This year, my third PhD student will graduate and – to happy-dance quite a bit – will receive the Chancellor’s Medal as well. Each graduation has been so exciting. My three PhD students are extraordinary and being part of their projects, helping in whatever way I could, has been an incredible experience over the last few years.
It’s been all the more exciting because I’m only five years out of a PhD myself. I started supervising about six months after graduating and have been learning the ropes ever since. But when I was first asked to be a co-supervisor on a PhD, I was a little concerned. I was coming on to replace someone much more experienced than I was who leaving because of health reasons. I felt like an interloper at first – a fraud – an imposter. How on earth could I possibly supervise anyone when my own PhD had, at times, felt like a mission impossible through a jungle (http://www.thatspaceinbetween.com/the-art-of-becoming-a-doctor/)? I knew there were so many things I could have done differently, looking back with all the hindsight in the world. I didn’t feel qualified enough at all to be a PhD supervisor by mere virtue of having simply survived one.
But, as with everything in academia, supervision is a process you can learn, a skill to be strengthened while you’re doing it. We grow as supervisors – in confidence and capacity – just as we grow as writers and researchers.
So, here are the three most useful things I’ve learned during my supervision journey.
1. The principal supervisor can be a mentor to you as well.
The thing here is that I was incredibly lucky: the mentor I was blessed enough to find when I started my Postdoc was also the primary supervisor for the students I co-supervised. I learned everything I could from her and still do. I learned how to work with the ebb and flow of a student’s project over the course of a few years, how many drafts to read and when, and how to do all the admin for the different stages. A lot of nuts and bolts go into making a thesis into ‘Dr’.
2. Work to your strengths.
My mentor has this brilliant mind for planning a strategic big picture. She knows the ropes so well that she can identify where guidance might be needed, and how to avoid some storms. Me – I was the supervisor who provided tea and sympathy on a fortnightly basis to students – less formal supervision to make sure they were travelling well. I’m good at detail as well – the small editing details and flow. Together, we made a really strong team. Supervision is teamwork – you don’t have to do it alone, so identify your strengths within the team and work to them.
3. This is not your PhD.
Repeat: this is not your PhD – it is your student’s PhD. At the end of the day, this is a project that they will be working on in the wee hours of the morning, carrying around with them all the time. You won’t be – you did that with your own PhD. Students need to feel comfortable and confident in their work – feel empowered that it is theirs – and this means that your advice may not always be taken up, especially at the later stages. What works for you, and the way that you would do their project, may simply not be relevant or appropriate for your student. Unless decisions put a student’s candidature at risk, or puts the project at risk, sometimes it’s better to take a breath and trust them. More often than not, it will be the right decision.
I’m an absolute believer in the fact that PhDs may be hard but they shouldn’t break you. As supervisors, we play a really important role in not only our students graduating, but also in our students graduating as well as can be. A lot has been written about the potential toxic culture in academia but, as new supervisors, we have the opportunity to create a new, empowering culture with our students that can lead the next generation in the right direction.
If you like this post about being a supervisor then you might also enjoy a dip into materials from the “How to Survive your PhD” MOOC, from last year.