10 truths a PhD supervisor will never tell you

There are some important dos and don’ts to bear in mind when choosing someone to oversee your doctoral thesis, advises Tara Brabazon

July 11, 2013

My father used to tell a joke, over and over again. It was a classic outback Australian, Slim Dusty joke that – like the best dad jokes – I can’t remember. But I do recall the punchline. “Who called the cook a bastard?” To which the answer was, “Who called the bastard a cook?”

This riposte often comes to mind during discussions about doctoral supervision and candidature management. Discussions go on (and on and on) about quality, rigour, ethics and preparedness. Postgraduates are monitored, measured and ridiculed for their lack of readiness or their slow progress towards completion. But inconsistencies and problems with supervisors and supervision are marginalised. In response, I think of my father’s one-liner: Who called the supervisor a bastard? Who called the bastard a supervisor?

To my mind, I never received any satisfactory, effective or useful supervision for my doctorate, research master’s or two coursework master’s that contained sizeable dissertation components. I found the supervisors remote and odd. A couple of them tried to block the submission of the theses to my institution. Indeed, on three separate occasions in my career, academics informed me that if I submitted this thesis, it would fail. The results that followed these warnings were a master of arts passed with distinction, a master of education with first-class honours and a dean’s award, and a PhD passed without correction. I was left with the impression that these supervisors had no idea what they were doing. The worst supervisors share three unforgivable characteristics:

  1. They do not read your writing
  2. They never attend supervisory meetings
  3. They are selfish, career-obsessed bastards

I am now an experienced supervisor and examiner, but I still remember my own disappointments. For the doctoral students who follow, I want to activate and align these personal events with the candidatures I have managed since that time. Particularly, I wish to share with the next generation of academics some lessons that I have learned about supervisors.

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As a prospective PhD student, you are precious. Institutions want you – they gain funding, credibility and profile through your presence. Do not let them treat you like an inconvenient, incompetent fool. Do your research. Ask questions. Use these 10 truths to assist your decision.

Katie Edwards feature illustration (11 July 2013)

1. The key predictor of a supervisor’s ability to guide a postgraduate to completion is a good record of having done so

Ensure that at least one member of your supervisory team is a very experienced supervisor. Anyone can be appointed to supervise. Very few have the ability, persistence, vision, respect and doggedness to move a diversity of students through the examination process. Ensure that the department and university you are considering assign supervisors on the basis of intellectual ability rather than available workload. Supervising students to completion is incredibly difficult. The final few months require complete commitment from both supervisor and postgraduate. Make sure that you are being guided by a supervisor who understands the nature of effective supervision and has proved it through successful completions.

2. You choose the supervisor. Do not let the institution overrule your choice

As a postgraduate who is about to dedicate three or four years to an institution, you have the right to select a supervisor with whom you feel comfortable. Yet increasingly, as the postgraduate bureaucracy in universities increases, administrators and managers “match” a prospective candidate with a supervisor. Do not let this happen. Do research on the available staff. Talk directly with individual academics. Ascertain their willingness to supervise you, and then inform the graduate centre or faculty graduate administrators of their commitment.

3. Stars are attractive but may be distant. Pick a well-regarded supervisor who does not spend too much time away

It may seem a tough, unusual or impossible task to find a supervisor who has a strong profile but rarely goes away on research leave or disappears to attend conferences. Postgraduates need to be supervised by people with an international reputation whose name carries weight when they write references. But they must not be jet-setting professors, frequently leaving the campus and missing supervisory meetings to advance their own career. They must be established and well known, but available to supervise you rather than continually declining your requests for meetings because they are travelling to Oslo, Luanda or Hong Kong.

4. Bureaucratic immunity is vital. Look for a supervisor who will protect you from ‘the system’

There is an excessive amount of university doctoral administration. I understand and welcome the value in checking the ethical expenditure of public money; a programme of study submitted in the first year and an annual progress report through the candidature will accomplish this task. But now we have to deliver milestone reports, public confirmations of candidature sessions, biannual progress reports, annual oral presentations of research and – in some universities – complete a form that must be signed off at the conclusion of every supervisory meeting.

Every moment a student is filling in a form is one less moment they are reading a book or article, or writing a key page in their doctorate. Time is finite. Bureaucracy is infinite. A good supervisor will protect you from the excesses of supervisory administration.

