Choosing the right supervisor for you

Jorge Cham: www.

Jorge Cham: www.

This post is mostly about advice to prospective or starting-out PhD students, and it’s about choosing a supervisor and setting up a mutually respectful and constructive relationship. A PhD supervisor is the most important person in a PhD student’s academic life for the duration of the process:  good supervision can make the experience one of growth, stimulation and mentorship (and even some fun); bad supervision can lead to delays, frustration, blocks to progress and lowered self-esteem. So it’s important to choose the right supervisor and set up a mutually agreeable working relationship.

The first piece of advice was given to me by a few people when I was starting out: choose the supervisor and not the university. At PhD level you need to make a real contribution to knowledge-building in your field, and to do this you need someone who knows your field well, and can guide, advise, challenge and push you to do better research, writing and thinking than you may have done thus far in your career. A university with a great reputation may look like a good option, but who will you work with? Obviously there are compromises to be made here, and you’d need to weigh up your particular case looking at things like how far away your supervisor is, and how you would make the logistics work if they are not in the same city as you (mine is not, for example). But there are great online tools now, like Adobe Connect, Skype and Google Drive that make staying in touch across distances easier. Choosing the supervisor rather than the university tends to pay off if you can set up a good working relationship with them. I made this choice and it has worked out well for me, even though I don’t get to see my supervisor face-to-face more than 2 or 3 times a year. I chose her because she is a key person in the field I am researching and working in and I wanted to draw on her expertise and also connect with her networks of other scholars. This is also something to consider when choosing a supervisor – the world and people beyond your present research and work that they can introduce you to.

The second thing I have learnt a few lessons about is how to set up the relationship so that it works for both of us. I’ve been lucky – and sometimes finding the right supervisor is luck – because my supervisor is kind, open to new ideas and willing to talk about how things are working out along the way. We are similar people, so we tend to get along quite well. I don’t need a lot of contact, but I do need her to be there for me when I have questions or get stuck or write something I need feedback on, and so far it has worked well in that she has been there for me when I need her advice or feedback, and when I have needed to be left alone and not feel pressured she has given me space. I have learned to ask for what I need very clearly, so that there is no confusion or frustration later. I make a list of the questions and send them to her before we meet on Skype if I can, or at least tell her what I’d like to talk about. When I send writing it is with a covering email telling her what I have sent,  at what stage it is and what I need her help with (and also what to ignore or not comment on just yet). This works quite well, because she knows where I am in my process and can give me the feedback and advice I most need at that point and also point me in the right direction with the next steps. I think I really am lucky, though, because I work with other PhD and MA students who have had awful experiences of supervisors who are distant and disengaged and then suddenly appear demanding writing without any warning and then drag their heels with feedback and give unhelpful ‘advice’ that leads to the students getting delayed or even stuck. Supervisors have a lot of power in this relationship, and not all of them use their power for good.

Many supervisors don’t see that supervising is teaching and mentoring, one on one, and miss opportunities to really help their students grow intellectually. Students are the ones who have to deal with the fallout of being poorly supervised and it is really tough, so taking time to do your research and find the most right person you can to work with is important. Do some thinking about where you want to study, as this is a good starting point. Do you need a supervisory relationship that is face-to-face most of the time or can you cope with being remote? Think about your proposed research. Whose names keep coming up in your reading? Where do they work? Could you get into the university they work at, and request to be assigned to them as a student? Go online and search prospective university sites – look at their postgraduate pages and also look for your prospective supervisor candidates. Send a polite, well-thought out email to the person or people you’d really like to work with. Write a short proposal of a couple of pages about the project you want to do and ask them nicely if they’ll read it and think about working with you. Often when you apply to a PhD programme you need to name a prospective supervisor, and it’s essential that you make contact with them before you fill in these forms and name them. If they have a sense of what work you want to do, and have agreed to be named as a prospective supervisor you could have a better chance of getting into the programme and also launching your relationship with said supervisor on the right foot.

I’m sure there are lots of other hints and tips people have, and you could all probably tell a range of both encouraging and scary supervisor stories. These are the top lessons I have learned, and I hope if you are starting out that they are helpful, and that you end up being one of the fortunate students with encouraging and happy-ending stories to tell :-).

Revisions part two: ‘panel-beating’ and polishing

I am working on revisions, again, and I have stumbled upon a useful metaphor for thinking about what I am doing and what is needed in this final round of revisions prior to submitting my thesis. I am an amateur potter, and I go to lessons every week to learn how to throw and build and decorate beautiful pots, jugs and other kinds of ceramics. I find this physical, tactile kind of labour very therapeutic and also challenging and it has occurred to me that making a pot is not unlike creating something like my thesis. Allow me to elaborate.

