Sidekicks and bond strength

Aug 02 2011 Published by under advising, graduate school, students

A reader wrote wondering if the strong bond that forms between some male advisors and male students ever happens between male advisors and female students. For discussion, we could also consider the cases of female advisors/male students and female advisors/female students, but *important* for all possible cases, let's only consider platonic, professional relationships.

The reader who wrote to me used the term 'sidekicks'. I don't think this is a good word to describe this particular situation, but it makes a zippy (albeit possibly cryptic) title for a blog post.

Historically, strong bonds between male advisors/male students in the physical sciences and engineering have been most common because there have been so few women. In recent years, however, there are increasing numbers of women, particularly at the undergraduate and graduate levels, so there are more opportunities to evaluate advisor-student pairs in which one or both are female.

There are personality issues involved in advisor-student "bond strength", of course. Some advisors don't form strong bonds with any students.

But among those who do: what makes an advisor and student 'click' in such a way that they act like more like colleagues than professor and student? Similar personalities, drive, work ethic, cultural background.. other? And is gender a major or minor factor?

My own answers would be: similar drive and work ethic as factors, and gender is irrelevant in these cases.

A question for SP readers: Have you ever formed a particularly strong working relationship with particular students (as an advisor) or with a particular advisor (as a student)? What do you think the major factors were?

30 responses so far

  • Catherine says:

    Definitely. For me, it was two of my first students.

    We have similar work ethics and interests and we published a lot of work together. In both cases, I think what was important was complimentary working styles and very similar interests. The students in question was simply good at my weaknesses and vice versa.

    I think complimentary working styles/strengths while having similar interests.

    (We were actually have a male student/female adviser in both cases).

  • I've formed this kind of bond with students three times, once with a male student and twice with female students. In two cases they had come up through our undergraduate degree before applying for a PhD and I have known them all their post 18 "adult" lives. I think this makes the bonds easier to develop. They were also both very good independent researchers and mature in attitude and research skills compared to their peer group. Both went on to work for me as post-docs, and one has recently returned to the lab after a couple of years elsewhere (and I'm very glad to see her back). The other (female) case was someone who worked for me as a research assistant for 2 years before registering for a PhD, so we had been colleagues before the supervisor/supervisee relationship started. Unlike the other two, we shared an interest in music as well as our work, and ended up singing together in a choir on occasion. This was never awkward though. This ex-student now works in our government science office, which is very very useful 🙂

    Is gender relevant? Basically no. I guess I was slightly more wary about the unusual-ness of the relationship with the male student, but perhaps this is because my group has somehow managed to be mostly female historically. Note, I do not knowingly only hire women, and I currently have 2 male PhD students, but somehow good female scientists do tend to gravitate towards the group.

  • K says:

    I formed a bond like this with my Ph.D. advisor, who is male (I'm female), but not with any of my earlier advisors and not with my postdoctoral mentor (although I'm just starting my postdoc, so who knows, but the outlook isn't so great). I have had one other male advisor and three female advisors, and didn't feel the same sort of bond with any of them, so I would say gender probably doesn't have a role here - although I can't rule out the possibility that the female/female relationship might be harder to come by, at least for me.

    I guess I would have to say similar work ethic and ways of thinking contribute most to whether a mentor and student get along. We didn't have strikingly similar backgrounds, but we had similar expectations for my project and compatible expectations for each other. I have to echo Catherine's statement that having complementary strengths/weaknesses also helps - it makes the working relationship go much more smoothly.

    For the mentor, I think being approachable, understanding, and friendly will certainly mean that you'll have more of these bonds throughout your career. Many PIs I have encountered have been distant or harsh, for whatever reason, which I think makes it difficult to have that sort of rewarding relationship with your trainees. My Ph.D. mentor was one of the nicest, most encouraging people I've encountered in my time in science - and that probably meant the most for developing our friendship.

