5 tips for great supervision

If somebody asked me what I liked the most about doing a PhD in my Centre, I would probably say – the supervision. I’ve never met my supervisor before our first meeting and was admittedly a bit weary: what if we don’t get along, what if they don’t like me… Luckily, all my fears were swept away and I soon learnt how to get the most out of our meetings.

  1. Get to know each other

You probably know quite a lot about your supervisor’s research, but it’s also useful to learn more about their working habits and preferences.  Are they a morning person or cannot function well before noon? Do they thrive in digital tools or prefer pen and paper, are they highly organised and tidy or more prone to creative mess? And what about yourself? There is no need to share overly personal details, but knowing how the other person works and thinks will help you communicate and work together more efficiently.

  1. Agree on a system

Some departments have the supervision process highly regulated, while others are more flexible, but normally it’s up to the supervisor and the student to decide what is the best for them. Working out the optimal frequency of your meetings and preferred mode of communication is very important and this is something you should discuss quite early. For example, I know that my supervisor is very busy and I do not expect her to respond immediately, but if there is something I need help with quickly, we agreed that I’d I put URGENT in the email subject to make sure the reply promptly.

  1. Plan it

It is good to have at least a tentative plan of what you want to do in a supervision meeting and what you hope to achieve by the end of it. Emailing an agenda beforehand or just agreeing on it at the beginning of the meeting will help you make the most of your time. Don’t get me wrong, I could chat with my supervisor for hours on a great number of topics, from the articles I didn’t really understand to  bus delays and anecdotes from my jobs, but that wouldn’t really help with my research, would it? This way I ensure that we (read: I) stay on track and feel we have actually accomplished something.

  1. Record it

Again, you’ll need to discover what works the best for you. I find it often that it is through discussion with others, rather than reading on my own, that I develop new ideas and get better insight into some aspects of my research. However, pushing my brain to look at things in a new perspective and solve problems, doesn’t bode well with note-taking at the same time; I find it slows me down and distorts my thinking process. Therefore, following the supervisor’s suggestion, I started recording and find it really useful to go back to these files. Also, my Centre has a very formalised system of tracking every supervision meeting. While writing these records might be a nuisance at times, I think it is good to have something official to refer to, especially in cases of any problems with supervision or research progress.

  1. Communicate

I cannot emphasize enough how important this is. If there is something you’re not happy with, ranting about it to your colleagues won’t do much; instead, tell your supervisor how you feel about a particular issue. Do you need more or less meetings? Support with a particular theoretical field, methodology or tools relevant to your project? You struggle to fit in the lab? Tell them! It doesn’t mean they will wholeheartedly agree with you, but discussing it is definitely a step forward in solving the problem. Furthermore, if there is anything that’s affecting your work, make sure your supervisor is aware of this.

Supervision is a two-way street and, although it’s only human to look for faults with the other person, it might be good to ask yourself what you have done to improve the process. However, I suppose that in some cases, even if both sides are doing their best, things just don’t work out. In this case, I think it is justified to be self-centred – do put yourself first, your physical and mental health, and, finally, your thesis. If current supervision circumstances are affecting any of these negatively, do not hesitate to CHANGE IT.

What do you like or dislike about your supervision? What do you think makes a good supervision?

Let me know in the comments section.

Ana Kedveš (@anakedves)

5 thoughts on “5 tips for great supervision

  1. “Don’t find a fault, find a remedy.”, this fits perfect here. The main reason behind finding your supervisor an idiot or disliking your supervisor is the lack of communication and understanding. If both the supervisor and the researcher start understanding each other, the things could get back to normal. Hence it is very essential to find a remedy before blaming others.

  2. Supervisor is usually the guiding light for the researcher. But, the researcher fails to build this understanding because they just do not wish to edit and make changes due to the repetitive nature of review. If the researcher understands a simple philosophy “time’s definition of coal is the diamond” then their research will prove to be a breakthrough discovery.

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