The thesis, like the pot, starts off like this:


This is your basic lump of clay – therein lies the idea, the development of that idea and its final product, but at this stage it is just potential. This is both a lovely and frustrating stage – you can quite enjoy just letting the ideas and potential swirl around inside of your head, because it’s much more pleasant than actually doing the work of shaping and building them into something. But when you have decided what it is going to look like and be, you want the pot to just emerge, fully formed, without all the hard work required to make thus actually happen. But you have to do the work, so you wedge and knead the clay – you start your reading and thinking and scribbling – and you start rolling out your coils or the strands of your argument and begin joining them together.

The thesis starts to take shape:



It starts to look like something recognisable as a thesis, or parts of one. If you hand-build pots, like I tend to do, you will know that this process can take a fair amount of time. The smaller the pot the less time, but a thesis, in this metaphor, is a very large and detailed pot, and this takes a long time to build and decorate and polish and perfect before it is strong enough to withstand the heat of the kiln (or examination). You can’t add too many coils in one session or the pot will start to collapse. You need to go carefully, you need to make sure there are no air bubbles in the clay, and ensure your joins between the coils and strong and well-made. In the thesis, you write and read in stages, with thinking and supervisor meetings and feedback in between. This can, therefore, be a long and sometimes frustrating process. It takes a while for your pot to take its shape, and for a long time it can just look like an arbitrary moulding of clay – not unique, not special, not noteworthy. In terms of the thesis, this is the long middle stage after the proposal and before the first full draft where you just have drafts of chapters and these can be well-written, but they’re not really taking the shape of a whole yet – they are just coils in the pot, some more carefully and robustly joined together than others.

But you move on, as you must, to the next stage:


This is the stage where you can start putting the parts together more seamlessly to make a whole – the joins are smoothed over. You use tools, like a wooden paddle and a grater and an old credit card, to beat the pot into the shape you want it to take, grate off the extra clay where the pot is thick and the clay uneven – too much here, perhaps not enough there. You add and smooth in pieces of clay where the walls are not thick enough. You smooth the sides with a credit card, making sure there are no obvious lumps and bumps. It’s almost there. In the thesis, you are joining the chapters into the whole, writing the introduction and conclusion. You are deleting repetitive parts you no longer need – these made sense when the chapters were all separate but not now that they are together. You see gaps now that you didn’t see before and add into these the required information and explanation. It’s not quite there yet, but it’s definitely looking like a pot, and not just any pot, but your pot. This is, in my case, your first full draft.

Then your pot gets checked over by your teacher – your thesis goes to your supervisor – and although they have been helping you along the way, this is the first time they (and you) can see the pot or thesis as a whole and also see what it is that you are trying to actually make it into. They can offer a different kind of help – help aimed at perfecting the pot or thesis. Further panelbeating and grating may be needed. Further additions may be necessary too. You may be advised to add decoration or detail you had not thought to add yet. You are being assisted with polishing the pot or thesis – making it strong enough for the fires of the kiln or judgement of the examiners.



This is the stage I feel I am working through now. I am polishing my thesis. I am taking out extraneous words and sentences, clarifying points that are vague, adding small qualifying explanations or additional points I feel are necessary. I am editing my references and making sure my tables and figures all find themselves on the right pages and not separated from their captions, and so on. I am getting, slowly but surely, to the point where I will feel confident enough to put this pot into the kiln, to brave the process of examination and find out what further corrections or changes I must make. In pottery, there are two firings, just as in PhD examination there are two stages. The first is a bisque firing, at a high temperature. This sets the pot, but it is not often finished at this stage (although if you and your teacher are happy with it, and it survives the firing intact, you can take it home just like that – the mythical ‘award with no corrections’). Often a potter has to opt to glaze or paint their pot – one final round of revision to make it absolutely perfect. It is fired again, often at a lower temperature, and when it emerges, one hopes it looks like this, whole, perfect and beautiful to behold:



I quite like this metaphor. It resonates with me, and with the process I have worked through, and am still working through, in writing my doctoral thesis. This pot, by Ian Garrett, is something I am trying to reproduce in clay at the moment, and I am hoping I will be able to fire it around the same time as I finish the thesis revisions, which seems a fitting way to bring this process to it’s close (well, until the glazing/corrections, of course!).

Losing heart (and head) and getting it back

I am working through my final revisions from my supervisor before submitting my thesis to my examiners. Which should be a ‘yay’ kind of experience judging by people’s reactions when they ask how it’s going and I tell them this. But I am having a rather strange experience doing this which can be summed up in a word: Meh. Meh is a word by friend Deb and I use to refer to a feeling of ‘I know I should try to care but I just can’t’ or something like that. I feel very Meh about my thesis right now.

When I handed it over to my supervisor just over a month ago I was consumed by my thesis and had been for some time – organising data, analysing it, re-analysing it, writing about it, getting feedback, revising the chapters – it was all I could think about. But I ran out of steam at the end, and I was tired so it was a relief to hand it over for feedback and have a bit of a break from it. I got my weekends and evenings back for a few weeks, and I started feeling a bit normal again. I wasn’t working on it at all while my supervisor was reading it, because I needed to wait for her comments to start reworking the chapters, and I have to say I did not really miss it.

