Advice Squad

Times Higher Education, March 27, 2014 | Go to article overview

Advice Squad


PhD supervisors range from excellent to abysmal. Five academics talk about the advisers they had as postgraduates and how their experience affects the way they mentor now

When a PhD supervision session constitutes just another blocked-out hour in a besieged diary, it can be all too easy to forget that it could make an impression that stays with the student for the rest of their research career.

We asked five academics for their recollections of the PhD supervision they received, and the way it had informed their own approach to tutoring. Three had enjoyed excellent supervision that had deeply influenced their own practice. But two had not. One recalls exchanges with their tutor characterised by yawns and silences, while another was treated with a "cutting harshness", valuable only as an exemplar of how not to conduct yourself.

The fact that both unfortunate tutees went on to have successful careers - albeit, in the former's case, largely thanks to a second reader - suggests that sympathetic PhD supervision is not an absolute prerequisite for future academic success. But it is surely important. So what characterises it?

According to one highly experienced supervisor, good supervision is like good parenting: you have to be "tough and clear", as well as "kind and generous".

Another contributor suggests good supervisors must have "great curiosity and even greater responsibility", while a third suggests a certain virtuosity with the F-word can also be an asset.

But the most important piece of advice for supervisors must surely be that if you see a fire extinguisher flying from your tutee's hand towards your head, be sure to duck.

I was stubborn and insensitive, but he never stopped supporting me

The relationship between PhD student and supervisor can be complex. A colleague of mine chased his supervisor out of the laboratory and then hurled a fire extinguisher at him. Fortunately it missed. Another was left entirely on his own while his supervisor did fieldwork in Tonga. My experiences fall somewhere between these extremes of interaction.

I started my PhD in 1980 and it has taken me until now to understand how the interaction with my supervisor has shaped so much of my career. I began with almost no understanding of what was expected or required, merely possessing a puppy-like enthusiasm, a passion for research and a determined disposition. By contrast, my supervisor was one of the great biologists of his generation, focused, determined, experienced and unimaginably busy. He had built a major research group at the cutting edge of his discipline. At the age of 21, the significance of all this made little impression on me.

Communication between us was not always easy, not least because I did not know how to listen. At one point I was told that I "must stop" a set of experiments. My response was to put the equipment on a trolley, wheel the set-up into different rooms and undertake the research surreptitiously at night. I did this for six months and the experiments failed. My supervisor had been right and I had been wrong, but he had used the word "must". I still dislike being told what to do, but this experience taught me that automatically doing the complete opposite is not always an intelligent response.

There were many other awkward incidents. Memorably, I salvaged a beautiful oak professorial desk that had languished in pieces in the department storeroom. I assembled it and moved it into the communal office, for which I was branded by my supervisor as trying to be self-important. For me, it was purely an aesthetic issue, as my 1960s metal-frame desk did not appeal, and I responded to the criticism with forthright Anglo-Saxon expletives. I appreciate now why a PhD student with an oak roll-top professorial desk may cause irritation among the group. But at the time I simply did not understand the fuss or sensitivities. …

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