The relationship between student and supervisor can make the PhD journey a dream or a nightmare, and unfortunately it’s very hard to know how it will go before you start. It’s like an arranged marriage – two people thrown together into a partnership that can last for many years. And much like a marriage, it takes more than just shared interests to make it work.

I recently went to my school’s annual PhD student retreat – two days of talks, activities, discussion and opportunities to get to know other PhD students and share experiences and advice (and just have a bit of fun!). This year we had a joint session with the academic staff led by Inger Mewburn (aka the Thesis Whisperer), about how to manage differing expectations between the supervisor and the student. Through her research, Dr. Mewburn had identified some of the key expectation that supervisors and students have from the relationship:

What do supervisors expect from their students?

  • Independence
  • High standard of writing
  • ‘Regular’ meetings
  • Honest reporting
  • Advice will be followed
  • Be excited and fun to be around

What do students expect from their supervisors?

  • To be ‘supervised’
  • Be available
  • Read work in a timely manner
  • Be engaged in their research
  • Get them a job at the end!

PhD ASAP

I certainly recognise a lot of these, and it’s pretty obvious looking at this list why many students and supervisors have difficulty. At best many of these expectations are ambiguous and ill defined, and at worst they are in direct conflict.   The discussion brought up a few really interesting points, so I thought I would discuss some of these from my own experience of doing a PhD so far.

Independence

The biggest discussion point was on the topic of independence. Students and supervisors often differ in their definition of what supervision entails, and this can often be a source of tension. There is a very obvious contradiction in the supervisor’s expectations – on the one hand they expect that their students will be independent, but they also expect to have ‘regular’ (what is regular?) meetings and that when they give advice it will be followed! Students also expect that their supervisors will be available when needed, and that they will ‘supervise’ (again, what does that mean?)! Depending on their circumstances and previous experience, some students will require more guidance and help than others – should supervisors be responsible for helping students find the help they need? Should they point them in the direction of useful resources or opportunities? Should they provide any pastoral care, take an interest in them as a person, or in their future?

In the discussion, some of the academics said that they felt the supervision of students had become more involved and students were not as independent as they once were (i.e. when they themselves were students). There was an implication that a certain amount of struggle and difficulty was just part of the process of doing a PhD, and that students now have it too easy. But many students expressed frustration that their supervisors were not providing enough guidance or assistance, particularly students who might need extra help e.g. international students, students with caring responsibilities or health problems etc. One student pointed out that the reason why there are so many more services for students and checks to make sure they are progressing now is because there has been a recognition that the difficulties of doing a PhD were excluding many of these students – if we want equality and diversity in academia we have to accept that the system needs to change.

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Conflicting advice

One issue that I have experienced in my PhD has been managing conflicting advice from different supervisors. I have four supervisors, and of course they often differ in their opinions particularly when it comes to the direction I should take or where my focus should be. This is driven in part by their own interests and experience, and on one hand I think I’m lucky to be able to draw on the knowledge of so many people. But in the end it comes down to me to decide which advice I will take, and that means going against the advice of at least one of my supervisors. If they are all expecting their advice to be followed, that is obviously a problem!

In some cases I have found it useful to bring together those who disagree so that they can actually talk to each other, rather than always going through me. Sometimes this is enough to come to an agreement or compromise, but it also means that if I need to make a decision one way or the other I have someone to back me up. As someone who is not very assertive I find this helpful, but I do also need to improve my ability to justify my decisions in these situations. I think it’s really important that if you are going against your supervisor’s advice, you explain why and show that you still respect their expertise and have thought it through – otherwise this could make them feel that you’re ignoring them. But always remember it’s your project, and they should recognise that too.

Writing

PhD paper in nature

Many supervisors said that they expected a high quality of writing from their students, and were frustrated when students gave them work that was poor or incomplete. Yet writing causes a lot of anxiety for many students (including myself), and I think this expectation can often be counterproductive. For many students, high expectations may discourage them from seeking help early on. Writing styles and methods are very individual – some like to word dump and then edit, others like to meticulously plan, and some (like me) will stare at an empty page for weeks until it all comes out in one go (hopefully!). I find it very difficult to write drafts, particularly when I am not clear on structure, and I find it very helpful to discuss my thoughts with someone to get them straight in my mind before I begin writing. This caused some issues for me during my honours project, when my supervisor wanted to see a draft of my thesis, but I kept coming to every meeting saying I was working on it but it wasn’t ready yet. When I did eventually produce something it was fine, but it took a lot of trust on his part!

I really think the key with this (as with everything) is communication. It’s important that you tell your supervisor what your writing style is and what you struggle with, so that they can give you the help you need at whatever stage the work is at. When you do send them a draft, ask them what they prefer – what format do they like, are they happy to read outlines or only complete drafts? Tell them which parts to focus on, and give them specific tasks or questions e.g. please check this section for structure or clarity, do I need to explain this further? If you know a section needs work or is missing something, make a note of that so it’s clear that you know. If you have multiple supervisors you may also work out that one is really good at helping in the early stages of a draft, and another one only wants to see work that is nearly complete. It can also really help to send drafts to family or friends first, especially if you need help with spelling or grammar.

A new name for the supervisor?

At the end of the discussion I felt that the word ‘supervisor’ isn’t really an accurate description of the relationship, and maybe we need a new word for it. In America they use ‘advisor’, which I actually like better, but it still doesn’t fully encompass the complexity of the role. At different times your supervisor could be your mentor, teacher, counsellor, colleague, co-author, manager, boss, friend or parent. It’s extremely rare to find someone who can be all these things, so different supervisors may take on different aspects of the role. I have one supervisor who is great at the big picture stuff, but that is not the same person I would go to with a question about the details of my methods or analysis. Your supervisors are usually chosen because they have some expertise that will be useful for your project, but I think it’s also important to have at least one person that takes an interest in your well being, who you feel you can talk to if you have personal issues. One of the most important things I have learned in my PhD so far is to see my supervisors not as the scary boss who wants to find fault with what I do, but as co-authors and future colleagues who are invested in my work and want me to do well. You are not just a brain on a stick, and part of the supervisor’s role should be to help you grow as a person and as a researcher.

Phd brain stick

Thanks to PhD Comics for the excellent illustrations – please go and check them out!

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