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You and Your PhD Supervisor

Extract from: Your PhD Companion. (How To Books) by Stephen Marshall & Nick Green

The dream supervisor has the following attributes: the wisdom of Solomon; a positively delphic prescience in their pronouncements of what will matter; the communicative skills of Martin Luther King; the analytical clarity of Ada Lovelace; the patience of a saint; a pastoral touch that would make Florence Nightingale weep with envy; a breadth and depth of knowledge that could only come from omniscience; creative gifts that combine the brilliance of Leonardo da Vinci, Isaac Newton, Michelangelo and Mozart with the inspiring iconoclasm of Pablo Picasso, Einstein and the Beatles; and to cap it all, an empathic sense that must have been stolen from Mahatma Ghandi.

Of course the dream supervisor does not exist, but you might well find someone who thinks they are that person, and they may well become your supervisor. The truth is that even on the rare occasions when supervisors do turn out to be geniuses, or even just very clever indeed, they are still neither gods nor saints; more likely they are simply overworked and underpaid, and just trying to do their job.

Most important from your point of view, they want to see you succeed. At any rate they would rather you didn’t fail, because that would make them look bad. This is why: if you go off the rails, so, temporarily, does your supervisor’s reputation in the department, and that means that your relationship with them is very different indeed from the average working relationship.

So here is a list of things your supervisor is (usually) not: your boss, your employer, your colleague, your best friend, your editor, your search engine, your wet-nurse. Your supervisor supervises you and your approach to your work. They don’t generally tell you what to do, or what not to do, but they might warn you off some things and try to steer you towards others. As with all advice, you can take it or leave it. The pragmatic way is to take heed but not to follow blindly, for the simple reason that the types of hunch on which you might seek advice rarely lend themselves to rational explanation, but do demand careful exploration. For more prosaic or technical matters, like structuring your thesis, or getting the style right for a paper, their advice should definitely be heeded.

Your relationship with your supervisor is then subject to negotiation. One of you may want to meet once a month to discuss your progress, or you might both be quite happy to meet as the need arises. Some supervisors like to see regular progress reports, others may be less demanding, particularly if your supervisor is in regular contact with you anyway, in the lab for example. Likewise with the work itself: some students like to be given a clear sense of direction, and often; others prefer to be left to their own devices. Whatever the case may be, the important thing is to sort it out, or come to some sort of agreement as soon possible, or misunderstandings and mutual disappointment will follow. You could do worse than make the first move yourself in this respect; much of doing a PhD is about being prepared to take the initiative, and doing your best to generate a good relationship with your supervisor is as good a place to start as any.

Choosing a Supervisor

Your supervisor is likely to be the single most significant individual in influencing the success of your PhD. Choosing your supervisor, understanding their roles (including those that are nothing to do with supervising you) and understanding their advice will be crucial to a smooth, successful PhD experience.

Certainty is something you should not expect, so a key thing is to schedule in quality time for proper discussion. Supervisors tend to be busy people, and the cheery person who said hello to you in the corridor might well be a distinctly harrassed individual when you knock on their office door, asking for a quick bit of advice. If you’re lucky, the cheery person will still be a cheery person, stop whatever it is they’re doing, listen attentively, and then give you an absolute gem of a suggestion. More likely, they’ll ask you to make an appointment so that they can be sure to give you their full attention.

What you can reasonably expect of your supervisor

  • A proper reading of work you have submitted to them.
  • Timely and constructive feedback on work submitted.
  • A willingness to listen to and engage with you intellectually.
  • Administrative responsibilities properly and promptly addressed.

You can assist your supervisor here by making clear what you are expecting from them, for example by letting them know in advance that you will be sending them something you expect them to comment on when you next meet, and to send it in time for them to read it.

How to address your supervisor

This is a great one for catching people out, combining as it does the personal preferences of the supervisor with the cultural origins of the student. In the end, it’s between you and your supervisor, but the safest route in the first instance is to address your supervisor by title – Professor Smith or Dr Jones – rather than their first name. That way, if that’s what they prefer, you have got it right. But if you have got it wrong, you’ve simply been a little over polite, and they will suggest a more informal mode of address. Either way, no harm is done.

What your supervisor can reasonably expect of you

  • Keep appointments.
  • Try to address what the supervisor advises.
  • If you disagree with them, have a good argument to back up your point.
  • If you do not understand any advice, ask for further explanation, and don’t just disappear in fright/in a huff.
  • Do not overburden them with too many similar drafts – they will not be able to cast a fresh eye over it after the second draft.
  • Administrative responsibilities properly and promptly addressed.

You can also generally assist here by taking the initiative where necessary, and by not assuming that silence from your supervisor means approval, while forgiving them for assuming that silence from you means you are getting by with no problems.

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