The relationship you have with your PI (Principle Investigator / Supervisor) can be key to your career but you can’t expect them to do all the work. You need to manage this relationship too. The best place to start is to put yourself in their shoes and have a think about what they need from the relationship and how you may be able to help whilst making sure your needs are acknowledged. If you don’t know the answer, try asking them the question. Here are some things that you may want to find out about:
What do they expect from me?
Have they told you? Ideally this would happen first during the process of recruitment and induction. However, do not rely on this. Very often people assume that others know what they are expecting of them and actually forget to tell them. There is nothing wrong with asking the question. Also try if you can to think about your expectations of the role and of your PI. If they are not giving you what you need and you think it is a reasonable thing to ask for, then go ahead and see if it is something they can provide. Nine times out of ten they won’t realise that it is something that can help if you haven’t told them. If you are worried about whether your request is reasonable, try mentioning it to a friend or colleague and get their take on it first.
Do they know what I’m doing? The achievements as well as the problems?
Do you have regular opportunities to update your PI on your progress? If not, be proactive and ask if this is possible rather than waiting for them to suggest it. This will then give you an opportunity to discuss any problems you are having at an early stage in case there is something they can tell you which avoids weeks of strife! It also enables you to let them know about achievements – make sure you sell your successes too. If the only time you go to see them is to talk about problems, they may form a skewed opinion of how you are doing.
How well am I doing it?
Ask for feedback. This is really important as it can give you information about what you are good at and what you need to work on. Some people are better at praise than critique and others are better at critique. If your PI praises you all the time, ask them directly if there is anything you need to improve. If they are better at critiquing, don’t take this too much to heart as they are probably aiming to help you improve. Try to find an opportunity to also ask them about your strengths – a staff review or appraisal can be good for this. Asking for feedback shows your commitment to developing and improving your skills and also helps you think about your future career and what may be a good direction for you to take.
You may occasionally find yourself in a situation where there is a communication breakdown between you and your PI or a colleague. Wherever you work, there will be support available in the form of people such as HR advisers, staff counsellors, departmental reps etc. Don’t suffer with this problem alone, do go to someone for advice sooner rather than later so that you have time to implement any advice early.
There are many things that you can do to manage your relationship with your PI but communication is key. Putting good communication in place from the beginning of the relationship can also help prevent issues later on.