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Research manager: For students to flourish, we need to stop the feudal lord within us

#Pleasedontstealmywork — As senior scientists, we can choose to ignore the #pleasedontstealmywork campaign. But we could also try to learn more. I know none of the people involved in this campaign, but I recognise all the mechanisms at play.

Supervisors are different. There are supervisors who see their job as being a guide to show the way forward, that offers the student an apprenticeship in research design and the craft of scientific article writing.

As a supervisor, they support the PhD student when it is time to stand on their own, grow apart from their supervisors, and start to lead their research independently. That is, someone who actually gives the PhD student the space to develop into an independent researcher. A supervisor who speaks and is silent at the right moments, keeps their hands of their work, and who supports the first author when they have to get the solve the jigsaw of co-authorships.

At the other extreme, there are supervisors who act as feudal lords, where the PhD student never gets the opportunity to step out from the shadow of the supervisor. Here the supervisor works as if in a feudal system, where it was never the intention that those lower down would move up the hierarchy – ultimately up to the level of the feudal lords.

READ ALSO: #Pleasedont stealmywork: New campaign to stop the theft of research


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The ‘feudal lord’ collects publications like a zealous stamp collector, without really asking themselves what the purpose of it all really is. In the beginning, the purpose seems obvious: the postdoc collects publications to qualify for an assistant professorship, and the assistant professor collects publications to qualify for associate professor. The associate professor to  professorship, etc. etc.

The ‘lord’ can never get enough publications

But somewhere along the way, the number of publications becomes a goal in itself. And there is a need for consenting labour power for the production apparatus. In the role as a ‘feudal lord’, you risk acquiring a number of bad habits over time. The bad habits include letting unpaid labour make a significant contribution to the hard work of scientific study with a bare minimum of counselling in exchange. The bad habits are also more subtle. The supervisor does not have to move out of the comfort zone of their own  knowledge. When s/he supervisors, new ideas and methods are often written off as superficial.

The ‘lord’ has difficulty with the role of co-author. S/he would like to contribute ‘it would also be interesting to study x’ comments in the article manuscript’s commentary thread, but does not understand how the role of co-author – unlike, say, the thesis supervisor role – is covered by the Vancouver rules that mean they need to have made a significant contribution to achieve co-authorship.

The supervisor using the apprenticeship approach understands this. This supervisor understands that part of the point of a PhD degree programme is that the scholar must learn to manage a research process. This means that the supervisor must, at some point, submit to the PhD student’s own management. Otherwise, they will not learn it, right?

We shape the researchers of the future — what types do we want?

As a supervisor, you have a choice. Whether you want to take on a role as supervisor using the apprenticeship approach or as a feudal lord. In a system that continues to reward the number of publications, it is tempting to take on the role as feudal lord: Get a swarm of PhD students to do the hard work and keep the fruits of this work to yourself.

The ‘lord’ is found in all of us who have passed the PhD level, and who continue to take a salary at the university. But we decide ourselves how much this style should define our supervision, and how much space apprenticeship should have. Sometimes the lord within us will have us believe that we have no choice. That we are simply operating in a system in which a wealth of publications is crucial for an academic career. But: We decide ourselves how feudally we want to play the game.

Just as supervisors are different, PhD students are of course different. It cannot be ruled out beforehand that some individuals expect an unreasonably high degree of supervisor service. But you don’t get much out of academia if you expect to be nursed by your supervisors. So let’s assume that the majority of PhD students are just highly skilled and would just like to do well and make their supervisors proud.

One of the articles from #pleasedontstealmywork mentions that the world needs sharp, independent and inventive researchers. We – the apprentice supervisors and the feudal lords – have a large influence on how independent, imaginative and robust the researchers of tomorrow are. We need each other – young and old – we need each other’s work and consideration. In the long run, there is no space for free rides and sweet deals for any of the parties. Let us therefore rein in the feudal lord within and set our apprentices free.

If we are lucky, better research will emerge from this.