Community Acuity (15): Learning to supervise – the never-ending story!

This is a guest post from Dr Candice Majewski, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Sheffield @CandiceMajewski

Let’s be honest, the first time supervising a PhD student can be a little terrifying. The vast majority of us have only done one PhD before, which isn’t exactly a huge amount of experience to draw from. There’s also that sudden realisation that, aside from the student themselves, you’re the person who can make the most difference to their chance of success. You look around for the nearest responsible adult and then realise you’re now officially that person.

Of course, if you’re at this point, the good news is you’re not the first person in this position! Many, many, people before you have navigated the process of becoming a supervisor, and the vast majority have survived this process without any major mishaps. 

Now, it’s fairly well-accepted that a PhD thesis never ends. There’s always something else a student could do (one more piece of data, one more experiment or model refinement, or re-writing that section for the umpteenth time), and the process of developing as a supervisor is pretty much the same. There’s always something more to learn, something you could do better, or a new situation to navigate. I’m currently waiting to hear the thoughts of one of my mentees, who has just observed one of my one-on-one PhD meetings, and I’m sure she’ll mention things I’ve not thought about before.

Having said that, there are a few things I’ve personally found really useful as I’ve navigated the supervisory journey. 

Working together

I was lucky in that my first two PhD supervisions were as co-supervisor, which made the transition much easier. I knew I brought something useful to the table, but ultimately I wasn’t theperson. Seeing those students successfully complete their PhDs made me much more confident when I started taking on students as first supervisor. Even if you’re not yet in a position to become an official co-supervisor, it’s worth talking to some trusted colleagues. Perhaps they might allow you to sit in on some of their supervision meetings (with permission from the student), take on some responsibility for overseeing specific aspects of a student’s work, or let you get involved in some other way. Any experience you can get, however small, can be invaluable when you start supervising formally. See Sheffield’s Associate Supervisor development framework.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that you can’t be (and aren’t expected to be) an expert in everything. Co-supervising with a colleague can also be a great way of diversifying your research by combining your areas of expertise. Coming from a very manufacturing-focused background, I’ve gained a great deal from working with colleagues in areas as diverse as Bayesian statistics, thermal modelling and micro-biology! 

Developing the relationship

The PhD student-supervisor relationship is, in many ways, one of the most intimate relationships we encounter in academia; this means it’s important to manage it effectively. Different people have different motivations, boundaries, and ways of dealing with different experiences, and this can make a difference to how we supervise. 

Making sure you’re upfront about things from the start is a crucial part of this. Do you expect your students to work certain hours? How do you prefer to communicate with them? What sort of timescales can they expect when asking you to review they’re written work? Is there flexibility in the project direction, or is it set in stone?

If there is anything that’s non-negotiable, discuss it with the student before even offering them a PhD position. Equally, how does the student prefer to work? Is there anything they need from you in order to make their PhD an enjoyable and rewarding experience?

Cultural differences can also play a big part and being aware of this can really help things run smoothly. Depending on their background a student may or may not be confident in questioning you, offering up their own ideas, or reminding you that you’ve forgotten to do something you promised to do! I’ve found relatively simple things can help; telling a student when to chase you (‘I’ll get this back to you by next Thursday, but if for any reason you don’t hear from me please remind me’), or making it explicitly clear that they are always welcome to question you if they have another (or better!) idea! It can sometimes take a while for the student to get used to a new way of doing things, and they may need to test the water slowly at first, but with a bit of patience you should find you can help bring out the best in them.

Friend or foe?

It’s also worth thinking about the level of formality/informality you prefer with your PhD students. For me I much prefer a more friendly and informal relationship, partly because that’s how I prefer to work in general. I also think that can really help when things get tough; if your students know you as a person, they’re perhaps that bit more likely to come to you when they’re struggling with something. You may need to get tough with them at certain points, but if they know you’re on their side even this can be a relatively smooth process most of the time.

Honesty helps here too. Talking about the things you struggle with (for me the top one is those awful two hour unstructured ‘networking’ sessions you often get at conferences) can make it easier for someone to admit to the things they find difficult. You may then choose to gently push them outside of their comfort zone, but understanding how they’re feeling about it will help with this too.

Talking about things you’re doing or interested in outside of work is a good way of showing your students that you want them to have a life outside of the office/lab, and hopefully shows that you understand that other things are important too. Hopefully that can help avoid students feeling like they should be working 16-hour days and only leaving the building to go home and sleep! 

Of course, each of us, and each of our students, is an individual, with different levels of comfort with different ways of working. Whatever the specific ways in which you manage your supervisory relationships (these will differ by supervisor but may also vary between your own students), perhaps the most important thing is to cultivate a situation where they know they can come and talk to you when they need to, and that you’ve always got their back if needed.

None of this is an absolute guarantee that your student will succeed, but it’s at least a good foundation to start from; hopefully it pays off when you get to proudly watch them collect their certificate on Graduation Day!

With one of my most recent PhD graduates, Dr Charis Bronze