How To Handle A British Supervisor: A Foreigner’s Guide

The United Kingdom has a long scientific tradition. It is likely that, if you are a scientist, at some stage of your career you will either work in a British university or have a British colleagues, or better, a British supervisor.  It is my hope that this article will help you in understanding how to effectively communicate with them.

First of all, it’s worth remembering that “British” does not equal “English”: if your colleague is Scottish or Welsh, he may get irritated at being called “English”. It’s also helpful to remember that politeness, reserve, and sarcasm are significant elements of British character. Below are a few examples of how this can affect your relationship with a British supervisor.

Casual conversations

The “How are you” part of the greeting is a ritual phrase, which doesn’t have more meaning than “hi”.  It’s inadvisable, in reply, to start detailing your medical history or your complicated relationship with the upstairs neighbour, who flooded your flat yesterday and you didn’t have a night’s sleep because you were busy mopping it up. The correct answer is “fine, thank you and how are you?”.

Irrespective of the Briton gender, safe small talk topics are weather and sport. If you are from Europe, football (NB for Americans: soccer – but don’t ever call it that), rugby and tennis are safer than cricket, the rules of which are impossible to understand for somebody who didn’t play it as a child.

English as a foreign language

It’s better not to start sentences with plain “Do you have…” “Can you do…” “Tell me, when is…” It may not be perceived as straightforward – but rather forceful and rude. “Would you mind telling me, when…” is a safer option.

If your lab seminar slides titles and captions are not corrected during or after the seminar, it’s highly unlikely that this is due to your perfect English, but rather because the native speakers are too polite to tell you about even   glaring mistakes. It’s better to ask somebody to proofread your presentation – British are happy to help, but wouldn’t offer to do something, which may offend by implication.


The British are very polite people: they never show their irritation and discuss other people’s mistakes, preferring to suffer in silence. This is good in some ways, but causes all sorts of misunderstandings. For example, you may suddenly and unexpectedly discover that your PhD thesis is in trouble, or that your contract will not be renewed, at the last moment –  although you thought everything was going fine.

It’s better to have a “designated friend” – if problems come up, the British don’t like telling you their grievances and prefer  to mention them to your “friend’, who will pass them on to you.

Career advice

Career advice (if any) from a British supervisor is very subtle, and you have to judge it by what was omitted, rather than said. For example, “I think you would be a good Teaching Fellow” means that, in your supervisor’s opinion, you would be a lousy postdoc.  Similarly, “I  think you may consider alternative career options”  means  “you are the worst PhD student I’ve ever worked with or heard of”.

A can mean Z

On the other hand, if you did 10 experiments last week and apologise that 2 of them didn’t work, a reply along the lines of “10 is too few, I think you should do 20” is almost certainly the other side of British psyche  – sarcasm, when the meaning of the phrase is completely opposite.

A short phrase guide:

Your graph/first year report is not completely straightforward = incomprehensible

I am not insisting on this, but if I were you = do it like I say

If you are not too busy, when you have time = do it NOW

I am not unhappy with your results = great stuff

I’d be happy to hear your additions to the phrase guide.

Further reading:

Jeremy Paxman, The English: A Portrait of a People

First published @ BiteSizeBio


Independent scientist?

British Channel 4 has  a five minutes program “4thought TV”, which consists of a monologue about a point of contention, for example whether “atheist churches” are a good thing. One of the speakers discussing whether it is ethical to eat meat was a 70-ish man described as “an independent scientist”. He was talking the usual nonsense about artificial meat grown in vitro – believable in sci-fi novels by Bujold but not in reality to anybody who knows the expense of animal cell culture. But I was more intrigued by his title, “an independent scientist”. Is there such a thing as a scientist without affiliation to a scientific institution?

Can I work as a cleaner and be an independent scientist in my heart and mind?


What do articles  in  Research Funding (Science (2012) V.238 p1033-4) and History of Science (Science (2012) V.238 p1033-4)  have in common apart from being published following each other?

Clue 1 from article 1,  Contribution of private Industry Agricultural Innovation:

Growth of private R&D spending for agriculture in the face of slowing or stagnant public R&D resources raises the question of whether private R&D can substitute for public R&D. If so, long-term productivity growthin agriculture may be maintained or revived even as public R&D spending wanes. However, to the extent that technology opportunities created through basic research and the training of the S&T labor force are largely public-sector functions, reduced public-sector capacity may eventually reduce returns to private R&D as well and lead to lower aggregate investments in innovation.

Clue 2 from article 2,   A Golden Era of Nobel laureates:

The research emphasis of NIH has gradually shifted. The primary focus is no longer on acquisition of knowledge in basic biological mechanisms. Current emphasis on “translational research” relegates basic science to a back burner. What has been lost is the conviction that progress in medicine rests ultimately on a fundamental understanding of physiology. Individual curiosity-driven science has been replaced by large consortia dedicated to the proposition that gathering vast amounts of correlative data will somehow provide theanswer to life’s fundamental questions.

How to be the lab bastard

We all know them. You might even be one. The Lab Bastard is the one who considers himself (or herself!) superior to all other mere mortals in the lab. He would never degrade his talent by doing communal jobs in the lab, but swans around, absolutely sure that his experiments are most important and his results will be the most groundbreaking.

Above all, The Lab Bastard never misses an opportunity to claw his way to the top and doesn’t mind who he tramples on along the way.

I hope you don’t want to be The Lab Bastard. But in case you do, here are some useful tips:

When starting in a new lab, establish your superior credentials:

1) Never miss an opportunity to say how thing were done much better in your previous lab/your country.

2) Do a bit of namedropping; it always helps to impress the poor no-hopers you work with.

3) Declare equipment, supplies and methods that your colleagues use as outdated and insufficient for your needs. Order a lot of new stuff immediately, or even better, tell a technician do it for you.

Ensure that your talents are not wasted on menial tasks. Put technicians and your other colleagues in their rightful place as servants who are lucky to have a bit part to play in your journey to brilliance:

4) Make a point of never ordering ANYTHING. Ensure that no matter how small the order is, you pass it off to someone else to do it for you.

5) Never do any lab jobs – defrosting the freezer, cleaning the water bath, etc. It distracts you from doing experiments and there is always a backup freezer/another water bath, when they break because of the lack of maintenance.

6) If you finish a communal solution, be happy that there was enough left for you. You either won’t need it for a while, or, if it is widely used, somebody else will have to make it very soon.

7) Feel free to take stuff from other people’s benches. They have plenty of it or are not using it at the moment and you are working so much, you don’t have time to prepare or order this in advance.

Help No-one

8) Never volunteer to help anybody and never share your things, this will diminish your resources in exchange for a hazy possibility that people will pay you back in kind. They never do, you know, because you don’t.

Claim your rightful credit

9) Always ensure that you talk loudest in lab meetings – if you can talk over others, then so much the better. When you are making your razor sharp observations, be sure to keep eye contact with the boss at all times to ensure that your brilliance is noted.

10) A caveat to number 8: There is a time to volunteer to help people, and that is when they are close to publishing. At this point, use all of your skills and influence to secure the opportunity to do a (preferably very small) piece of work for the prospective author, then push like hell to be added as a co-author.

If you’ve got any additional suggestions, please add them in the comments, and I will include them in my forthcoming book, “The Lab Bastard for Dummies”.  Your input will be used, but not acknowledged. But hey, isn’t that what you’d expect?

First published @ BiteSizeBio


My  blog (est 2003) is a mixed bag of  predominantly Russian and some English; of  personal, professional, wikipedian etc. It’s time to separate wheat from buckwheat from cassava. I intend to blog here in English and mostly about science.