Counterpoints to the 10 point presentation

July 25, 2013

Most of Tara Brabazon’s 10 tips for PhD students (11 July) are sound advice, but the headline “10 truths a supervisor will never tell you” is unfair. “10 truths you need to know about supervisors” would have been better. I am sure that the problems Brabazon mentions can occur, and students should be aware of the possibility. But many supervisors provide very similar advice as a matter of routine.

I know I did, and so did most of my colleagues; as far as I know, they do still. Over 40 years I supervised about 70 MSc and 30 PhD students; I also advised many potential postgraduate candidates at open days. I told nearly all of them at least seven of Brabazon’s 10 truths, and much of this was departmental policy. I think it was fairly typical of mathematics departments. A PhD in mathematics is often very personal, whereas in other subjects the student may be part of a team, which can make some issues more troublesome.

Supervisors with a good record are, of course, generally better, but everyone has to start somewhere. That is where an experienced co-supervisor can be beneficial, contrary to the article’s advice. Stars who may neglect you should indeed be avoided; but in an active research department, most potential supervisors are very busy and travel a lot, and in a good department many are stars. Most of them do not neglect their students – many stars go out of their way to make time for their students.

In my experience, most supervisors would agree with much of what Brabazon said, and many of them do tell their students something similar. It is a pity that her own experience was less positive, but tarring all supervisors with the same brush is unjustified.

Ian Stewart
Emeritus professor of mathematics
University of Warwick


While we welcome advice to prospective postgraduates on supervisor selection, we find Tara Brabazon’s attempt to produce a universal list of “truths” both unrealistic and misleading.

As aspiring academics, we understand the importance of assessing potential supervisors, but we are also aware that each supervisor is an individual, with unique qualities that may or may not complement the needs of an individual student.

We worry that Brabazon’s rather bleak outlook on the supervisor-student relationship will confuse and concern prospective PhD students. The truth is that no supervisor will fulfil all her criteria. Even the best supervisor-student relationships require compromise on both sides. We suggest that students employ a more personal framework when choosing a supervisor and avoid simply following a list of unrealistic and inflexible rules.

Emily Glendenning, master’s student
Jamie Thompson, master’s graduate
Rebecca Bastin, first-year PhD student
University of Sheffield

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