  • Anon says:

    For me, I know I can have these relationships with students if we can talk about non work related topics for hours on end. In fact, I tend not to invite into my group anyone that I don't have a good relationship with. We do a lot of fieldwork, and the last person I want to have around is a student I dont see as a friend/colleague.

  • Arlenna says:

    I have this kind of bond with my postdoc advisor (me female, him male), not so much with my PhD advisor. He's just a fantastic mentor, and I was a good partner in crime for the work we ended up doing.

    I can't tell how my students really feel about our relationship--I feel like I provide a good professional support system for my students, and also always keep myself open to talking through their personal path through science training. But I try not to be involved in their personal lives since we're so close to the same age and it would be too easy to cross the boundary to where I worry they wouldn't see me as their mentor, and I don't ask them what they think of me as an advisor.

  • Postdoc says:

    This couldn't be a more timely post. I'm a female postdoc, and I've recently realized how weak my bond with my mentor is compared to the bond he shares with another, newer (male) postdoc. The two joke throughout the day and banter about many outside-work interests. They're closer in age. A third male faculty member is also involved. Intellectually, I think I have more in common with my mentor than this other postdoc does, but that doesn't seem to make a difference. And I'm not sure how "work ethic," which others have mentioned, could factor in--my working hours are slightly different from my mentor's because we have different situations at home, but we still see each other many hours a day.

    I'm worried because I don't see how this couldn't translate into fewer opportunities for me. It's getting me down. I'm reminded of Schelling's work showing that spatial segregation forms easily with just a bit of homophily. In other words, what looks like negative discrimination can result simply from positive discrimination (preferring to hang around certain people). And I'm losing the popularity contest.

  • Postdoc says:

    Postdoc 9:20 here. This is a follow-up question to FSP et al.: What do you mean by "work ethic," exactly? Is it the impression of manically thinking about potential or actual research topics 24/7 or simply responding in a timely way to emails, meeting deadlines, and discussing ideas during the work day? I'm afraid for personal health reasons that I can no longer do the manic thing, and I'm afraid this counts against me.

    I've also been thinking about the role of enthusiasm. I have a much higher/different bar than some of my coworkers for what I think constitutes an "interesting" paper. I see this other postdoc excitedly approach my PI with project ideas that strike me as less interesting, and I can see that my mentor finds them not so great too, but he'll respond constructively. It's clearly iterative training in taste. I wonder if maybe I should be tossing more ideas (that I know aren't so original or far-reaching) to give the impression of more enthusiasm... I spend a lot of time thinking about what projects to work on, and I usually don't get really excited until I'm convinced by my results many months later.

    Also, perhaps we should be a bit wary of claiming we know what it is that attracts us to other people? I'm not a psychologist, but my impression of recent research is that at least in romance, we subconsciously create stories post hoc to explain our feelings.

    • DrOrangeCat says:

      Postdoc, I assume you meant to give an example of a possible definition of "work ethic", not define it only as "manically thinking about potential or actual research topics 24/7". For me, "work ethic" does relate somewhat to passion for research -- I bond much more with students who are excited about their research than with those who seem entirely lacking in curiosity or motivation. There might also be an element of similarity of work style, too. I get along better with students who meet deadlines, show up for scheduled meetings, and so on. Gender doesn't matter.

      • Postdoc says:

        Yes, I meant the "manic" reference as only a potential definition, and it's not the one I prefer. I'm still deeply curious exactly what people are referring to when they reference "work ethic." Are they simply talking about working hard? Do they mean that both people get excited/motivated at the same time about the same things? Does it mean they have the same perspective on what needs to be "done" in the field and what it means to play fair? It's an extremely vague term, but I'd like to try to increase the compatibility of my "work ethic" and my PI's.... if only I knew what it was!

        • Science Professor says:

          Maybe others have other definitions of 'work ethic', but I used this term to encompass all the things you list as examples, and more. I think of it as all the things that describe how you work and how you prefer to work. Although it might seem like a vague concept, I don't think it is actually all that mysterious.

