My PhD Advice, Part 2 – Build a Good Relationship with your Supervisor

If you’ve survived Part One, and you’ve got yourself a studentship, the next step is critical.  Getting a good supervisor is the difference between a pleasant and utterly hellish experience.  A good supervisor will defend you and your interests, push you and motivate you, introduce you to his collaborators, and generally cultivate you as a researcher and as an individual.  A bad supervisor – well, it is all too easy in academia for PhD students to be seen as cheap labour, and that never ends well.

Will this be a typical exchange between you and your supervisor?

Again, use the PhD interview process to the fullest.  Speak to any potential supervisor, and to their students.  Get the scoop on him/her over lunch/coffee/beer.  Are they good to their students? Are they slave-drivers? Or are they invisible, only appearing at the institute to collect mail before leaving for another continent to attend another meeting?  All these factors will affect how much you will love/hate your PhD.  I was lucky that I got to work with my supervisor as an undergraduate, which is obviously a great way of figuring out whether they will be a good match.

Once you’re in the department, don’t be afraid to make some (modest) demands.  You should be meeting with your supervisor on a regular basis (once a week is the ideal).  If they’re too busy to make face-to-face meetings, use email (or Skype if appropriate).  Regular communication in some shape or form is important.

During these meetings, the two of you should be forming a coherent picture of what your thesis will look like, and what research you’ll need to do to flesh it out.  Some PhDs start out with a well defined goal, and some are more loosely defined, but by the end they’ll all have a set of aims, a thesis plan and a thesis.  Make sure these discussions happen from the very beginning – you don’t want to be heading down a complex research path to discover a year later it was a dead end or it wasn’t part of your supervisor’s vision.

If you feel that your supervisor isn’t pulling their weight, or you’re having problems in general, then talk to someone. A good institute will have procedures for these kind of pastoral issues – you may have a second or even a third supervisor who is there to help you with these matters.  Don’t be afraid to use the resources around you: it’s no admission of failure, and problems are more common than you might think.  On the whole, most problems can be resolved quite simply if you’re proactive and engage with the right people.  Don’t languish in silence – it doesn’t do you any favours.

Always remember that a PhD supervisor has a duty to you.  PhDs are like apprenticeships in research – in the beginning, you’ll need to lean more heavily on supervisory assistance.  You’ll be new to a lot of the ideas and techniques being used, but you’ll be expected to learn quickly.  As you get into the subject, you’ll begin to develop your own methods and interests.  When it comes to finishing up and writing your thesis, you’ll be the expert on your thesis subject.  You may even find that your supervisor comes to you for advice.

But like any apprenticeship, that initial stage where you need support is crucial.  Would you want your plumber to have blithely “figured out” how to fix up your bathroom, or would you rather he was guided through the relevant procedures by an experienced tradesman?

On the flip side of the coin, you also have a duty to your supervisor.  You are lucky enough to have been awarded a studentship to do a project (in most cases one which the supervisor would like to do, but simply doesn’t have time to do themself).  PhDs require a great deal of self-motivation – there’s no carrot or stick anymore (although to some extent the supervisor’s reputation is staked on your research, so he/she might provide external encouragement).  This does not mean that you have no right to complain, far from it.  If you’ve lost your mojo because of problems with your supervisor, then it’s understandable that your motivation begins to disappear.  Just bear in mind that if you are deliberately lazy without good reason and then complain, your protests might fall on deaf ears.

To finish, I feel I should put my own supervisor’s mind at rest.  You were an excellent supervisor, and without your guidance I wouldn’t have been as successful as I have been.  Thank you!


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