Choosing the right supervisor for you

Jorge Cham: www. phdcomics.com

Jorge Cham: www. phdcomics.com

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 :-).

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