The week of supervision

Supervision is one of the most important aspect of a PhD. How you make it through the woods of the doctoral canditure depends so much on the company you keep along the way.

Ideally, a supervisor should hold your hand at first, providing you sustanance (in the form of papers to read and suggestions) and support to get you started. Little by little, the supervisor should let you wander on your own, make your own mistakes and learn from your experiences, but still be there to help and provide timely advice.

By the end, you need to be able to let go, strong enough to direct yourself, and ultimately make your way out of the woods on your own.

In a perfect world, I think, you wouldn’t have just one supervisor, but a team of supporters. It takes a village to raise a child after all.

You need at least one team member who knows a lot about your research field and another who has time to read your work.

An extra member needs to be around to help you with all the stupid questions you have about how to plot graphs/download data/apply for grants, someone has to constantly believe that you can do it, and a final teammate should be around to get drunk with or cry to.

If you have all of these qualities around you, whether its in 3 people or 50, I believe you will make it through the woods OK.

IntoTheWoods
Anything can happen in the woods…except for making the Disney version of this musical any good.

As a baby postdoc with very little practise in helping other PhD students, everything I know about supervision I learnt from my own experience. All of the good things my supervisors gave me, like detailed on time feedback and regular meetings, I tucked away in my brain to remember to do when I became a supervisor. All of the bad things, like cruel feedback techniques, or unprofessional behaviour, I quietly vowed never to repeat when my time came.

This week I took part in a training course for supervisors, to put my experience and “PhD=woods, supervision=village” theory into perspective. The course was run by a German social science professor, and attended by researchers from many different faculties, including Art History, Chemistry, Social Psychology and Medicine. Although the lectures were interesting, it was the interactive sessions with these researchers that opened my eyes to how hard supervising can be.

Most of the issues and concerns from the attendees were similar, even though they came from many disciplines. Many wanted to know how to spot warning signs in their students, or to learn how to manage expectations and motivation. Some supervisors had students overseas, and were keen to figure out how to manage that distance, while others had problems with co-supervisors.

It was also a real surprise to know that Australia and the UK are leading the way in how to best supervise PhD students. The standard practise that I know, including regular meetings, annual progress reviews, detailed handbooks on what to expect as a student and a supervisor, and the development of a research plan are apparently not very common in Europe.

The idea of the old, untouchable, PhD Comics supervisor is dying we were told. Supervisors need to listen to their students, not simply tell them what to do, and support them both intellectually and emotionally, not only as students but as future brilliant minds.

But this is a very difficult line to walk on. It’s hard providing support but still keeping some personal boundaries, being emotionally connected while delivering difficult feedback when required. To be honest I’m not sure I’m up to the challenge just yet! After this week though, I do feel like I have a small map of the woods, which might be useful for my PhD colleagues.

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