Searching For The Leadership Style Of A PhD Supervisor

According to the paper published by Levecque et al. in 2017, one in two doctoral students is in a state of distress, whereas one in three is at risk of some type of mental disorder such as depression [1].

In their work, they evaluated the relationship between a supervisor’s leadership style and mental health. The leadership styles considered were the inspirational, authoritarian and laisser-faire styles. They observed better mental health in those students under an inspirational leadership style. And they found an opposed pattern when considering the laisser-faire style.

I would like to highlight that there is no ideal leadership, only an ideal fit (or almost). Each doctoral student will do better or worse depending on the leadership style that best fits her. I would say that is important to be aware of these different types of leadership. An even more important is to practice self-awareness. Only then we can find our match.

And how can we find this math? If we have the opportunity to do doctoral studies in the same group where, for example, we have done the master’s thesis, this makes things much easier for us because we will know what kind of leadership we going to experience and if it fits us… or not. It can also be the case that one can start with a supervisor, and for some reason, there can be a change once the doctoral thesis has already begun. Here we can do little, but thinking about it as if that change is a new opportunity.

In my case, I knew the research group before I started my PhD. And I also underwent a (forced) change in my thesis supervision once it had started it. The former and final supervisors had different styles. The final supervisor’s style was more in concordance with my personality. So the change favored me.

I must say that I was not aware of these aspects at the time! It is only after some time (sometimes years) that you realize them. And I did. I understood what worked for me. So when I went to Lausanne for my job interview for a postdoctoral position, I did not hesitate to tell the group leader what kind of leadership I liked. Or did I tell him the one I did not like (negative approach)? Anyway. He gladly conveyed to me what kind of leader he considered himself. And at that precise moment, my PhD supervisor came to mind and I thought: I’ll be fine here too. Luckily for me, that group leader thought I would fit in too and I got the position.

To wrap up, it is important to stress again that there is not an ideal path. Most important of all is to make everyone comfortable. So am I enacting an attitude of personal change or an attitude of searching for a fit? The latter would mean that everyone remains as they are. But realizing how we can better integrate into a team may be part of a personal development process.


Photo by Miguel u00c1. Padriu00f1u00e1n on


1. Katia Levecque, Frederik Anseel, Alain De Beuckelaer, Johan Van der Heyden, Lydia Gisle, Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students, Research Policy, Volume 46, Issue 4, 2017, Pages 868-879,

Relevant books on this topic

1. On Becoming a Leader by Warren G. Bennis

2. Start with why. How great leaders inspire everyone to take action by Simon Sinek

3. 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey

4. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable by Patrick M. Lencioni

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