Understanding the unwritten rules of graduate study is vital if you want to get the most from your PhD supervision
‘Doctoral students may need to think like UN peacekeepers, detectives and divorce lawyers at different points of their studies’
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Write things down or ask permission to record the conversation. There is a fair chance that something insightful will be said that you can’t quite remember – this shouldn’t be seen as a reflection on you. Other than undercover agents, few people have mastered the art of recalling every nook and cranny of a complex, free flowing conversation.
Try to accept that you simply won’t remember everything that comes up in a conversation that might start with social niceties, be diverted through shameless gossip but loiter momentarily on some key insight, or even stumble over a reference or analytical nuance that is critical to the future of your doctorate.
Don’t place the responsibility on your supervisors’ shoulders, either. They may recall the details of an obscure 1973 paper that led to a much better-known and now seminal text, but they won’t remember exactly what they said four sentences ago. Flashes of genius are rarely planned and are devilishly hard to recreate.
Your supervisor might not even have full command of their own diaries, so don’t expect them to manage yours.
Put appointments in your supervisor’s diary, not the other way around. Accept that they have other pressures on their time and that the onus is on you to be proactive enough to get meetings set sufficiently far in advance that there are blank spaces in their busy schedule. If they have a long-suffering PA, charm them, win them over and ask them nicely to populate the diary.
Expecting someone to be free at a few days’ notice might work as a one-off, but probably won’t work regularly enough to rely on as a strategy.
If things aren’t going well, the temptation will be to avoid your supervisor. Locking in a regular pattern helps to reduce the allure of such diversionary tactics.
Know how much time your supervisor expects to spend with you, and place yourself somewhere between “missing, presumed dead” and “stop stalking me”.
There may be a workload model in operation that allocates your supervisor a particular number of hours per annum for your supervision. There may also be a course handbook that sets out how many times you should meet your supervisor and what you should get feedback on at key milestones in the process. Sometimes there are mandatory obligations that relate to issues such as visas.
Beyond these practicalities, there are other expectations about the pace at which you’ll progress through the degree. When would your supervisor expect to see a complete draft of your literature review, some pilot study data, a first conference paper or poster presentation, a first journal submission and so on. Map these deliverables out early, put them into your calendar and try to stick to them.
Think like a detective
PhDs are like a complex crime scene. Gather evidence, do background checks, establish alibis, follow up leads and identify prime suspects.
During most of your supervisory sessions, things will be added to your “to-do” list. Sometimes these are explicit requests to go and find and then read particular papers, books or reports. Sometimes, however, they are implicitly raised because your supervisor will mention another academic, a body of theory, methodology or even a research group or institution. Interpret your role as researcher literally.
If these seemingly random names and places were clues in a murder mystery, how would you follow them as leads?
Take the time to do the background research and accept that some leads will be dead ends. You will need to have absolute dominion over the literature during your viva, it is as important to know why something has not made the cut as well as what is in there.
Combinations of coffee, cake, tea and sympathy might make you feel better, but they are no substitute for honest, critical feedback.
A cup of tea might be a very pleasant way to spend your regular supervisory meeting. You may even leave with the false sense of security that nothing was raised that you should worry about. While building social ties and getting to know each other is important for your supervisory relationship, what you really need are written comments on your written work.
The eventual degree is, after all, assessed based on a written thesis and a viva. A cosy set of chats is poor preparation for this. If feedback (preferably written) isn’t offered, ask for it.
Precision is important; informed critique of where your work could improve is the only thing that will drive up the standard of your research. Sometimes you will not like what you hear. Try to get past the initial hurt; hear it clearly because it is necessary.
Read More: 101 Tips for Finishing Your PhD Quickly
Follow their advice
This is probably your first PhD, but it won’t be theirs so follow their advice.
Academics are trained to give “sandwich feedback” – nice things followed by difficult messages before closing on a suitably upbeat tone. Better to get the issues ironed out early on, rather than in the viva. Don’t ignore the middle part of the sandwich, however tempting it may be to set it to one side and focus on the good news.
It really is the stuff that is inconvenient or difficult that you need to deal with. Everybody has some beloved idea or section that you might be told isn’t good enough, isn’t central to your argument or isn’t working.
