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Posted on 3 Apr '19

"The Best Thing About My PhD Supervisor. . ." - Students Share Their Stories

This is a post about PhD student stories (it's in the title) but I'd like to start with a quick one of my own.

Not so long ago, I was waiting for my PhD viva. My primary supervisor suggested we get lunch a couple of hours before and I nervously agreed (I did everything nervously that week). Having quickly dismissed most of my panic and paranoia, our conversation moved on to reminiscing about my early days as an MA student, recalling past conferences and colleagues, chatting about current research, and so on. . . It felt like catching up with an old friend, which is more or less exactly what it was. Eventually, with about fifteen minutes to go and me perfectly relaxed and at ease, my supervisor wished me luck and said he'd see me after the exam.

A lot gets said about finding or choosing a good PhD supervisor, but perhaps not enough gets said about what good supervisors bring to a PhD. Whether that's helping students find their feet at the beginning of a project, coaching someone through those fabled 'second-year blues' (whichever year they occur in), or simply taking two hours out of a very busy day to be there for a student facing their viva.

So, seeing as we've just launched our own Postgrad Awards (with a category for 'Best PhD Supervisor, naturally) now felt like a good time to celebrate some of those things PhD supervisors do for their students. We've asked eight of our awesome FindAPhD guest bloggers to share their stories.


"Everything I was looking for in a mentor"

I moved from Greece to Austria a bit over a year ago to start my PhD in the field of Tumor Immunology. One of the main reasons why I chose this particular position was the supervisor. And I have no regrets.

My supervisor has everything I was looking for in a mentor. She is young and ambitious and she overcomes any inexperience with a thirst for sharing her knowledge. Choosing me as her first PhD while establishing her own research group, filled me with a sense of responsibility while giving me the freedom to create something that I consider my own.

The best thing about her mentoring style is the way she offers an open door to her students. I literally have the key to her office, which means that she is approachable and supportive nearly 24/7. For me a supervisor should not be yet another boss but a true leader. Someone you look up to, a role model. Especially for young females in Academia, having someone that lets our ideas to flourish and our voice to be heard is essential. I consider myself very lucky.


Sofia Raftopoulou is a second-year PhD student in Human Medicine at the Medical University of Graz


"My academic leader - and my Google Translate"

In the mysterious fairytale land of multidisciplinary research, one can often feel like a tourist with an outdated map and the wrong phrasebook. Finding the right person to be simultaneously your academic leader and a highly functional 'Google translate' is a huge challenge - and not one every supervisor is willing to help with.

In that sense, I can say I more than lucked in. My supervisor has always had the patience to explain, mediate, teach and listen, but most of all he has never failed to have my back.


Kristine Bagdassarian is a third-year PhD student in Biosciences at Durham University


"I enjoy listening to her sharing her own experience of when she was a PhD student"

The best thing about my supervisor I think is her being down to earth. I enjoy listening to her sharing her own experience of when she was a PhD student, or as she usually says “back in my day”.

People say you can only do things that you enjoy, and whenever I talk to her, that’s exactly what I see. She tells me about all those weekends she spent in the lab, cloning many different genes, and then coming back on Monday excitingly checking if any of her cloning worked. Or the days when she discovered a protein that is fundamental to cell migration, and how exciting it was. Her enthusiasm has really inspired me to work hard and to find the joy in doing science.

Yes, it may take many hours, many months to get results, but the feeling at the end to be the one who discovered something novel, something no one else has seen before makes everything worth it.


Anh Hoang Le is a third-year PhD student with the Cancer Research UK Beatson Institute, based at the University of Glasgow.

"The process has been a learning experience for the two of us"

I am my supervisor's first PhD student, so the process has been a learning experience for the two of us. Despite this she has supported me in all aspects both academic and pastoral, giving me guidance and feedback on my work, while also providing support when the stresses of PhD study started to take their toll.