The irony of many graduate centres is that they initiate incredibly high demands on students and supervisors yet are incredibly lax during crucial periods of the candidature when a rapid administrative response is required. One of my postgraduates had to wait 16 months for a decision on her doctorate. Two examiners had returned timely reports and passed with minor corrections. The third academic, however, did not examine the thesis, did not submit any paperwork and did not respond to any communications. I sent email after email – made phone call after phone call – to the graduate centre trying to facilitate a resolution to this examination. Finally, after a rather intensive period of nagging, a decision was reached to accept the two reports and no longer wait for the third. The question remains – why did the graduate centre take 16 months to make this decision? If I had not phoned and emailed administrators, would they have forgotten about this student? A good supervisor must be an advocate for the postgraduate through the increasingly bureaucratised doctoral candidature.

5. Byline bandits abound. Study a potential supervisor’s work

Does your prospective supervisor write with PhD students? Good. Do they write almost exclusively with their PhD students? Not so good – in fact, alarm bells should start ringing. Supervision is a partnership. If your prospective supervisor appears to be adding his or her name to students’ publications and writing very little independently, be concerned. Some supervisors claim co-authorship of every publication written during the candidature. Do not think that this is right, assumed, proper or the default setting. The authorship of papers should be discussed. My rule is clear: if I write it, it is mine. If you write it, it is yours. If we write it together, we share the authorship. It is important that every postgraduate finishes the candidature with as many publications as possible. Ask supervisors how they will enhance and facilitate your research and publishing career. Remember, you are a PhD student. Your supervisor should assist you to become an independent scholar, not make you into their unpaid research assistant.

Katie Edwards feature illustration (11 July 2013)

6. Be wary of co-supervisors

Most institutions insist on at least two supervisors for every student. This system was introduced not for scholarly reasons but to allay administrative fears. There is a concern that a supervisor might leave the institution, stranding the student, or that the supervisor and student might have a disagreement, again leaving the student without support.

These arguments are like grounding all aircraft because there are occasional crashes. Too often I see an academic “added” to the team to beef up his or her workload. I have been in a university meeting where research-active professors were “added” to a supervisory panel not because they were excellent supervisors (far from it) but rather because they needed to boost their profile for the research assessment exercise.

Certainly there are many occasions where a co‑supervisor is incredibly valuable, but this must be determined by their research contribution to the topic rather than by institutional convenience. I once supervised a fine thesis about Russian television. I had the expertise in television studies; a colleague held expertise in Russian studies and the Russian language. It was a great team. We met weekly as a group, with specialist meetings held with either of us as required to complete the doctorate. The candidate submitted in the minimum time.

At times, an inexperienced co-supervisor is added to a team to gain “experience”. That is, perhaps, understandable. But damage can be done to students through bad advice. I know of a disturbing case in which an inexperienced co-supervisor chose a relatively junior friend to examine a doctorate. Before the senior co-supervisor had been informed, this prospective external examiner had been approached and had agreed, and the paperwork had been submitted. Two years later, the candidate is still progressing with corrections. Each time he submits revisions that supposedly verify the concerns expressed during the oral examination, he is presented with another list because the inexperienced supervisor agreed to “corrections to the satisfaction of the examiner”. This problem was caused by an overconfident but inexperienced co-supervisor being added to the team and then going on to appoint an overconfident but inexperienced examiner.

Sometimes – in fact frequently – less is more. A strong relationship with a well-qualified, experienced and committed supervisor will ensure that the postgraduate will produce a strong thesis with minimum delay.

7. A supervisor who is active in the area of your doctorate can help to turbocharge your work

Occasionally students select a “name” rather than a “name in the field”. The appropriateness of a supervisor’s field of research is critical because it can save you considerable time. Supervisors who are reading, thinking and writing in the field can locate a gap in your scholarly literature and – at speed – provide you with five names to lift that section. A generalist will not be able to provide this service. As the length of candidatures – or more precisely the financial support for candidatures – shrinks and three years becomes the goal, your supervisor can save you time through sharing not only their experience but also their expertise.