Don’t cause a diplomatic incident
Beware of tensions between your first and second supervisors. Your supervisory team or PhD panel may be lifelong friends and co-authors.
Alternatively, your project might be the first thing that they’ve worked on together. Worse still, your project might represent an attempt to broker a peace deal or foster collaboration between previously warring factions in the aftermath of some messy academic restructuring exercise.
Be sensitive to the mood music; if you have more than one supervisor, try to keep them both on side. Insist that at least some of your supervisory sessions are joint and create an audit trail by committing to actions that flow from each supervisory meeting.
Don’t hesitate to send an email after the meeting stating what was agreed; there is a fair chance that your supervisors will forget that, too. The audit trail and the occasional joint supervision session will help to minimise the risks of your becoming a pawn in some tit-for-tat point-scoring.
For anyone planning a career in academia, the chance to learn the politics of your supervision setting will develop in you a key transferable skill. Think one part divorce lawyer and one part United Nations peacekeeper.
Don’t go off grid
Radio silence is worrying. Your supervisor is responsible for your progress, and you should be worried if they are having to chase you up.
There are many reasons why a strategy of running away or going into witness protection can seem the right thing to do. Perhaps you’re finding the lack of feedback frustrating. Perhaps your frustrations are being generated by the regular appearance of blunt feedback.
It is only human nature to find excuses when you’ve not been doing the work. “The dog ate my homework” works once. Missed meetings, late submissions and games of email or voicemail tag are signs that something is wrong.
Stay in touch, respond when asked, turn up when invited. It generally ends badly to do otherwise.
If there are major things going on in your life (bereavements, long-term illnesses, births, marriages, divorces and the like), talk to your supervisors. They do care about you and your progress. They will likely help you with extensions or even extra funding if they know what is going on. If you have disappeared for a period of time, it is never too late to drop them an email and get back in touch. They will be relieved to hear from you, and forgiveness is usually readily available.
Speak up when you don’t understand something, don’t agree with something or can’t see yourself being able to do something.
Supervisors can seem intimidating; get to know them and you will find they are not really that bad. They often have years of experience that they draw upon; they’ll often use jargon, refer to concepts or name-check individuals with a cheery “of course, you’ll have come across [insert unknown name/fact/book/etc] won’t you?” Resist the temptation to nod politely. Stop and ask for details, get a reference or a weblink. Don’t move on until you are confident that you know what you don’t know.
Your supervisor(s) will get over the momentary hiccup faster than you. Moreover, they will admire the honesty and gumption that it took to admit that you don’t know what they’re talking about.
Know when it’s not working
Supervisory relationships sometimes suffer an irretrievable breakdown. Be patient, but recognise when all reasonable steps have been exhausted.
In an ideal world, your supervisor and you will strike up a great working relationship that lasts a career. You might end up collaborating with them for years post-PhD; you might end up working for them or asking for a reference.
However, like all other relationships, supervision can sometimes break down. There may be good reasons for the breakdown, your thesis might have changed direction, you might be using a different method and need a different skill set, or your supervisor might have fallen out of love with your subject area or have known little about it in the first place.
However, for all concerned, arranging a change in supervisor can be a messy process. It will create anxieties and tensions for you and your supervisor(s).
It will also require your institution to have demonstrated that all reasonable efforts to provide a functioning supervisory structure have been exhausted. There aren’t quickie divorce courts on hand. You’ll probably have to articulate what it is that you’re finding difficult, provide evidence to support your claims and be willing to make reasonable efforts to adjust or improve your current supervisory arrangements.
Of course, you have rights in this process, and you need to be an advocate for those rights. Embarking on a supervisory swap might seem attractive, especially if you are receiving negative feedback on your work.
What makes the process of changing supervisors non-trivial is the need to establish whether there has indeed been an irretrievable breakdown in relations or simply a student who doesn’t want to hear that their work isn’t progressing towards a satisfactory completion in a timely fashion.
Robert MacIntosh is head of the School of Social Sciences at Heriot-Watt University, where Kevin O’Gorman is professor of management and business history and director of internationalisation. Both regularly write about academic life on Heriot-Watt’s It’s Not You, It’s Your Data blog.
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