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 go.nature.com/2pt9q6j). 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.