It’s inevitable. Put two or more grad students1 in a room, and sooner or later the talk will turn to advisors; wait a little while longer and chances are good that someone will start complaining about their advisor. This shouldn’t be surprising. Bosses all over are fair targets for griping, and the power imbalance inherent to the student-advisor relationship certainly doesn’t help matters2. After being stuck in a lab together for several years, it’s a wonder that the average science department doesn’t have hallways littered with bodies.
But there’s a flip side to this, which I think might be under-appreciated: advisors can also be awesome. No relationship like this is going to be perfect, but a good advisor will teach you, guide you, and give you a leg up the academic ladder. They’ll help you when you trip and faceplant, they’ll give you the advice you need (even if you don’t want to hear it), they’ll introduce you to the right people, they’ll make you better scientists.
I’ve gotten very lucky along the way3. Michael advised me on the undergraduate independent study that first inspired to take the idea of a research career seriously; he also humoured me when I bit off a project that was far too much for me to chew and helped me sort through the resulting mess. Pete, my M.Sc. advisor, got me into studying biological questions and gave me a place to work when my Ph.D. went sideways. Luc-Alain, my Ph.D. advisor, turned me into an independent scientist and put up with far more than I had any right to ask for. Finally, my postdoc advisor Mark has to be one of the nicest (and smartest) people that I’ve ever met and has been supportive in all the ways that have made being a postdoc enjoyable. I’ve been privileged to work with a succession of people who’ve taught me and made me better at this science thing, and today I’d like to take a moment to be thankful for them.
Many people have poor relationships with their advisors, and there are a lot of valid questions to be asked about the grad school experience. I don’t want to diminish the problems of anyone who has had a poor relationship with their advisor (I’ve known my fair share of bad advisors, even if I’ve been fortunate enough to avoid having them myself). But if you have a good boss, now might be the time to take a moment and reflect on the things that they’ve done for you. Give them a hug, a handshake, a friendly email, or a fresh data set. And one day, when you’re in their position: remember what it felt like to be the student.