PhD Supervision – A reality check…and some good news

In an ideal world, your PhD supervisor would:

  •  be an expert in (all of) the area(s) of your research;
  • give you as much of his/her time as you need;
  • provide detailed – and legible – feedback on a draft chapter (…or two…or three…) the following day;
  • calm your anxieties;
  • think you’re brilliant, and tell you so;
  • invite you to co-author papers;
  • make sure you know about important conferences in your field;
  • take a personal interest in your future career prospects;
  • care as much about your project as you do.

Reality check:

  1. It is unlikely that your supervisor is an expert in every aspect of your research.
  2. Your supervisor has a demanding job and supervising your PhD, while important, is only one (small?) aspect of it; time is likely at a premium.
  3. Your supervisor is not your therapist or your life coach.
  4. Your supervisor is not your publicist.
  5. No one else will (or should) care as much about your research as you do.

I had what I suspect was a particularly turbulent supervisory experience. Neither the primary nor back-up supervisor that I started with was still supervising me when I submitted my thesis four years later. The reasons for these changes aren’t particularly important. Now that I’m supervising PhD candidates myself, however, I’ve gained new perspective on my own expectations.

A PhD is a scary thing. We all have different reasons for starting on the journey, but I often wonder how many people would take even the first step down that road if they knew about all of the blind corners up ahead. When we start out, I don’t think it is uncommon to expect that it is a supervisor’s responsibility to help guide the way. And that is a reasonable expectation. Up to a point. While your supervisor probably has a reasonably good understanding of your project, it is unlikely (particularly in the social sciences) that he or she will be an expert on every particular detail of what you’re researching. That’s the bad news – and can come as a bit of a shock. The good news is that you can – and should – find guidance elsewhere. If, for example, your supervisor doesn’t know very much about the particular methodology you’re interested in using, find someone who is and ask for technical support.

Which leads me to point two – supervisors are very, very busy people. Time is one of their most valuable resources. And time they allocate to you is time they can’t spend preparing lectures, writing papers, or working on their own (perhaps neglected) research. This is true of the people you call on for ‘tech support’ as well. The good news is that you can often earn ‘brownie points’ by demonstrating that you respect the various demands on your supervisor’s time. If you expect too much from your supervisor or ‘tech support’, the relationship is likely to deteriorate. If, on the other hand, you keep your requests short and to the point, your supervisor will likely be able to find the time you need and may even welcome the distraction. This is particularly true of ‘tech support’. In my experience, even very busy people are generally happy to find an hour or two to answer a few specific questions.

Your supervisor is not your therapist, your life coach or your publicist. Hopefully your supervisor is a nice person and will offer encouragement when you need it most. Hopefully he or she will think of your research when an email about a relevant conference passes briefly before their eyes. But…sometimes these things just don’t happen. At the end of the day, it is your own responsibility to find out about how to start publishing, seek out the most relevant conferences, and manage your own expectations. The good news is that there are many places you can find support. Other PhD students are an excellent place to start. Next, investigate your university’s post-graduate training opportunities and sign up to the mailing lists of relevant professional organizations.

In the end, no one else cares as much about your research as you do. It is up to you – and you alone – to make sure that you get the academic/psychological/ methodological/technical/professional support you need. Sometimes this support will come from your supervisor. Often it will come from elsewhere. The good news is that once you take responsibility for your own research, you start to realize that the real world isn’t quite so bad after all.

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One response to “PhD Supervision – A reality check…and some good news

  1. Pingback: Another Perspective on What Makes a Good PhD Proposal | One Hundred Thousand Words

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