Celebrating failure and other advice for PhD supervisors

PhD researchers should be given space to work independently, share their results and test their own limits with the support of supervisors who see them as people first and scientists second, explains Hannah Cloke

Hannah Cloke's avatar
University of Reading
28 Nov 2023
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Ten platinum rules for PhD supervisors
8 minute read
Illustration of heads with lightbulb and leaves, mentorship

Key Details

This video covers:

01:53 What is my model of PhD supervision?

02:53 The best thing a PhD supervisor can do for researchers

03:15 Why supervisors should celebrate failure


My name is Hannah Cloke and I’m a hydrologist, which means that I study water and rivers and floods, and I use environmental models to predict the future to forecast upcoming floods and provide early warnings to help people prepare.

And I’m lucky that, as a scientist, I’ve been able to expand my horizons into different areas of environment modelling, and so now I don’t just investigate how rivers work, I get to explore and predict other environmental hazards, such as heatwaves, like the record-breaking heatwaves that we had across Europe in 2022 and 2023, tropical cyclones like cyclones Idai and Kenneth, which battered Mozambique back in 2019, and other impacts and influences of climate change, including how we adapt our communities, our businesses and our services to cope with the uncharted territory of a warmer and more chaotic climate.

But there’s no way I could have done all of this on my own. As anyone who understands research knows, the true lifeblood of research, the beating heart of science, are those people undertaking doctoral research, the PhD researchers.

And all my work, the fieldwork, the discoveries, the outreach, the teaching, it’s all only been possible because of a fabulous team of PhD researchers. And I’ve been really, really lucky to have had the most incredible group of people over 20 years, who all have a real passion for science and discovery and infectious enthusiasm for our subject.

And it’s these PhD researchers who are at the forefront of the investigation into the physics, the models, the satellite data, the people and the policy of environmental hazards.

Of course, PhD study requires PhD supervision, and there are as many models of being a PhD supervisor as there are PhD researchers. So, what’s my model?

Well, of course, the minimum job is to oversee the quality of a researcher’s work and help guide their project to a successful conclusion. But, really, being a PhD supervisor is not just about overseeing research, and when I talk to my PhD researchers it’s clear that that’s not actually what they want, because what they want is for someone to walk beside them, and not just in research supervision, as they launch their careers in research, business or government.

And a career in research or otherwise cannot and should not be about banging out published papers. It’s really about making a difference in the world – and to really make a difference, you have to develop a whole range of skills, not just flex your scientific muscles.

A PhD is probably the most intense few years of your life, and the best thing a supervisor can do is to create the space to allow researchers to develop their confidence, to allow them to try new things – whether that’s hopping disciplines, going on placements, talking to journalists or advising governments – to allow them to find new ways to express their science and find new audiences and ways of reaching them, like through poetry or art or music.

And, most importantly, they have to have the space to fail. Failure is the most important route to test the limits of what’s possible, and we should celebrate our efforts as much as our successes.

But that’s a very, very scary proposition for some PhD researchers, so a PhD supervisor needs to be with them every step of the way on their journey and to share in their failures as much as their triumphs.

I think PhD research has really benefited from that approach. But I also think that science benefits, too. And we see time after time that the public and policymakers benefit from close proximity to scientists.

And I think we all benefit by ensuring that those scientists are the people actually doing the research. And it’s no secret that the senior positions in universities and research are more often than not held by a tiny, elite group of old white men – and, frankly, that’s dangerous.

So why not put our PhD researchers forward and support them to take the credit for their own work? PhD researchers are not free labour; they are colleagues who should be treated with respect, and they should be able to guide their own destiny. And what’s really important to remember is that, like all colleagues in research, they are scientists second and people first. It’s impossible to separate out the person from the researcher; they come as a package. And everyone has their own path.

As a PhD supervisor, I’m not always great. I mix up people’s projects, I’m sometimes grumpy, I have to cancel meetings and I’m late with comments on papers.

But luckily I don’t work alone. I always work in a team of wonderful co-supervisors, whose expertise and enthusiasm far exceed my own. And I know that we have an approach that aims to put our PhD researchers first and aims to listen to them and aims to help them fly wherever they might want to go.

Hannah Cloke is a professor of hydrology in the departments of geography and environmental science, and meteorology at the University of Reading. She received an OBE after being named on the 2019 Queen’s birthday honours list for services to flood forecasting and the development of hazard early-warning systems.

Hannah has been shortlisted in the Outstanding Research Supervisor of the Year category in the Times Higher Education Awards 2023 #THEAwards. See a full shortlist of THE Awards nominees. The awards will be presented at a ceremony in Liverpool on 7 December.

Academics and university leaders from across the UK and Ireland will come together on 6-7 December at THE Campus Live UK&IE to talk about institutional strategies, teaching and learning, the student experience and more. Join us for this two-day event in Liverpool.

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