It was during my 4th year of PhD study. At a quiet night after I was exhausted from the thesis work, I checked the progress of the article I submitted to a journal called “Biomaterials“. The status was “accepted with minor revision”. I was so excited and suddenly I realized it could be the most important thing during my entire PhD program. First, my degree was almost secured and I did not need to care my graduation too much. Second, I knew my supervisor is not going to scold me anymore. Biomaterials is the top journal in the field of material for biological applications with an impact factor of 8.3.
I am not here only to tell you guy my story during my PhD study, but also to tell some managerial skills I observed from my supervisor. My supervisor is an immunologist who has worked mostly in immunology of transplantation and he wanted to use a tool called siRNA to study the immune system. However, it is very difficult to put siRNA into a cell unless one used virus, which could lead to immune response or inflammatory which is not desirable. To make my long thesis introduction short, there are some materials can do the job and that was the reason why my supervisor brought me to his research team. Unfortunately, the research didn’t go as good as what he expected and one time, he asked me to change my entire thesis project into pure biology. I refused that and I changed the method. Luckily, it did work out but still, he didn’t trust me, tried to have me worked in the way he wanted, monitored my research progress every single week until almost the very end. Some of you guys may conclude at this point “he is a bad supervisor”. However, believe it or not, I am still very grateful toward his help during my study.
I and my fellow colleagues made a conclusion on why it happened so badly in the very beginning but it turned out to be great at the end. First of all, he is not good on the materials side and he knew that having collaboration with materials researchers is usually very slow and they usually focus on something an immunologist does not care. To solve that, he asked a Professor in chemistry who has the experience to work on bio-materials to be my advisory committee member and luckily, she is very knowledgeable and helpful. Second, my supervisor like all other professors, are result-oriented person. Well, it is not a bad thing to a researcher because we believe in experimental result more than anything. There are more than a thousand ways to make something wrong and probably less than 5 methods could work. That was the reason why he monitored my research progress every week. Well, certainly, he is not very good on the material side and that was the reason why he wanted me to work in the way he wanted so he could understand how good the research was. Third, we had another graduate student who is immunologist who worked on topical delivery and we worked together in this project. Finally, the most important things he let me to do was “he let me to try whatever he could support financially”. He is well-funded and I wasted him a lot of reagents, animals and everything. To certain extent, I am the only one who has the highest degree freedom on choosing the research in his lab or probably, in most of the labs. I decided what material I made, the disease model I used and even the journal I submitted.
Well, one might conclude that “you had a bad supervisor but you are lucky”. There is luck in research and it is the cause of almost all successful stories I have ever heard. If you wanted to learn more about what is bad supervisor, you can go to visit Saman’s blog (but well, yeah to certain extent my supervisor is not good according to Saman’s definition). My supervisor did a lot of good managerial decisions, the only risk he took was to let a student to design the entire project, which most students are incapable to. Firstly, he wanted to work on something he did not know and he “hired” someone knew it (technically, it is me but I would also include Beth, the professor in chemistry into this). Secondly, instead of letting me to do all the stuff by myself, he monitored the progress of the project closely. It seems contradictory to the freedom of research I had but I have the freedom on doing the stuff I wanted. What he wanted was mostly the result that could interest him. Thirdly, he had people and resource available on the biological side to help the overall progress of the project. I cannot do anything if these resources were not available or maybe it took me years to make everything work. Finally, he diversified the portfolio by having other researches going on and having a backup plan if I failed.
to be continued…