So when the chapters started coming back mid-October, I just benched them. I read all the comments, and there were not all that many that meant huge changes – most of it was minor stuff, thankfully – so I told myself the next round of revisions could wait. I didn’t want to go back to feeling consumed and tired and anxious and weekend-less and evening-less. I just wanted to be finished.

But the thing about getting to the point of being finished is that I am not the Shoemaker and there are no magic elves who are going to come into my study while I am sleeping and make my corrections and revisions and additions for me. I have to get myself and my thesis to that end(ish) point where I can hand the beast over and feel confident enough that I have done a good job of it. And to get myself and my thesis there I have to not lose heart now. I have to submit myself again to this process and get a bit consumed again, and lose my head or mind  a little, and care enough to get this done right.

It’s hard, because the Meh is strong, and I am flagging. This has been a long year. I am still excited about my research, but I am starting to get more excited about where I go after this rather than where I am now, which means that staying and being present here is a bit frustrating. But I also take this as a good sign. There is life after a PhD after all and I am finally seeing the chinks of light breaking though. PhDgirl, fighting the Meh and moving towards that finish line.

Why (and how) I keep reading and research journals

research journal cover

My reading journal

This post is about reading (and writing), and how I try to keep track of what I read and what I think about it and why I need to include it in my writing.

I went to a Doc week workshop last year at Rhodes on how to keep reading and research journals and why these are useful. It was one of the most ‘lightbulb-going-on’-type workshops I have ever been to, largely because of the reading journal tool. I had been, up until that point, annotating all my readings and highlighting all over them, but stopping and starting as I went to do this highlighting and annotating. I found myself getting to the end of a long book chapter or paper unable to articulate, in my own words, what the author was on about. It was so frustrating because I found that my reading was stilted and my notes were full of exact quotes from the readings rather than summaries in my own words, so I was having trouble writing about it all. I could not think beyond the authors’ words and I was getting nowhere fast with my ‘theory’ chapter and literature review-type sections.

At this workshop the idea of a reading journal was introduced and explained. Essentially the goal is to read the article all the way through without annotating or highlighting or stopping. Then, on a clean MSWord page or notebook page (I like to write mine in pen and pencil in a pretty Moleskine notebook) you write a summary of the article – what stuck out for you, what the main arguments were, how you are linking it to your other reading, what questions you had, what you were not clear about and so on. You can go back and read again and add direct quotes or clarify fuzzy bits but only after you have read the article or chapter and summarised it like this first. What is brilliant about a reading journal kept like this is that you do remember what you have read (even though you think you won’t), the main points are what go into the summary rather than all the points as often happens when you are annotating, and you are writing in your own words so there is less of a writing block caused by being stuck on the author’s words.

I have learnt a few tips to make keeping a reading journal like this a bit easier. Firstly, read when your brain is fresh, otherwise it’s harder to focus and remember the main points and you find yourself having to keep going back to the reading and then you’re copying quotes instead of summarising in your own words. Second, make sure you write the FULL bibliographical reference at the top of the summary – there is nothing worse than having to chase down references later on. Thirdly, keep your journal with you – if you get a few spare minutes and want to read it’s nice to have your book with you (if you keep a hard copy) and to keep these summaries in one place. I have reading journal entries in my book and on my PC and on bits of paper stapled to printed-out articles and it’s a bit hard to keep track of it all. This reading journal has changed the way I read and make notes, and has really helped me to find my own voice as a writer in this PhD and even in papers and other things I am writing.

research journal inside

An example of a writing/drawing page in my research journal

The other journal I keep is more personal and something I also learnt about during this Doc week. It’s my research journal. This is where I scribble ideas for parts of my thesis, ideas for papers I want to write related to my PhD research, notes about my frustrations, triumphs, setbacks, writing process and inklings, and so on. I draw pictures, I write more linear entries, I draw ‘word-pictures’ – it is a creative, personal space where I record my journey, and where the ‘archaeological dig’ that has been my study has unfolded and evolved over the past almost-two years – and is still unfolding. I take it to work with me everyday, and home again. I never know when the muse will strike, and I scribble sometimes on the way to work while my husband drives, or sitting in bed on a Saturday morning, or quickly between meetings at work. This journal has been very useful as a part-confessional diary and part-intellectual work-space. A small tip: if you are going to start one, buy a pretty journal from a bookshop. It’s more inspiring and enjoyable to keep a journal that is lovely to look at than one in a plain A4 book with a brown or black cover. :-).

I highly recommend keeping one of each of these journals – the reading journal for the more ‘academic’ work you are doing, and the research journal for your own personal as well as academic processes and thoughts and ideas. These tools are useful for the PhD journey itself and beyond or outside of it.