8. A candidature that involves teaching can help to get a career off the ground

In Australia, teaching with your supervisor is often the default pattern, and it is a good one. In the UK, tutoring is less likely to emerge because of budgetary restraints. But a postgraduate who does not teach through the candidature is unprepared to assume a full-time teaching post. Many doctoral candidates are already academics and are returning to study. Others work in a diversity of professions and have no intention of taking a job in a university. Therefore, this “truth” is not relevant. But for those seeking a career in academia who intend to use the doctorate as a springboard, teaching experience is crucial. A postgraduate may see themselves as a serious researcher. But it is teaching that will get them their first post (and probably their second and third). The ultimate supervisor is also an outstanding teacher who will train their postgraduates in writing curricula, managing assessment and creating innovative learning moments in a classroom. None of these skills is required for or developed by a doctorate. You can be supervised well without these teaching experiences. However, if you have a choice, select the supervisor who can “add value” to your candidature.

One of my proudest moments emerged in a tutors’ meeting for my large first-year course at Murdoch University: creative industries. I apologised to my tutors for the hard work and low pay that was a characteristic of sessional university employment. Mike Kent – who is now Dr Mike Kent and a tenured lecturer in internet studies at Curtin University – stated that the pay was an extra. He was being trained to teach. That was the value from the process. I still think tutors should be paid more, but I valued – and value – Mike’s insight.

9. Weekly supervisory meetings are the best pattern

There are two realities of candidature management. First, the longer the candidature, the less likely you are to finish. Second, a postgraduate who suspends from a candidature is less likely to submit a doctorate.

The key attribute of students who finish is that they are passionately connected to their thesis and remain engaged with their research and their supervisor. I have always deployed weekly meetings as the best pattern for supervision to nurture this connection.

There are reasons for this. Some postgraduates lack time-management skills and would prefer to be partying, facebooking or tweeting, rather than reading, thinking and writing. If students know that written work is expected each week, and they have to sit in an office with a supervisor who is evaluating their work, that stress creates productive writing and research. So if a meeting is held on a Thursday, then on Tuesday a student panics and does some work. Yet if meetings are fortnightly, this stress-based productivity is halved. It is better to provide a tight accountability structure for students. Weekly meetings accomplish this task.

10. Invest your trust only in decent and reliable people who will repay it, not betray it

This truth may seem self-evident. But supervisors – like all academics – are people first. If the prospective supervisor needs a personality replacement, lacks the life skills to manage a trip to the supermarket or requires electronic tagging so that he (or she) does not sleep with the spouses of colleagues, then make another choice. Supervisors should be functional humans. They can be – and should be – quirky, imaginative and original. That non-standard thinking will assist your project. But if there is a whiff of social or sexual impropriety, or if there are challenges with personal hygiene, back away in a hurry. At times during your candidature you will have to rely on this person. You will be sobbing in their office. You will need to lean on them. You must have the belief that they can help you through a crisis and not manipulate you during a moment of vulnerability.

I knew a supervisor whose idea of supervision was a once-a-semester meeting in a bar where he would order three bottles of red wine and start drinking. The meeting ended when the wine finished. Another supervisor selected his postgraduates on the likelihood that the students would sleep with him. Yet another was so completely fixated by her version of feminism that all the doctorates completed under her supervision ended up looking incredibly similar. Any deviation from a particular political perspective would result in screaming matches in her office. This was not only unpleasant but destructive to the students’ careers.

The key truth and guiding principle is evident

Do not select a supervisor who needs you more than you need him or her. Gather information. Arm yourself with these 10 truths. Ask questions. Make a choice with insight, rather than respond – with gratitude – to the offer of a place or supervision.

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Reader's comments (57)

