy that we never get to talk about my thesis”.

And our response is, “Yes, your adviser is busy. All advisers are busy and will continue to be busy.

Regardless, you need to organize meetings where you can get real face time and talk about your thesis.”

Exactly! I want the people in my group to show initiative.

I don’t want anybody to wait until they are told what to do. Or come in and say ‘I got a problem, please figure it out for me’.

I want them to come in with a plan, be organized and make the most of the time we spend together.

I don’t think I am asking for anything special. It’s just doing your job.

Stop doing that!

As you can see, I am quite a fan of being managed `upwards’ by my students and postdocs.

For me this is a way to strengthen their independence. My side of the bargain is that I take their concerns and ideas seriously, whatever they are.

And so it came as a surprise to me, when I read this post on The Thesis Whisperer saying Please stop telling me to ‘manage’ my supervisor!

As many people have pointed out, supervision / student relationships are rarely, if ever, ‘equal’ and if you had to say one person had more power than the other, it’s almost certainly the supervisor.

True. Even the most egalitarian lab is no democracy. Mine certainly ain’t. If push comes to shove, there is exactly one opinion that counts. (Mine, in case you wondered.)

Why then do we burden students with the task of ‘managing’ when they are, often, in a position where they are powerless to do so?

Umm .. I never thought it was burdening them.

If an academic can’t read a calendar or turn around a draft, no amount of nagging is going to make a difference. In fact, the nagging might make the whole situation worse […]

Aha! That is the important point. If the supervisor-student relationship is working, then ‘managing your supervisor’ is just what every proactive and independent person would do.

But if the supervisor-student relationship has broken down, managing doesn’t work anymore.

Let’s be positive about it

It’s like the propaganda about The Power of Positive Thinking: ‘You do not need to be defeated by anything, …you can have peace of mind, improved health, and a never-ceasing flow of energy’.

Well, sorry, sometimes you are defeated. And it is just not helpful to be told it was all my own fault because I haven’t been positive enough.

Managing your supervisor is a bit like that. If all works well it is a great! But if you got a bad supervisor or a terribly unsupportive department it is no use being told it’s all your fault because you haven’t been proactive enough and haven’t managed them well.

If you have the opportunity to manage upwards, use it!

If not, escape if you can! As fast as you can!



5 thoughts on “Managing upwards works! Until it doesn’t

  1. And if you can’t? Your academic career is over before you got a chance… and of course it is all and only your fault! It is all well when things work well, but what is the last point to your advice? Manage upwards if you can, escape otherwise, and if this is not a possibility either simply give up?


  2. Hi annlia, thank you very much for your comment.

    “… and of course it is all and only your fault! ” No, the point was exactly that it is not always your fault. It might be your supervisor’s – brilliant scientists not necessarily make brilliant supervisors.

    There are many options. The process already starts before you accept a position. The management style of a potential adviser becomes generally very clear very quickly by talking to the current students and postdocs in the lab.

    Once you are in the lab, there might be a second supervisor to turn to, if you are a student. Or a change of supervisors within your institution.

    And for postdocs: If you are not happy after the first year, you need to leave. Comp Bio postdocs are very sought after. If you can’t leave the town, check the other groups at your university. Talk to collaborating labs, maybe there is even a chance to continue the same project under different leadership.



  3. In principle I agree with you, if not for the fact that such lucidity of judgment may only come with the experience wisdom. As students and postdocs we tend to take upon ourselves more responsibility than we should.

    Even if we are smart enough not to fall into this trap, escaping as a postdoc may not be entirely practical, despite all your good suggestions. For a start not every university is Cambridge, there are plenty of places out there with a much less lively academic environment. Your discipline might actually be represented by a single group within the university, so that your mobility is in fact limited. However here we are back to square one, in the sense that we should know better upon taking a first offer as a postdoc. The experience wisdom might still be playing a role though, and as fresh PhDs we may not realise how much it counts to be in the right place and work with the right people.

    If after one year the enlightenment comes, and even being ready to leave the town, it may already be too late, since we might be academically stuck in catch 22.

    Things work out for some people and just don’t for other, and sometimes the difference may simply be a little luck.


    1. I completely agree with you.

      Texts like Duncan Odoms’s “How to evaluate a graduate studentship, or choosing the right doctoral advisor” ( should be made required reading for all students before graduation and job search. You are also right that large universities with lively biomedical communities are very privileged. And in particular you are correct with how important luck can be in a career.

      With ‘catch 22’ I guess you mean that you are unhappy with your success in the place you are, but -because of that- your CV is not strong enough to easily move to another place. This is indeed a challenge. The only advise I have for a situation like this is: Build a personal network (through conferences and talks) and directly contact potential advisors to explain your situation. There are advantages for PIs to hire experienced postdocs who haven’t had an opportunity to shine yet and are thus double motivated.



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