PhD supervisors: be better mentors

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As steering-committee members of the European Association of Students and Post-docs in Synthetic Biology, we find it questionable and unhelpful to blame research students for the breakdown in communication with supervisors (E. Diamandis Nature 544, 129; 2017).

We agree that PhD students should be proactive in their investigations and in using their supervisor's expertise. First, however, they need to find their feet. They are largely naive about the highly competitive nature of science when they start in a lab, and often have no experience of project management. PhD students are not trainees or employees: they need guidance and supervision, particularly during the first two years.

PhD students today face more challenges than most professors ever did. The supervisor has mentoring responsibilities beyond academic performance, including the student's well-being. Many PhD students crack under the strain of publishing pressures and deteriorating career prospects (see Unless underpinned by appropriate support, meetings with the supervisor risk reinforcing the student's fear of failure.

European universities are tackling this problem by providing more courses and resources to train principal investigators in management and leadership. Their widespread requirement for PhD candidates to have completed a master's degree before enrolling means that students are better equipped to deal with the few islands of success in the sea of failures typical of the research environment.

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  1. ETH Zurich, Switzerland.

    • Devang Mehta
  2. University of Copenhagen, Denmark.

    • Konstantinos Vavitsas

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  1. Report this comment #70183

    HEPING LI said:

    PhD supervisors: A designable guidance (By He-Ping Li, Department of Engineering Physics, Tsinghua University, Beijing 100084, P. R. China;
    A non-proper guidance of a supervisor would have great risks that results in a growing ?supervisor phobia? of his/her graduate students due to his/her failure to find out the interests and potential of the students, or an un-appropriate way to discuss with the students during their research (E. Diamandis, Nature 544, 129; 2017).
    In my opinion, as supervisors, a ?designable? guidance for different students is necessary. On one hand, the supervisor should first establish a good group academic atmosphere to let every graduate student in his/her group know that the scientific thinking method and the rigorous scientific attitude are the two necessary aspects for becoming an excellent researcher. On the other hand, the supervisors should recognize that each student has his/her own unique potential, for example, some students are good at theoretical analysis, while others always have good ideas on experiments; some students are interested in theoretical studies, while others like applications. So, the supervisors should design different projects to fulfil the unique potential of each student; especially encourage them to obtain the first good result to be published in a journal or to be filed as a patent as early as possible, e.g., in the second year of their PhD program. This would help the students to establish their strong self-confidence when they are start out in research. In my opinion, this is the third key point for the students, because this ?strong self-confidence? would become an inner strength to help them overcome difficulties in their future research. This personalized guidance is the supervisor?s ?artistic design? for each student based on the enough time, energy and intellective investment of the supervisors during his whole guidance to each student.

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