She has done so much for me, from helping me publish my research in leading journals, to throwing me some much needed money to dog-sit for her. I am eternally grateful.


Chris Aris is a third-year PhD student in Dental Anthropology at the University of Kent.


"If it wasn't for my supervisors being so understanding, compassionate and flexible, I would not be still doing my dream PhD project"

My PhD did not really get off to the start I - or my supervisors - envisioned when we first met to discuss the project. Just one month in, I had to take 3 months sick leave as a result of serious and unexpected health issues, meaning that everything just ground to a halt. Even on my return, I told my supervisors I was no longer able to do more than 4 days a week if I was to come back (due to regular health appointments on Mondays for the foreseeable future). In these early days, I was unsure whether I would be able to see my PhD through after all.

If it wasn't for my supervisors being so understanding, compassionate and flexible, I would not be still doing my dream PhD project. I am so grateful to them for being able to attend to my specific needs and working patterns to enable me to carry on with the PhD that I fought so hard for, in my own way. This has allowed me to carry on doing the research I really care about without sacrificing my own health at the project's expense.

The PhD supervisor-student relationship is so important; I truly believe the supervisory team can make or break a student's self-esteem and ability to carry on in the face of extreme adversity. Academia should not exclude certain groups due to unnecessary barriers such an inflexible working hours, lack of accessibility, or bureaucracy. Supervisors play a key role here, as advocates for their PhD students' needs. I am very, very grateful my supervisors supported mine.


Holly Dale is a first-year PhD student in Clinical Psychology at the University of Manchester.


"I work with someone who is literally one-in-a-billion"

My supervisor is an expert in our research field – that means I get to be mentored by someone who is literally one-in-a-billion. I wouldn’t get the same teaching or direction from anyone else in the world.

It’s great to work with a supervisor who has lots of research experience, and can always find a solution whenever I encounter a new problem to solve. Plus, he’s dedicated and meticulous – I can be confident that I’ll always receive high-quality feedback and support when I need it.


Chris Banyard is a fourth-year PhD student in Molecular Biology and Microbiology at the University of Sheffield.


"They are very different people, but we work well together"

I absolutely love my supervisory team. They are very different people, but we work well together, and they're really on the ball. My Director of Studies is fabulous - she makes me want to work hard, she is appropriately critical of my work and really makes me think about what I'm doing, and above all, I feel safe in her care.


Emma Burnett is a first-year PhD student with the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience at Coventry University.


"Helpful without hand-holding and never outright writes an idea off"

My supervisor's style is helpful without hand holding and she always focuses on student well-being. She doesn’t expect immediate updates but is always there if needed, in a ‘problem, discussion, kick you in the right direction, come back if you need to’ way. This style works well for me, particularly as a part-time, self-funded student. Karen has always stressed that we build my schedule my health and financial needs.

I also appreciate her skill set and openness to ideas. My supervisor has spent a career building up an extremely diverse range of skills within our realm of science, and she brings this to our lab which means the opportunities for training are amazing. With that, she never outright writes an idea off. She’s open to any new directions and techniques if there is a valid reason and plausible way of doing it.


Ben Turnbull is a sixth-year part-time PhD student in Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of St Andrews. He also maintains a personal blog about his PhD journey and experiences.


Over to you?

I'm really grateful to all the guest bloggers who've shared their experiences and perspectives above. We've got viewpoints from students in a range of very different subjects, at different universities and at different stages of the PhD process. It's really encouraging to hear how positive their PhD experiences have been and to learn how much their supervisors have contributed, from helping students navigate new and confusing research areas to supporting them during the kinds of personal challenge that are as much a part of PhD life as they are of life in general.

This is exactly the kind of thing we'd like to celebrate with our inaugural Postgrad Awards so, if you're a current student who wants to put their supervisor forward for an award, please do! If you're still looking for your ideal supervisor (and ideal PhD) then I hope you find the kind of mentor you can come back and nominate next year.






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