The two basic criteria to establish whether someone is your boss are:
– Can they fire you ?
– Can they give you a raise ?
Unless the answer to both questions is yes, then they are not your boss.
(can’t recall who said that to me… my dad, maybe ? Nah, it’s impossible, that would make him right…)
My impression, upon reading the ongoing discussion at GMP’s blog, is that the crux of the matter may be how we see the relationship between an academic advisee (whether that be an undergraduate or graduate student, or a postdoc) and the advisor, typically a faculty.
Is that relationship “hierarchical” in nature, as suggested by GMP in her follow-up post ? Is an advisee “lower on the totem pole” than her advisor, and therefore always required to jump through one more hoop, for example by providing a detailed, believable and cogent reason for being unable to attend a meeting called by the advisor, even on a short notice — something that an “equal” (e.g., another faculty) would not be necessarily expected (much less “required”) to do  ?
There are strong opinions out there on this subject — just read the comments to GMP’s post. Indeed, I have a strong opinion of my own, but to some extent I think that differences of opinions may also reflect differences in cultures and way in which research groups operate in the various disciplines and settings.
Different cultures ?
I have written about this aspect in part on a previous post, but I am always happy to recycle old stuff. When I discuss advising, on my blog or with colleagues, I do so based largely on my own experience (this is what a blog is for, is it not ?). And my own experience consists of running and/or being part of small groups, in which the interactions are typically very informal. I never needed to schedule a meeting with my own PhD advisor, I would just show up to his office door. If he was busy, he would tell me to come back later. With my own students and postdocs it is very much the same thing.
But, I understand that there are fields in which groups tend to be very large. In those settings, interactions necessarily take on a different style, perhaps similar to that which one would observe in the corporate sector. I am sure that it must be difficult, for those who manage large research grants, to find the time to meet with everyone all the time, and resorting to semi-rigid scheduling of meetings may well become a necessity. And of course, while showing up on time at a meeting is never “optional”, it becomes a requirement in a situation in which the next meeting may be no sooner than in a month.
Still, I think that there is a limit to how far one can take the adoption of a “corporate-like” mentality in academia, especially when talking about graduate education or postdoctoral mentoring.
Boss my eyeball  !
As I wrote above, I do have a strong opinion as to whether language including expressions such as “totem pole”, “hierarchy” and “equal” belongs in academia. One of the most important reasons why I picked the academic route to begin with, and stuck with it even when it seemed to be going nowhere, was precisely my personal distaste for hierarchy. I have never wanted to have bosses, nor have I ever felt any desire to be one.
There are no bosses in academia. Period.
A professor is not the “student’s boss”, nor is anyone doing anyone else a “favour” by supervising or being supervised. The simple fact is, the very meaning and existence of academia hinge on the presence of both students and faculty.
This is one of the very first things that I tell my graduate students and postdocs:
I am not your boss — you are your own boss. I have neither the power to fire you, nor to give you a raise. I am simply a person with whom you may elect to collaborate, who is putting at your disposal some funds for you to pursue your own research, and who will be in the future in the position of expressing a (likely influential) opinion over your ability as a researcher.
Common courtesy is no more a requirement between student and professor than it is among two “equals” (e.g., collaborators), or any other two individuals. A student need not give me a reason for not being able to come and meet me in my office, or for cancelling a meeting, any more than I need to give her one for the same reason. Yes, normally both of us will explain why we cannot make it, especially if we are talking a student whom I have supervised for some time — but normally both will interrupt the other saying “Oh, it’s OK, don’t worry about it — it’s not like you need to explain. We shall meet some other time”.
If the relationship is none other than that between two serious and dedicated individuals, both in good faith, each clearly aware of their long-term goals and responsibilities, as well as of those of the other party, misunderstandings simply never arise.
Conversely, a collaborator (an “equal”, to use GMP’s parlance, possibly a colleague at a different institution) will get no more leeway from me than a postdoc or a graduate student, when it comes to doing their part timely and professionally. Being a professor is no excuse for dropping the ball on me halfway through the completion of a project, taking months to write a response to a referee, cancelling at the last moment a visit planned for months . Curiously, in my experience I seem to be getting peeved at “equals” way more often than graduate students or postdocs.
Now, that does not mean that…
Of course, the fact that a student need not give me a reason for not being able to come to a seminar, or to attend a conference, or for not having had any time to work on her project over the past month, does not mean that it’s all good, that all of that is fine with me .
If there is a clear pattern, if one or more (or all) of these things tend to happen frequently, consistently — that is what ultimately determines my overall satisfaction with the advisee, which of course will be reflected in my letter of recommendation.
But it is neither the individual occurrence, nor the reason  that the student should offer, the cause of my displeasure. Advisees have to be evaluated based on their performance over the course of months or years, not one single episode (or even a few thereof); and, they have to be evaluated based on the “big picture”, on their ideas, initiative, productivity, not on whether they show the proper appreciation for hierarchy .
If at some point I, the advisor, start harbouring doubts over the student’s motivation and seriousness; if I hardly ever see her, or she seems consistently distracted, uninterested, lazy; if I become convinced that she will simply not measure up to the competition, when the day comes to move on to the next stage; at that point, the way to proceed is to have a frank talk with the advisee, simply stating what we all know to be true:
Look, I am worried about the current state of affairs. I do not see you making progress the way that I would like to see you make it. Based on my experience, and awareness of the standards upon which you will be evaluated (not by me, but by the community), I do not see much of a future for you in this line of work.
You may have excellent reasons for not having been able to get further than where you are, and I am not here to judge you — in fact, much of this is likely my own fault. Unfortunately, that is immaterial. Your record will speak for itself, and very, very seldom will society go the extra mile and investigate your own individual situation in detail. What is going to happen is, someone will say “she does not seem to have accomplished much”, and that will be the end — there is not much you, or I or anyone else can do, at that point. As your advisor, it is my duty to share this concern with you, and start out a discussion on what to do next, because I see no point continuing on this path.
Turning into a policeman; micromanaging students; establishing a climate of suspicion, or a “reign of terror”; constantly being on the person’s case; demanding a valid explanation (one that I shall evaluate in its merit, and possibly reject) each time a student fails to meet a deadline or to show up for a seminar; intruding into a person’s private space; questioning the wisdom of someone else’s personal choices, from spending time with family to shopping for vegetables on the day of the group meeting; the only thing that all of that is going to accomplish, is making me look like a sociopath.
My opinion only, eh ?
 If my reading of GMP is correct, then an implied hierarchy also exists among people who are in principle “equal”, e.g., faculty, the moment one of them acquires a status that places that person (at least temporarily) higher on the “totem pole” (e.g., program director, I suppose) — in that case, the protocol governing interaction with that person should automatically change, with subalterns acting with the proper deference.
 I learned this from my wife — she never mentions that other part of the body…
 Oh, and if on top of that I am also given a (never solicited) “reason” such as “I am busy”, then I really get furious. Why ? Because I resent the underlying implications, which could be several (none good).
 At the same time, the notion that advisors constantly attempting to micromanage their students, nagging them, treating them like minions, setting standards for advisees to which they themselves would not abide, are “simply advisors who care”, is both lame and disingenuous.
 If any — frankly, I would rather not hear any reason than one that insults my intelligence.
 Do not get me wrong. I would be disingenuous if I did not admit that there are behaviours that do “raise a red flag” with me early on, and make me suspicious of someone even before I have had a chance of evaluating them based on their actual performance. And yes, often times these “red flags” are powerful, surprisingly accurate predictors of future trouble. Problem is, we cannot act on red flags, can we ?