Working with Multiple Supervisors

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Interdisciplinary research requires synthesizing advice and expectations from different fields.
Posted On: September 03, 2020
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Clear and proactive communication can help trainees with multiple supervisors to avoid disagreements caused by interdisciplinary differences.

By Science Writer, Scott Rich

To answer important contemporary scientific questions, interdisciplinary research is often necessary to bring tools from a variety of traditionally-defined academic disciplines to bear. To meet the challenges associated with this new research paradigm, young scientists may now be expected to become well-versed in multiple fields, rather than relying on collaboration with other experts. This shift will undoubtedly lead to more well-rounded future researchers, able to lead teams with diverse expertise.

In order to gain these skills, it is becoming more common for trainees to have multiple supervisors from different academic departments. While there are obvious benefits to this arrangement, these trainees are faced with a unique challenge: balancing the sometimes-contradictory advice, expectations and demands of mentors from different fields who have different perspectives and experiences.

Indeed, the mere existence of the hugely variable conventions between disciplines is often a shock to trainees. These differences exist in the science itself and in the more “bureaucratic” aspects of research. For example, the same terminology can carry distinct meanings between disciplines, and ignorance of these inconsistencies may inadvertently cause researchers in different fields to interpret the same work in different ways. Meanwhile, differing customs in authorship and other aspects of publishing can cause unnecessary conflict between disciplines. For graduate students, the expectations for what constitutes a sufficient thesis can also vary between departments.

These conflicts can be jarring, especially when they lead to friction between mentors. This is why proactive, early diagnosis of such disagreements is necessary. Before engaging multiple advisors, trainees should actively engage their prospective mentors to clarify their expectations and bridge any divides that exist. Similar discussions should take place at the important checkpoints in research: authorship roles and expectations should be determined before the inception of a project and again before the writing process begins. These discussions are all the more vital if the research involves further collaboration with other scientists.

While this advice applies generally to interdisciplinary research, trainees are often faced with the additional challenge of rationalizing conflicting guidance from their mentors. For instance, advisors in different disciplines might have divergent career advice given their own experiences and the variable expectations for postdoctoral training in different fields. In these moments, it is imperative to keep in mind one’s individual goals and career aspirations, and resist feeling pressured to follow one path or another. Interdisciplinary researchers, for better or worse, often have to chart their own course, which very often will differ from that of their mentors.

One skill is paramount to addressing the challenges of balancing multiple mentors: communication. Maintaining clear, open and honest communication with one’s advisors is critical in interdisciplinary research. While this may present as added responsibility for the trainee, it is also an opportunity to hone a valuable skill and prepare oneself to be a better mentor in the future. By consciously acknowledging these challenges today, it is possible to alleviate these concerns for the next generation of interdisciplinary researchers.