Will we all turn into our supervisors one day?

PhD students are busy, it’s a given. And even though we all complain about it, everyone ends up accepting the burden and moving on with their projects. On a regular ol’ morning, a few months ago, I was particularly busy. Drowning in lab work, I had tons of data to get through until the end of the week and, the scariest of all prospects in academia was dawning: a fast approaching grant application deadline. I sat down at my computer and got lost in grant writing. After some time, an email popped up.

I ignored it…

Twenty minutes or so went by and another one came through. Again, I ignored that one and the ones that came after. The reality was, from my biased and selfish point of view, none seemed massively important or to need an immediate reply. Without giving it much thought, I decided to postpone dealing with them. Eventually, of course, I forgot.

To be honest, the only reason I remembered the emails even existed in the first place was because I got particularly pestered about one of them. Not once. Not twice. But three times… That’s when I realised, I’m becoming my supervisor – and all those times I cursed at him for not replying to my emails suddenly slapped me in the face.

I know what you’re thinking: “Dude, just because you ignored a few emails doesn’t mean you’re becoming your supervisor”. Yeah, that’s what I wanted to think too but let me present you with evidence #2: flirting with deadlines.

During the past four years I always keenly observed how my supervisor juggles all his deadlines. Like most academics, he has a lot on his metaphorical plate: several projects running simultaneously, PhD students and postdocs to advise, undergraduate teaching, admin responsibilities, many grants to apply to, etc. And so, he ends up having to leave things until the last minute – not out of choice but out of need. Recently I have found myself doing the same: writing that conference abstract on the day of the deadline, occasionally enquiring about an extension, PACKING MY BAG ON THE SAME DAY I HAVE TO FLY (I know, SHOCKING).

While thinking about it I’ve realised that there are many more quirks and behaviours where I have copied my supervisor. Like learning to say no, which was something that I never even thought possible – if a vaguely interesting sounding opportunity came my way I simply had to say yes (and who was I to say no)? I have now learnt that my time is valuable and that I need to prioritise and cherry-pick what projects interest and benefit me and which ones I should just pass. My very favourite, however, has to be “eating one frog a day”. Above my supervisor’s door, inside his office, sits a handwritten sign saying “eat a frog a day”. I’m pretty sure that, since I started my PhD in 2013, he mentions this to me at least once a week: every day, get rid of a pesky, “I don’t want to do this” task on your to do list. And you know what? I actually do it and boy does it feel good.

Oscar Wilde said in The Importance of Being Earnest that “all women become like their mothers” (not sure how I feel about that quote but, hey, stuff for a different day). In a similar manner, maybe all PhD students eventually become like their supervisors (my own supervisor says that he is becoming more and more like his PhD supervisor).  And MAYBE it’s okay to become your supervisor. In fact, maybe I’m not just becoming my supervisor and this is actually what becoming an academic is like (wishful thinking?) and isn’t that what I wanted in the first place?

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