Masters and apprentices

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PhD students are essential components of junior research groups – but who’s really the master, and who’s the apprentice?

Junior research groups are an unnervingly precarious place. 

A junior group leader will depend on research output for their career progression, but is also in the process of transitioning to becoming a group leader. This is a much, much more profound change than that which occurs from PhD to postdoc. 

Becoming a postdoc can sometimes be a continuation of an already-familiar routine in a new environment, and sometimes be more profound, but the basic job description for both PhD and postdoc roles is much the same: generate good-quality data as fast as you can but without cutting corners. As metamorphoses go, it’s about as dramatic as salmon switching from a freshwater to a saltwater stage. It’s Tony Stark becoming Iron Man, or Diana Prince becoming Wonder Woman – a change of outfit, but the same person underneath.


Becoming a group leader is very different. This is a metamorphosis worthy of the name. It means suddenly taking on significant amounts of teaching responsibilities, mentoring responsibilities, and administrative responsibilities, the need to raise funds through applying for grants, and all while acting as your own lab manager, technician, and postdoc. You have to build a group. This transition is more like Dr. Bruce Banner becoming the Incredible Hulk, but with more fine motor skills and people management and hopefully less RAGE and ANGER and BREAKING THINGS.

A critical moment for all these would-be Hulks and She-Hulks will be the arrival of the first PhD student. A PhD student is not just significant in terms of mentoring or symbolic value, they will be the engine of the group for the next few years, keeping the research wheels turning while the group leader gets on with becoming a Hulk Jolly Green Giant. Consequently, the finely-poised master and apprentice dynamic between the supervisor and the student becomes a key part of the group’s prospects for survival.


Except that the dynamic is more complex than that. The supervisor may be a master in terms of the skills they’re imparting to the student, but they are very much an apprentice at their new job of group leader. This is very much the path trodden by Spider-Man/Spider-Gwen – learning that with great (or at least measurable) power comes great responsibility, as well as innumerable emails and various calls on their time.

Conversely, while a PhD can vary in terms of experience on their arrival, they will generally acquire the skills that they need in a reasonable amount of time. They remain apprenticed, but the period spent as a trainee, a tadpole, a larva, is much shorter. After a few weeks or months, they’re equipped and ready to go. 

So while the PhD student will have mastered the skills they need, the group leader remains an apprentice in their new role for longer, because of the need to transition to a completely different set of professional responsibilities. They will remain in their apprentice state for years in all probability, making mistakes, learning by doing, gradually figuring out their own way and their own style of running a group. With luck, it’ll go well and be a smooth and silken switch like She-Ra with not too many bumps on the road; if they’re unlucky, it might be more like the final transformation in The Fly.


And here’s where PhDs can be a critical factor in the success of the junior research group. Ones who become masters quickly, or who attain a level of lab performance that becomes comparable to that of the group leader themselves, are worth their weight in gold. The length of time that PhDs are in the group makes a difference too, as the group leader won’t be losing time by training and training and training successive students in short order. 

A harmonious and productive relationship between supervisor and student can turbocharge the group’s research programme; a suboptimal interaction can complicate and prolong the group leader’s transition. In fact, it’s quite likely that the relative times spent by PhDs and group leaders as apprentices and masters will ultimately determine the research output – and thereby survival – of the group.


Dedicated to Daja Schichler.

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