This is second post in a Q&A format following recent hangout on postgraduate options on jobs.ac.uk where there wasn’t time to answer all the questions and so in the next couple of weeks I will attempt to provide my perspective as somebody who holds a PhD in sociology and works as a coach with PhD students, helping them succeed in their education and careers.
Q: Is it better to find a supervising tutor who has status in my field of study, or one that I know will be supportive and responsive to questions, even if my field isn’t their specialism?
I vividly remember the question my supervisor asked me towards the end of my PhD, as we were making preparations for the viva and choosing examiners: “do you want superstars or nice people?”. I erred towards the “nice people” end of the spectrum and haven’t regretted that choice but on reflection I think this is a question that is worth asking right at the beginning, and it’s great that you are taking the time now to reflect what you want out of your future supervisor. After all, the relationship with your supervisor is key to a successful outcome and can literally make or break your PhD. I would like to question the premise of your relationship as you seem to be assuming it is an either/or choice and you can either get a supportive supervisor or somebody who is highly respected in their field of study but not someone who meets both these criteria. Now I can tell you from my personal experience that it is possible to work with somebody who can both provide support and professional expertise and I was really lucky that my supervisor genuinely cared about me as a person and was keen to see me succeed; at the same time, she was also an expert in my chosen area. As such, I hope that you will be equally lucky and able to embark on a relationship that will work for you, with a supervisor that will create an environment where you can thrive and produce research that will result in successful award of a doctorate at the end.
So to start with I’d question your assumption that you have to choose between support and expertise and I would invite you to reflect why you think that somebody with status in your field will necessarily be unsupportive. Secondly, I would encourage you to start thinking about what having a supportive supervisor means to you. If you were to have an ideal supervisor, what qualities would they have – would you expect them be well connected in their field and perhaps create future collaboration opportunities? Would you expect them to provide emotional support during the PhD and act as your cheerleader if you happen to go through some rough periods with the writing? Do you expect your supervisor to help you secure employment after your PhD? What’s important to one person may not be important to another, it is also worth mentioning that some of these expectations may not necessarily be realistic and I would recommend listening to Tara Brabazon’s (Dean of Graduate Research and the Professor of Cultural Studies at Flinders University in Australia) excellent podcast episode on supervisory relationship to help unpick some of those assumptions.
I would also advise you to do your homework and if possible, reach out to the current students of your future potential supervisor, bearing in mind that those students may have very different needs, priorities and preferences. it’s very difficult to say which type of supervisor would be better for you without knowing more about you, your motivations for undertaking the PhD and your learning style and personal preferences – yes, it is a professional and learning relationship, but it’s also a personal one and I wish you all the best in terms of finding a supervisor that will help you on that challenging yet fascinating journey!