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Developing a Healthy, Productive Working Relationship with your Supervisor/Principal Investigator

Academic careers occur in high-pressure environments: they can often feel like a cycle of grant applications, publications and grant applications again, relentlessly repeating. This results in long hours, especially among early to mid-career researchers. It is therefore extremely important that you set realistic expectations and standards with your supervisor/advisor/principal investigator (PI). Here are some things to consider for cultivating a healthy and productive working relationship with your supervisor/PI. 

Setting expectations

Well begun is half-done, in both research and in relationships. This is why it is essential to always communicate openly with your PI about what they can expect from you in terms of delivery times for pieces of work and your normal working hours, especially during times where you may be less effective, due to sickness or other reasons.

You are human – as is your PI. They will understand that personal circumstances or high workloads can affect performance. After all, they wouldn’t be where they are if they hadn’t gone through what you are going through now. Setting these expectations clearly and ahead of time ensures that your PI will be prepared for what you can deliver and will not be disappointed when fluctuations occur. 

Working your hours – and no more

The type of working environment a research lab tends to create is one of dedication and hard work. Many researchers work long hours, and live and breathe their projects. This is usually a result of true passion for the research, but also pressure to perform in the extremely competitive environment that research is.

It can be universally agreed, though, that consistently overworking yourself is an unhealthy habit, and it can set up an expectation from your PI for the amount of work you are capable of delivering. 

Also consider the following scenario:

Sensing or fearing burnout from the long hours, you one day make the decision (on your own) to follow reasonable working hours. A natural consequence of this will be a reduced workload. However, this will also mean reduced output (from the level you have been working at), which can start to look like you are doing and producing less than ‘usual’. 

Our suggestion: It is important to set yourself limits as early on in the job as possible. However, it’s even more important to make it clear to your PI what your expectations are of your working hours, so that they can expect a corresponding amount of output from you. 

Learning to say ‘no’

How often have you realised that as a deadline looms, you’re asked on fairly short notice to deliver a large piece of work to the project? You would probably have agreed, because of course, you want to be a good colleague and impress them. Given the same situation, most of us will take on work without necessarily considering whether we have the bandwidth to complete it to a high standard, within a reasonable timeframe. 

Do your utmost to avoid such situations and always take a moment to consider whether you are realistically able to handle the task. Your manager would rather be turned down than let down when the time to deliver arrives and you submit subpar work, are late or have stretched yourself to an unhealthy extent and end up being unproductive otherwise.

It’s okay to respond in any of the following manners:

  • Ask for some time to think about whether you can make adjustments to your existing workload.
  • Ask to deprioritise another piece of work. 
  • Decline to take on the task.

End note

It all comes down to one golden rule: do not overpromise and underdeliver. Manage expectations by being realistic with both yourself and your PI about what you can comfortably achieve within your normal working hours, and take on only what you can definitely and reasonably deliver to a standard that you would be proud of.


Read previous/second in series: Dealing with a Difficult Supervisor in research and academia


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