  • I'm in eco-evo stream biology, where there is close to a 50:50 gender ratio even at associate professor level (maybe less equal at full professor level); and I think I've seen strong student-advisor relationships in all possible pairings. Just a function of numbers, maybe? Or maybe the numbers are themselves a function of healthier gender relations in the field generally?

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    I count several ex students among my best friends, and have worked with them after they left my institution. All are male. I have friendly relationships with several female ex students, but they have followed different career paths, so it is not a matter of a continuing professional relationship.

  • Yael says:

    I found that my working relationship with my advisor really took off when I started having my own ideas and selling them (as well as getting very critical about data in our field) even when my direction was veering away from his (particularly after I graduated). I think he tends to have "colleague" relationships with students who share his excitement about the science and execute their ideas well (while he provides resources and cheerleading support, as well as his expertise in spotting artifacts). I think everyone likes the positive energy this creates. I don't see a difference between male and female students--I see it more along the lines of more or less intellectual energy.

  • Katie says:

    As a (female) grad student, I had a strong bond with my (male) advisor. The biggest factors in the development of our relationship were our complementary personalities and work ethic. In addition, there was a lot of drama among the other two members of the lab (a messy affair), so my advisor and I bonded over having to deal with their crap.

  • Alex says:

    I have a better bond with my advisor now that I'm out than I had in grad school.

    I've formed strong bonds with a few research students, one of them a non-traditional student who's almost my age, the other a kid who reminds me a lot of myself. In retrospect, I wish I'd kept a bit more distance from the second one. It made it harder to assert authority in a few cases where I needed to assert authority.

  • AAA says:

    I got along extremely well with my PhD advisor (he's male and I'm female), even though I ended up changing my research direction and switching to a slightly different field after my PhD. I think it's because of a personality match (we both have a weird sense of humour), and I still keep in touch with him and ask him for career advice.

    My changing fields was actually better for our relationship in retrospect, because now when we chat, the exchange is completely even, and we are like colleagues.

  • SLAC prof says:

    I think that this is absolutely about personality and work ethic (and attitude). I have bonded several of my students who generally worked hard, were positive about their work and who did give me grief when I suggested things or asked them to spend a few days on a hunch of an idea. Being willing to stay late to finish an experiment on occasion rather is also a positive. So once i see that a particular student is really into our work, this forms a really nice basis for a relationship and then I get to know them as a person.

  • Alex says:

    I knew a female prof whose sidekicks were always (gay) males. There had been 4 in a row. She knew it too and would say "I need a new X ". X being current sidekick name, about to graduate. She's say this to female grad students who were already in the lab and it was so awful. It was understood they could not be the new X (as they missed a Y chromosome!)

    Being a fairly attractive female working with male supervisors, I felt like there was an invisible limit to my relationships with them. I had been sexually harassed by my masters advisor so perhaps for my PhD and postdoc I kept a bit of distance. My PhD advisor was someone I really like but he had a lot of students crushing on him and we stayed late working sometimes or work on weekends. I felt his wife not liking this too much. We worked well and were friendly (with zero flirtation) but it was clear I would not be the sidekick.

    Postdoc, I was pretty independent working on my own stuff so I don't think my gender had to do with my non-sidekick status.

  • Marcus says:

    I guess I am an odd duck here. I'm male in a mostly female sub-field (yes there is one). Since I was an undergrad RA, most of my bosses have been female. Some of the conferences I go to are upwards of 70% women (by my estimates). Honestly it never occurred to me that gender would be a factor for me. By virtue of also being a very underrepresented ethnic minority I just assumed that being 'different' in some way would be a part of all of my professional relationships. Which have been good, but not particularly strong.

  • GMP says:

    I have a good relationship with my PhD advisor (I am a female, he a male), but I don't think I would say I was his sidekick or his favorite in the social setting. I think he is very proud of me and is very responsive whenever I have questions, and we have fun when we get together at conferences, but when I was a grad student there were people he preferred socially and they were guys, with whom he'd discuss sports, American Civil War, and liquor.

