by Prof. A.W. Peet with assistance from Dr. Ian Jardine.


Academic accountability

In any workplace, those receiving paycheques or other forms of financial support (like travel, etc.) are accountable for how they spend their time. In the academic research context, professional accountability looks quite different than it does in the commercial sector, but the principle should still be taken seriously.

Many academic relationships are inherently asymmetrical in terms of power. Accordingly, a more senior person always carries greater responsibility to behave ethically. It is worth noting that a less senior person also has the capacity to harm, especially if they carry greater privilege along some axis than their target. Academic decency is a two-way street.

Building and maintaining a culture of care for each other as human beings is part of academic professionalism. It is not possible to divorce our humanity from our science, nor is that outcome desirable even if it were possible. We all produce our best academic work when we are valued as colleagues and supported as human beings - not sniped at, denigrated, humiliated, or badmouthed behind our back.


Professors are expected to maintain high standards of care for (a) students we teach in our courses, (b) mentees we advise, and (c) Highly Qualified Personnel (HQP) we train in research, in addition to being accountable to (d) our employer UofT, (e) the federal NSERC granting agency, and (f) any other pertinent organization for how we spend their funds. As HQP who receive salary and/or travel and/or other support from my NSERC grant, as well as my support in mentoring time, you are accountable to me for how you spend your time.

Make a point of fostering good communication with me, and with others in our group. This is a valuable people skill in any workplace involving teamwork -- which is almost all of them nowadays. Breakdown of communication in academic research group contexts leads to building resentment, research publications being delayed, and career/grant planning goals not being realized.

Reporting research progress to your supervisor can be stressful if the work is not going to plan, which for junior PhD students tends to be common. As we gain experience, research not going to plan should become less common. Generally, reporting academic research progress becomes a lot easier when it is undertaken as a matter of routine, with the understanding that it is OK to sometimes report less progress than you were hoping for. The key principle is to keep communicating regularly and authentically, to enable removal or mitigation of obstacles to success.

Progress reports, intellectual property, and authorship

In recent years I have discovered real educational value in having PhD students write up weekly progress reports. These regular records of progress end up being useful for both the student and the supervisor to consult in future, and ideally they eventually become parts of research papers and the PhD thesis itself. Studying them carefully also helps both student and supervisor get better at time tracking and timeline planning, which are crucial to completing the PhD within the 5-year funded timeframe.

Weekly reports should be submitted in both finished PDF and in the original LaTeX, BibTeX, and Mathematica/Maple source file formats, via Dropbox. Make sure to submit a report by 17:00h the day before an in-person meeting to ensure that I have time to read it. Postdocs need less direct supervision than PhD students; for them, I recommend checking in biweekly or monthly in writing and discussing progress with me on an ad hoc continuing basis.

Do not delete weekly reports or associated files you authored under my supervision, e.g. from our joint Dropbox folder(s), without consulting me. I will need to refer to them again in future, e.g. when (1) reminding myself of work you did weeks or months ago, (2) writing recommendation letters for you, (3) writing annual UofT accountability reports, and (4) writing NSERC grant applications. Carefully read the SGS policy on intellectual property so that you understand clearly why research work that you produce under my supervision is not exclusively owned by you. Think of your weekly reports as like raw experimental data. Even if the results are reported in a publication, it is still important that the raw data are accessible for collaborators.

Paper authorship expectations must be actively negotiated between interested parties at each major stage of collaboration on research projects. For papers purely within my research group, I get the final say on collaboration modes and authorship because, as the PI in charge, I am ultimately responsible for both positive and negative outcomes of the collaboration. Postdocs I employ -- and any PhD student(s) aspiring to writing papers without me -- should notify me of their external collaboration and publication plans in advance, to enable the best possible mentoring.

Sample frustrations

Different group members have inherently different ways of working. Aim to respect those different modi operandi, and help to organically negotiate an optimal overall team working style -- working here is not just about you or me. Example: chronic pain disabilities from a skiing accident years ago make typing a major workflow bottleneck for me. Accordingly, my collaborators should expect to shoulder a greater typing burden, just as Stephen Hawking's collaborators pitch in to assist him with tasks he finds physically difficult. I show reciprocal respect by being scrupulously careful not to ask for typing assistance unless it is strictly necessary. The single most difficult request for me to handle on short notice is a sudden request for nontrivial typing. If you want a recommendation letter for a scholarship or job opportunity, I need three weeks' notice.

Sometimes a PhD student with sleeves rolled up, deep in calculations, gets frustrated that their supervisor is not putting in the same number of hours per week as they are on the technical minutiae of their research project. If such a frustration arises, please bear in mind two things. First, note that professors have many more responsibilities to juggle than PhD students, some of them confidential and/or external to their home university, which makes things inherently asymmetrical. Second, note that PhD students are actually expected to become more of an expert in their thesis topic than their supervisor during the PhD. This intellectual independence is tested thoroughly at the end of the degree in the Final Oral Examination by the External Examiner among others. Finally, note that I routinely go as hard as physically possible to give my students and postdocs academic support and prompt feedback on their work.

One frustration that pops up sometimes is when a student or postdoc repeatedly refuses to do work I have requested without any explanation. That creates problems with general planning, so is not recommended as a strategy. If a request I have made feels unreasonable, do not pretend to forget about it, hoping that it will go away; that would be unprofessional. If I asked for the work to be done, I had a good reason for asking: I do not ask lightly for any task that I set a junior colleague. Instead, try explaining to me why you found the request unreasonable, to enable us to start negotiating a compromise. No request I make of anyone is ever absolute: there is always wiggle room for negotiation and compromise.

These are just a sample of general frustrations I have encountered over the years between colleagues. You and I are likely to have our own set of frustrations, as is true for all teams. Some of these may be removed by having an open and understanding conversation. It is important to do this emotional labour, otherwise we cannot expect things to improve.

Reaching out for help

What if you are really struggling with frustrations and cannot see a good way forward? If the struggle is about coping with general academic frustrations in a healthy fashion, do not take frustrations out on me or other group members. Instead, reach out for assistance from friends and family, and/or seek professional counselling via your UofT health plan. If the struggle is about general professional communication with me or another member of my group, and you would like UofT-based assistance, please contact the Physics Graduate Office or the more formal SGS Conflict Resolution Centre (for PhD students), or the Chair's Office (for postdocs).

Thank you for your conscientiousness in reading this page to the end. -- AWP