A Field-Guide to Supervisors Tame and Wild

NEW POST | Thomas Bray

The world of academia is much like a zoo: there is a lot of pointing, the lay-out is super confusing, and at the end they give you a silly hat. In this zoological ivory tower, however, there is one species which is odder even than the graduate student: the supervisor. If you are to make it out alive and with all limbs still firmly attached, then you’ll need to learn the ways of the wild supervisor, so here follows a handy guide to the different forms which these baffling beasts can take.


Wise beyond compare, and has not forgotten a single anecdote from their decades in academia. Throw barbed comments at them, and they will simply bounce off their incredibly thick skin. When they see other elephants, they tend to trumpet without making any great sense. They have an inexplicably endless supply of peanuts. They have been known to paint, with varying degrees of success. Get too close, and you risk being impaled by a tusk constructed of dusty books and grant applications. The arrival of the REF means that they are in danger of extinction.


‘Did we have a meeting planned…?’, they begin to ask, whilst clearly wondering who exactly this strange new presence in their office might be, their mouth forming silent ‘o’s. These supervisors listen with an eager ear, and then lose your valuable words in the scales of their brilliant mind. When you can keep them on track, they are good as gold, able to see well beyond the veritable glass-bowl of a paradigm in which you are working. Doing this, however, is difficult. They may or may not live in a miniature castle. They are only seldom given as prizes at funfairs.

Siamese Cat

Sleek and regal, this supervisor oozes class and sophistication. Oddly enough, however, you have never seen them do anything more arduous than drink some milk from a porcelain cup. They have eschewed the conventional chairs in their office in favour of a large sofa, upon which they stretch out to direct the activities of their students. They also have a sizeable mirror in front of which they groom themselves. Siamese Cats are forever asking you to submit a chapter, and then sending it back with a worryingly small number of comments and asking you to submit another copy. This continues for a number of months, and you are never sure what they want. Attempts to stroke their glossy tail will only result in scratches. A minor career in television means that the Internet is in love with your supervisor, and people regularly post photos of them with badly-spelt captions. In a moment of desperation, you once sent them an email asking, ‘Cn i hz pHd nw?!!111!!!??’, but they neither lol-ed nor spoke to you ever again.


‘Are you working?’ … ‘I said, ARE YOU WORKING?!?’ You’ll never see them coming: these supervisors are content to hover above your head, waiting for the slightest mistake, ready to swoop down and flex their talons. Divert their attention with some easy prey i.e. an undergraduate. It can get pretty messy, but at least they’re organic. The hawk is a solitary creature, often admired for its finely-groomed visage. They can spot inactivity from a distance of two continents. Use emails to counteract this, as they are strangely confused by electricity.


Serene, forever at peace with themselves and their discipline, they are fond of lying back in their chairs with one leg tucked beneath them and their fingers folded to make digital tents. Sometimes they emit an ultra-low humming sound audible only to nearby pets. Should one of the more vicious members of the department appear, however, they are liable to take flight in search of a safer perch, maybe somewhere in South America where they are contactable only by smoke signals. Entice them back with fishy schedules of completion.

Jack Russell Terrier

While not exactly lying on the floor, salivating over the carpet, and wagging their tiny tails, there is no mistaking the fact that this supervisor flat-out loves you, loves your project, in fact, loves just everything about academia. Throw a scholarly stick, and they will jump out of the window to retrieve it. DO NOT GIVE THEM COFFEE OR CHOCOLATE!!! They are always suggesting that you ‘walk them through your latest ideas’. If you see them outside of the office, do not attempt to run away, as they will nip at your heels in a mistaken act of affection. Do not pretend that you are hiding something from them, since this is usually followed by excessive saliva. Can be messy.


Impossible to find, you know that they are somewhere in the building, maybe lying dormant in the carpets, but no-one has seen them in weeks. Nevertheless, the emails from them slowly stack up, until you find yourself itching to do some work and get them out of your hair. At conferences they sit in the middle of the audience undetected, only to hop up at the end with a volley of awkward questions. Not to be confused with the bassist from the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, although you have heard a rumour that they can perform a mean solo on the accordion. Fleas are keen on co-supervising with other, furrier members of the faculty.


Your supervisor is mastering the rudiments of tools – good for them! They are also keen on throwing their own books at people – not so good! These supervisors are always on the move, and are keenly social. They can often be found in the staffroom searching through the manuscripts of their junior colleagues, picking out any imperfections. Their constant laughter was at first endearing, but has since become annoying. Sometimes you think that they are really just like you, but you sense that in fact you only share a common ancestor – the eager Master’s student. The ability of the monkey to rapidly ascend the greasy pole of academia is staggering. Whenever you try to disagree with them, they cut you off by going, ‘Ooh ooh, ah ah!’. You can bribe them with bananas, nuts, and PG Tips.

Honey Badger

Seriously, what were you thinking?!? Do not approach them. Do not offer them drafts. Do not ask for approval. Honey Badger just takes what it wants…

So, there we have it, just a few examples. These are only illustrative, so please feel free to add your own beastly experiences of the supervisor. Do you work with a blue whale? Are you reminded at every meeting of a praying mantis? Or perhaps they have the venom of a snake? Remember, knowledge is power out in the merciless mazes of the Academy. Good luck with your zoological endeavours.

Oh, okay, one more.


They may appear nonchalant and easy-going, but be assured, under the surface, their little feet are manically flapping in a maelstrom of grant applications, marking, and performance-art-esque lectures. You can entice them towards you with that old mainstay of workshops and conferences: slightly stale bread. Occasionally you see them in the presence of other ducks, and then their quacking can be heard throughout the lab, right down the hallways to the library. In the colder months they sometimes get confused by the transformation of water to ice, and make slightly embarrassing crash landings. At least they are not geese, which are similar to ducks but with an even greater output of insalubrious material.

Photo Credit: Jon Ross/CreativeCommons

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