10 Truths a PhD Supervisor will Never Tell You


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A PhD Supervisor guides the student for the preparation of your research studies, to complete the research record. There are some important dos and don’ts to bear in mind when choosing someone to oversee your doctoral thesis as follows:

1. The key predictor of a supervisor’s ability to guide a postgraduate to completion is a good record of having done so

Ensure that at least one member of your supervisory team is a very experienced supervisor. Anyone can be appointed to supervise. Very few have the ability, persistence, vision, respect and doggedness to move a diversity of students through the examination process. Ensure that the department and university you are considering assign supervisors on the basis of intellectual ability rather than available workload.

Supervising students to completion is incredibly difficult. The final few months require complete commitment from both supervisor and postgraduate. Make sure that you are being guided by a supervisor who understands the nature of effective supervision and has proved it through successful completions.

2. You choose the supervisor. Do not let the institution overrule your choice

As a postgraduate who is about to dedicate three or four years to an institution, you have the right to select a supervisor with whom you feel comfortable. Yet increasingly, as the postgraduate bureaucracy in universities increases, administrators and managers “match” a prospective candidate with a supervisor.

Do not let this happen. Do research on the available staff. Talk directly with individual academics. Ascertain their willingness to supervise you, and then inform the graduate centre or faculty graduate administrators of their commitment.

3. Stars are attractive but may be distant. Pick a well-regarded supervisor who does not spend too much time away

It may seem a tough, unusual or impossible task to find a supervisor who has a strong profile but rarely goes away on research leave or disappears to attend conferences. Postgraduates need to be supervised by people with an international reputation whose name carries weight when they write references.

But they must not be jet-setting professors, frequently leaving the campus and missing supervisory meetings to advance their own career. They must be established and well known, but available to supervise you rather than continually declining your requests for meetings because they are travelling to Oslo, Luanda or Hong Kong.

4. Bureaucratic immunity is vital. Look for a supervisor who will protect you from ‘the system’

There is an excessive amount of university doctoral administration. It is understood that the value in checking the ethical expenditure of public money; a programme of study submitted in the first year and an annual progress report through the candidature will accomplish this task.

Every moment a student is filling in a form is one less moment they are reading a book or article, or writing a key page in their doctorate. Time is finite. Bureaucracy is infinite. A good supervisor will protect you from the excesses of supervisory administration.

The irony of many graduate centres is that they initiate incredibly high demands on students and supervisors yet are incredibly lax during crucial periods of the candidature when a rapid administrative response is required. Some of the postgraduates had to wait 16 months for a decision on her doctorate. Two examiners had returned timely reports and passed with minor corrections.

A good supervisor must be an advocate for the postgraduate through the increasingly bureaucratised doctoral candidature.

5. Byline bandits abound. Study a potential supervisor’s work

Does your prospective supervisor write with PhD students? Good. Do they write almost exclusively with their PhD students? Not so good, in fact, alarm bells should start ringing. Supervision is a partnership. If your prospective supervisor appears to be adding his or her name to students’ publications and writing very little independently, be concerned. Some supervisors claim co-authorship of every publication written during the candidature. Do not think that this is right, assumed, proper or the default setting. The authorship of papers should be discussed.

It is important that every postgraduate finishes the candidature with as many publications as possible. Ask supervisors how they will enhance and facilitate your research and publishing career. Remember, you are a PhD student. Your supervisor should assist you to become an independent scholar, not make you into their unpaid research assistant.

6. Be wary of co-supervisors

Most institutions insist on at least two supervisors for every student. This system was introduced not for scholarly reasons but to allay administrative fears. There is a concern that a supervisor might leave the institution, stranding the student, or that the supervisor and student might have a disagreement, again leaving the student without support.

Certainly there are many occasions where a coâ??supervisor is incredibly valuable, but this must be determined by their research contribution to the topic rather than by institutional convenience.

At times, an inexperienced co-supervisor is added to a team to gain “experience”. That is, perhaps, understandable. But damage can be done to students through bad advice. Before the senior co-supervisor had been informed, this prospective external examiner had been approached and had agreed, and the paperwork had been submitted.

A strong relationship with a well-qualified, experienced and committed supervisor will ensure that the postgraduate will produce a strong thesis with minimum delay.

7. A supervisor who is active in the area of your doctorate can help to turbocharge your work

Occasionally students select a “name” rather than a “name in the field”. The appropriateness of a supervisor’s field of research is critical because it can save you considerable time. Supervisors who are reading, thinking and writing in the field can locate a gap in your scholarly literature and at speed provide you with five names to lift that section. A generalist will not be able to provide this service.

As the length of candidatures or more precisely the financial support for candidatures shrinks and three years becomes the goal, your supervisor can save you time through sharing not only their experience but also their expertise.

8. A candidature that involves teaching can help to get a career off the ground

In Australia, teaching with your supervisor is often the default pattern, and it is a good one. In the UK, tutoring is less likely to emerge because of budgetary restraints. But a postgraduate who does not teach through the candidature is unprepared to assume a full-time teaching post. Many doctoral candidates are already academics and are returning to study. Others work in a diversity of professions and have no intention of taking a job in a university.

Therefore, this “truth” is not relevant. But for those seeking a career in academia who intend to use the doctorate as a springboard, teaching experience is crucial. A postgraduate may see themselves as a serious researcher. But it is teaching that will get them their first post (and probably their second and third).

The ultimate supervisor is also an outstanding teacher who will train their postgraduates in writing curricula, managing assessment and creating innovative learning moments in a classroom. None of these skills is required for or developed by a doctorate. You can be supervised well without these teaching experiences. However, if you have a choice, select the supervisor who can “add value” to your candidature.

9. Weekly supervisory meetings are the best pattern

There are two realities of candidature management. First, the longer the candidature, the less likely you are to finish. Second, a postgraduate who suspends from a candidature is less likely to submit a doctorate.

The key attribute of students who finish is that they are passionately connected to their thesis and remain engaged with their research and their supervisor.

There are reasons for this. Some postgraduates lack time-management skills and would prefer to be partying, facebooking or tweeting, rather than reading, thinking and writing. If students know that written work is expected each week, and they have to sit in an office with a supervisor who is evaluating their work, that stress creates productive writing and research.

So if a meeting is held on a Thursday, then on Tuesday a student panics and does some work. Yet if meetings are fortnightly, this stress-based productivity is halved. It is better to provide a tight accountability structure for students. Weekly meetings accomplish this task.

10. Invest your trust only in decent and reliable people who will repay it, not betray it

This truth may seem self-evident. But supervisors, like all academics are people first. If the prospective supervisor needs a personality replacement, lacks the life skills to manage a trip to the supermarket or requires electronic tagging so that he (or she) does not sleep with the spouses of colleagues, then make another choice. Supervisors should be functional humans. They can be and should be quirky, imaginative and original. That non-standard thinking will assist your project.

But if there is a whiff of social or sexual impropriety, or if there are challenges with personal hygiene, back away in a hurry. At times during your candidature you will have to rely on this person. You will be sobbing in their office. You will need to lean on them. You must have the belief that they can help you through a crisis and not manipulate you during a moment of vulnerability.

The key truth and guiding principle is evident

Do not select a supervisor who needs you more than you need him or her. Gather information. Arm yourself with these 10 truths. Ask questions. Make a choice with insight, rather than respond with gratitude to the offer of a place or supervision.

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