When I started my PhD, the entire cohort of incoming students had an induction session in the university’s great hall. There were around 500 of us, from every department and every imaginable discipline.
The induction itself was tedious, but there was one comment in particular that stood out immediately and stuck with me throughout my entire PhD journey. When a professor was asked in a Q&A what advice he would give incoming PhD students, he said to remember that, after your mother, your supervisor will be the most important person in your life.
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Now I’m at the other end of the PhD and I’ve graduated, I’ve got some advice of my own to add to his. You see, the professor overlooked something really important, and that is that, by the time we were sitting in the induction, we had already chosen our supervisors (or had them assigned, as in my case).
Why should that matter? Primarily because whether or not your supervisor becomes the most important person in your life depends how good that supervisor actually is, how well they are executing their duties, and how well you are managing the student-supervisor relationship.
In this guide, I want to dig in a little more into what makes a good supervisor, before discussing what they should and shouldn’t be doing, why you need to please them (and how you can go about doing so), and how to make the
Before that, though, I want to give some advice to those who haven’t yet chosen a supervisor about what they should and shouldn’t be looking out for (if you’ve already got one, you can skip the first section).
How to choose a PhD supervisor
The most important piece of advice for someone about to embark on a PhD and looking for a potential supervisor is to actually make an effort to talk to them about your research proposal.
Now, for many, your potential supervisor may be someone you already know, such as a lecturer, Master’s dissertation supervisor or tutor. Or, it may be someone from your department who you don’t know so well, but whose work fits your research interests.
In either case, chances are you’ve interacted with them in a teacher-student kind of relationship, where they lecture and you take notes. Well, when thinking about your PhD and their role as a potential supervisor, it’s time to put on a different hat and approach them as a peer. Email them or call them and schedule a phone call or face-to-face meeting to talk about your proposal and solicit their advice. Be explicit about wanting them to supervise you and tell them why. They won’t bite. In all likelihood, they’ll be flattered.
Now, the same applies even if it’s someone you don’t know or have never interacted with (perhaps if it’s someone from a different university or country). Approach them, explain what you intend to do and tell them exactly why you think they should supervise you.
As you ask these questions, you’ll get a pretty good idea of what to look for in a potential supervisor. For one, their research interests need to align with yours. The closer they align the better. But, more than that, you need to consider whether they have published in your field (and whether they’re continuing to do so).
Often, though, the more high-profile academics will already be supervising a number of students. Try, if you can, to get an idea of how many PhD students they are currently supervising. This will give you a good idea of whether they’ll have the time required to nurture your project over the years it will take you to complete it, or whether they’ll be stretched too thin. Also, look at how many students they have supervised in the past and how many of them completed successfully. This will give you a good insight into their experience and competence.
Remember back to that advice I got on my first day: the person you’re choosing to supervise your study will become the most important person in your life, so you need to consider the personal dimension too. Do you actually get on with them? You’ll be spending a lot of time together, and some of it will be when you’re at your most vulnerable (such as when you’re stressed, under incredible pressure or breaking down as the PhD blues get the better of you). Do you think this person is someone with whom you can have a good, friendly relationship? Can you talk openly to them? Will they be there for you when you need them and, more importantly, will you be able to ask them to be?
Once you’ve considered all this, don’t be afraid to approach them at a conference, swing by their office, drop them an email or phone them and run your project by them. The worst they can do is say no, and if they do they’ll likely give you great feedback and advice that you can take to another potential supervisor. But they may just turn around and say yes, and if you’ve done your homework properly, you’ll have a great foundation from which to start your PhD-journey. They’ll also likely work with you to craft your draft proposal into something that is more likely to be accepted.
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What is the role of a supervisor?
Think of your supervisor like a lawyer. They are there to advise you on the best course of action as you navigate your PhD journey, but ultimately, the decisions you make are yours and you’re accountable for the form and direction your PhD takes.
In other words: they advise, you decide.
I appreciate that is vague, though. What do they advise on?
Primarily, their job is:
8. To a certain extent, they often provide emotional and pastoral support
How many of these jobs they actually do will vary from supervisor to supervisor. You have to remember that academics, particularly those that are well known in their field, are often extremely busy and in many cases overworked and underpaid. They may simply not have the time to do all the things they are supposed to. Or, it may be the case that they simply don’t need to because you already have a good handle on things.
What does a supervisor not do?
Your supervisor is not there to design your research for you, or to plan, structure or write your thesis. Remember, they advise and you decide. It’s you that’s coming up with the ideas, the plans, the outlines and the chapters. It’s their job to feedback on them. Not the other way around.
Unlike at undergraduate or masters level, their job isn’t to teach you in the traditional sense, and you aren’t a student in the traditional sense either. The onus is on you to do the work and take the lead on your project. That means that if something isn’t clear, or you need help with, say, a chapter outline, it is up to you to solicit that advice from your supervisor or elsewhere. They won’t hold your hand and guide you unless you ask them to.
Having said that, their job isn’t to nanny you. At PhD level it is expected that you can work independently and can self-motivate. It is not your supervisor’s job to chase you for chapter drafts or to motivate you to work. If you don’t do the work when you’re supposed to then it’s your problem, not theirs.
It’s also not their job to proofread or edit your work. In fact, if you’re handing in drafts that contain substantial fluency or language issues (say, if you’re a non-native English speaker), it’s likely to annoy them, particularly if you’re doing so at the later stages of the PhD, because they’ll have to spend as much time focusing on how you’re writing as they do on what you’re writing.
More troubling would be if you explicitly ask them to correct or edit the language. They won’t do this and will take a dim view of being asked. Instead, hire a proofreader or ask a friend with good writing skills to take a read through and correct any obvious language errors (check the rules laid out by your university to see what a proofreader can and cannot do though. As with everything in your PhD, the onus is on you to do things properly).
What you need to do to please your supervisor
The lines between what your supervisor will and will not do for you are blurred, and come down in large part to how much they like you. That means you should pay attention to pleasing them, or at least not actively irritating them.
There are a few simple things you can do that will make their life easier and, with that, boost their opinion of you and their willingness to go beyond their prescribed role.
First, and by this stage you shouldn’t need to be told this, meet deadlines, submit work to them when you said you would, and turn up to your supervision meetings on time. If you meet the deadlines you’ve set, they’re more likely to return work quicker and spend more time reading it prior to doing so.
Managed well, you too can ensure that your supervisor is the most important person in your life. And you want them to be. Those who succeed in their PhDs and in their early academic careers are those who had effective supervision and approached their supervisor as a mentor.
Things don’t always go according to plan, though, and sometimes even with the best will in the world, supervisors under-perform, create problems or, in more extreme cases, sabotage PhD projects. This can be for a variety of reasons, but it leaves students in a difficult position; in the student-supervisor relationship, the student is relatively powerless, particularly if the supervisor is well known and highly esteemed. If this is the case, when things don’t go well, raising concerns with relevant channels may prove ineffective, and may even create more problems. In these extreme cases, you’ll have to draw on levels of diplomacy and patience you may never have known you had.
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