Alison was nearly ecstatic when she got accepted into graduate school. Unlike the other students in her cohort, who did rotations to determine which PI they would work for, Alison already had a well-defined thesis topic before she began her first year.
Alison had a unique academic background that included chemistry, biology, and engineering, and two professors in her department had just put together a grant application for a collaboration. When she interviewed for graduate school, the professors realized that her interdisciplinary background would be the perfect fit for this joint project.
The grant application was approved, and Alison started out graduate school with several years of guaranteed funding as well as an innovative thesis project that had the promise of resulting in multiple publications.
Her first year was action-packed, as she balanced her coursework and collected preliminary data for the joint project. As an overachiever in college, Alison was used to long days or hard work, but she was not prepared for the unique challenges of having two thesis supervisors.
Both of Alison’s supervisors were senior professors with large research groups, who had (at least) weekly group meetings. Eager to learn as much as she could to make her project a success, Alison attended the group meetings of both professors.
In addition, her thesis project (which included several other collaborators) had a weekly meeting as well. Between her coursework to prepare her for qualifying exams, lab work, literature search, and at least three weekly meetings, Alison always felt like she was behind on something.
She hoped life would get easier after she passed her exams – at least the coursework would be over and she could focus completely on her research. However, the grant agency funding her project had stringent deadlines and Alison’s supervisors turned up pressure to collect publishable data in her second year her after she completed her qualifiers.
Striving to meet the funding agency’s deadlines and the special requests of each of her supervisors, Alison continued to put in long hours 6 or 7 days a week. She planned on following an academic career path, and was committed to making her project a success and publishing in prestigious journals.
There was one challenge that she was not prepared for: Alison’s two thesis supervisors, both leaders in their fields, had clashing opinions on her research.
How could Alison collect publishable data and graduate on time if her two supervisors were pulling her in opposite directions?
Caught Between a Rock and a Hard Place
Alison thought about changing her thesis topic, but that decision would put her back on square one. Instead of 5 or 6 years, she would be in graduate school for 7 or 8 years, and as a third year student she already felt burned out.
In addition, there was no guarantee that another professor would have the funding to take her on, and she felt hesitant to open up about her challenges to her supervisors. What if they took her off the project completely after realizing she could not handle the pressure?
Both of Alison’s supervisors prided themselves on putting in long hours and juggling multiple high-level research projects so they would be well-funded. If she wanted to become a faculty member, she would have to learn how to live up to the high expectations of academia: balancing teaching, research, grant writing, mentoring, committee meetings, attending conferences.
Would she ever have time to sleep or spend time with a family she hoped to have one day?
She had seen some postdoctoral fellows in her department transition into faculty positions. Just the job search itself (which frequently included applications to 50+ universities in the US and other countries) seemed exhausting, and required time away from their families and their research too.
However, none of postdocs had to contend with making two supervisors with opposing mindsets happy at the same time. The effort of living up to the expectations of two highly opinionated supervisors tired her out emotionally more than physically.
Alison went through several dark months in her third year – she continued to collect data, but her project lacked focus and she felt aimless. She was confused about the direction of her research and what she would (or could) publish about.
“Maybe I am just not cut out for graduate school” she thought. She scheduled meetings with her two supervisors in an effort to get more guidance, but her PI’s spent more time arguing with each other than giving her advice. Instead of getting more clarity, the meetings led to more confusion and frustration.
As Alison neared the end of her third year, each day she became more certain that wrapping up whatever she had and graduating with a Masters degree to pursue a career in industry was the right decision for her.
The turning point in Alison’s graduate school experience occurred on a day when she attended a thesis defense of a 6th year student. The student’s research was not related to Alison’s field, so she did not gain insights into how to proceed with her own project.
What struck Alison about this thesis defense, was the confidence that the student had. Alison remembered seeing this student’s seminar a year before, when her data was still in “patches” – yet she was able to pull it together in one year into one of the most impressive thesis defenses she had seen.
Alison realized that if she wanted to graduate on time, she could not rely on her supervisors telling her what to do. She had to take matters into her own hands.
You Need To Take The Lead
Whether you have one or more supervisors, you will need to negotiate your graduation requirements with multiple professors on your committee. One of the most challenging aspects of working with multiple professors is that there is usually a lack of communication.
Sometimes your committee meetings are the only time that the professors get together into one room to discuss your project. They may not have had enough time to review your progress report in detail and they might not have useful suggestions for you during your meeting.
Seven tips to help you get multiple professors on the same page, whether they are co-advisors or on your committee
1. Prepare, prepare, prepare: What are the most likely questions the professors will ask? What issues do they usually disagree on? Can you find alternative solutions in the literature, based on the approach that other researchers took?
2. If possible, communicate with each professor individually before each meeting regarding the agenda. You do not have to meet in person, just make sure you cover all of their questions and any data they would like to see during the meeting.
3. Be flexible and listen actively to their viewpoints: As frustrating as it is to have multiple professors telling you to go into multiple (sometimes opposite) directions, the only way to resolve these conflicts is to hear them out completely.
If there is a disagreement, dig as deep as you can into why professors feel the way they do. Get them to clarify their exact question, concern, or why they disagree with the other professor.
4. Nail down their exact requirements or questions. Phrases like “make sure that your data is good enough to be publishable” are a recipe for disagreements at committee meetings. You need to get crystal clear on what their expectations are.
Depending on your research, you may not be able to put a number on each requirement, but get as specific as possible so you can clearly define what you need to do to graduate.
5. Review previous and recent theses from your department that are close to your research. Reading other dissertations can be a turning point for many students – it was certainly for me, because I realized that I already had so much of the material (methods, most of the results, a good portion of the literature search), that I could see myself starting to write my thesis.
6. Follow up with each professor after the meeting to agree on direction of research, action plan, and due dates for each milestone. While I recommend discussing these issues face-to-face, it is good to put important agreements into writing and send the action plan over email after meetings.
7. Keep lines of communication open with professors between committee meetings. Ideally, committee meetings are a formality. You do not want any surprises there. If you make significant progress in one are, reach a fork in the road, or get stuck, make sure you let your supervisor(s) know.
If you only have one thesis supervisor, communicate everything with him or her before reaching out to your committee members. Alison was able to get her two thesis supervisors on the same page using suggestion #4: Nail down their exact requirements or questions.
Given how busy professors are, there was never enough time during the joint meetings for each professor to discuss in detail why they felt Alison should take a specific approach. In addition, they kept interrupting each other because they were both very opinionated.
However, when Alison met with them individually, she had the opportunity to get very clear on their opinions, research their questions in the literature, and write a proposal that addressed both of their needs to some extent. In her words “I did not make either of them 100% happy, but just hearing them made all of the difference. “
After working wit hundreds of students over the last 5 years, I learned that assertiveness is just as important as the quality of your research when it comes to getting your thesis approved. Remember that graduate school is about your thesis, your education, and your career advancement.
While you need to satisfy your committee’s requirements (and the funding agency’s requests too), you need to become your own project manager to ensure that you meet your short and long-erm milestones so you can graduate on time.
Sounds like a lot of work? In Alison’s case the difficulties she encountered were great preparation for her career. In the end, she decided to work for industry, where she was part of multiple project teams.
As a PhD-level researcher Alsion was in several leadership positions, and learning to manage clashing personalities during team meetings became an invaluable asset in her career advancement.
Do you or did you have to content with multiple thesis supervisors, or opinionated committee members? If so, how did you overcome your challenges? Please be specific as we have readers from all over the world looking for inspiration!