    I get along really well with my current postdoc -- he has a young family, so that part I can relate to. He's also very independent, but listens to guidance and advice, which is a perfect combination. I guess this falls under matching work ethics. I do feel that we waste time chitchatting sometimes.

    I get along well with my students, but I am fairly reserved. I must admit I don't feel comfortable being too friendly with them, and while I do try to be accommodating of their private lives within reason (travels, incidentals with family...) I don't think there should be too much sharing of the personal details. They are all straight guys and I don't think they mind the lack of personal sharing.

  • Astra says:

    I had a good relationship with my advisor (I am female, he is male) but since he is about the age of my father and somewhat reserved, it was not a close personal relationship, just a good professional one. What I liked most about him was his strong professional integrity and commitment to doing the best science. (I have had to learn the political side of the field from later mentors, though.)

  • This whole "sidekick" and "bonding" idea is totally pernicious, and feeds into the sick idea that science is some kind of "calling" and not a profession like any other. Yes, it is important to have good communication and cordial relationships with the people you work with. But a work environment in which "bonding" is necessary for effective performance is pathological.

    • Postdoc says:

      I kind of agree, but won't the bonders tend to beat the non-bonders? Doesn't extra bonding slightly shift the odds of a favorable paper or grant review, getting invited to speak, or making the short list? My fear is that some of this bonding is less based on the work and more on personal, non-work. It's nice to see anecdotally that gender doesn't appear to be a big factor.

      Also, worrying about whether I'm a "sidekick" or could ever be in my current lab makes me feel like I'm 5 years old and competing with an older sibling. Lame.

    • Science Professor says:

      Where did "necessary" come from? I don't think I said or implied that, and certainly don't believe it. You raise an important point, though. I should have mentioned that I have worked well with students and others with very different working styles.

      • It is unprofessional for "bonding" to occur between some trainees and the PI but not others, and thereby adversely influence the relative quality of the training of the latter.

        • Anonymous says:

          That's absurd. What's next, saying it's unprofessional to suggest different thesis problems to different students, on the grounds that some problems are more fruitful than others and this is unfair to the students whose problems turn out to be less fruitful? We've got enough legalistic pseudo-problems already, without needing to manufacture more.

  • masha says:

    I would say that work ethic is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a strong bond. I think that there is an important aspect of timing. A professors research career moves through many phases. I think a student that is just on the professors wavelength during one phase of their career might find themselves out of sync if they come into the lab a few years later.

    I had this experience with my advisor. I had the bad luck to come into the lab at a moment when he was changing departments and neck deep in several other administrative and large scale transitions. The result was that in the beginning of my grad career, the research projects he was involved in where well-developed and didn't have much room for a newbie. By the time I had a project up and running, he was ready to start something brand new and I was too far ahead of him on my project for him ever to really get deeply involved. We just never managed to get on the same page. It made me sad, because I would say that we could have had a very compatible work and research ethic.

  • UnlikelyGrad says:

    I definitely was my first (male) research advisor's "sidekick." We used to talk a lot when there was downtime in the research. Granted, he did talk to the other people in the lab as well, but the conversations he had with them tended to be about fairly superficial things.

    I was a non-traditional student going back to school after a long hiatus, so we were about the same age (I think 3 years apart?). We'd also grown up in the same approximate area of the country in similar family situations. So it was easy to talk with him. (My ex used to accuse me of having the hots for him, but it was never that sort of relationship.)

    He also really loved the way I thought. I had a different sub-field background than he did, and I frequently asked how we could incorporate ideas from my sub-field into his work--which he knew would be beneficial to his research. I loved the way he encouraged me to think in ways I never would have done on his own. So it was a great intellectual partnership as well.

    My current advisor, Dr. Hand-Waver, is a great mentor, and I think she's a great person as well, but I've never quite "clicked" with her the way I did with SL.

  • Kati says:

    I don't think strong male advisor/female student bonds can form. Even if there's no sexual tension in the relationship, others in the department will soon start wondering if something not-so-professional or platonic is going on. I've seen it first-hand.