Mine's brilliant in all ways, so I am lucky!
These "truths" are very helpful - thank you Dr. Brabazon! Have only just begun a professional doctorate but am planning and thinking ahead regarding my dissertation.
A bit of a counsel of perfection but useful insights. I don't think 'complete commitment' to a PhD student is feasible or even desirable. Most supervisors have other things to do, teaching, admin., their own research and that makes them a better supervisor
Great insight
Truth number 1 would suggest that you should never be the first PhD student of a researcher. This would mean that no-one can ever start supervising PhDs. Truth 2 only applies if the studentship is not a project for which the supervisor has generated the funds (this is only true on the minority of cases). Truth 3 and 4 are almost mutually exclusive. Administrative decisions are taken by multiple layers in the University. If you want to be protected against administrative delays, you need a supervisor with enough "muscle" in the University. These will be the stars, which are mostly absent. What you need is a star supervisor, who has a good and permanent lab head who has all the technical knowledge and is usually present in the lab. Truth 5 suggests that all PhD students can write up their own work for publication and get it published in a good journal without the supervisor's input. Some exceptional PhD students may be able to do that, but they are few and far between. So I would suggest to take these "truths" with a pinch of salt.
I agree!
Many of these strike me as either banal or incorrect, at least in my field/experience. "Ensure that the department and university you are considering assign supervisors on the basis of intellectual ability rather than available workload. Supervising students to completion is incredibly difficult. The final few months require complete commitment from both supervisor and postgraduate." (From 1.) So you shouldn't accept a supervisor determined on basis of workload, because supervision is so demanding. How is an overworked supervisor going to be able to dedicate so much time to helping you then?
"But it is teaching that will get them their first post (and probably their second and third)." This is a half-truth at best from my experience of University recruitment (from both sides of the table - management sciences) - teaching is a hygiene factor, once you have some it becomes irrelevant. So yes pick up some but you that generally only puts you on par with candidates, income generation/paper outputs will put you over the top - so if it is a choice between a little more teaching and turning out a paper, turn out the paper.
Ah the market pressure of shopping for a Ph D and all because the lady wants to be an educated wage slave.
Thanks a lot for the valuable suggestions. I started my PhD about one month ago but i have decided to change groups now. I know 1 month is too early to decide if i want to stay with this group but seeing the circumstances i decided to change. I had arguments over non-sense things with the PI and then he threatened me to destroy my career (by saying he won't write a good recommendation at the end) and he said leave if you want to leave. Then i said to him last week i am stressed out due to family problems and need 2 days off and he answered me keep stress at home, you just come here to work so work. And there were many more issues which led to the decision of quiting and moving over to some other place.
It is particularly helpful if supervisors maintain information about present students and past ones. They way you can see if they publish and get jobs. Also, the sheer numbers that a supervisor has are important. In our university 7 is the max allowed and I am always at that, because at a top Australian university and in an area that is in demand. More than that number and I could not do the job effectively. Students are not often aware that we do other things with our time, too. Weekly supervisor meetings may be a good idea if you have 1-2-3 students. Otherwise I am afraid they have to be less frequent. Co-supervisors are absolutely mandatory in many Australian universities. Generally I have found them helpful, and have been one. They temper the ego or the cussedness of some main supervisors. What is annoying is Advisory Panels, which are on top of the 1-2 supervisors and who turn out for key moments like confirmation of candidature. They are too big and can produce conflicting advice when you have 4 -5 people in the room.
While there's some good advice here there are also contradictions, as noted by Funny That. The presentation from the point of view of the prospective PhD student shopping around fails to acknowledge institutional constraints (most obviously, there being a limit to the number of individuals one person can supervise). Moreover, much of this advice feels like it's specific to certain kinds of institution and/or certain subjects.
There are also few scientific search engines which they use for their PhD research work and they dont even tell.. essay writing services
I finished a PhD at a large UK institution about a year ago. It was a shocking experience that has left me with nothing but poor health and a worthless qualification. I was part of a well funded post graduate studentship program in an emergent field, with all the potential of being a "next big thing". I took on a project in a lab where I knew the supervisor was not an easy person to work with, but the lab was well funded and equipped. I thought that as long as I had the raw materials I could just live with whatever the personality was like. I was wrong. My supervisor enforced the project be completed to his design, but provided no support or training towards achieving this. There was no publication strategy or, from what I know now, any pre-reading of any kind before I started. None of the projects submitted to the program where ever assessed by anybody on the program, who it turned out had disengaged from any commitments once the funding was approved. The project was a vehicle for the supervisor to tap into the research fund that came with the program and get a free student for their lab. My colleagues began to experience the same situation and we were cash cows ripe for plundering, working on pointless projects. There was on update to the funding bodies, no reports, and no accountability for anybody involved. Over 3 years I was psychologically and emotionally abused. Experimental problems resulted in demoralizing meetings with blame attributed to technical incompetence, threats of failure, and bullying to just work more hours until it worked. Progress meetings with internal examiners were used to belittle and berate me. I raised issues with student services and was told that there was little they could do within the framework of academia. Other supervisors would also not intervene as it is bad form to advise on another supervisor's student. An inappropriate working environment resulted in my rupturing two inter-vertebral discs. I was offered no support and told that time off showed a lack of commitment to my work, and any lost hours would result in failure. Subsequently I worked for 6 months relying on Tramadol to function. In the final year my supervisor left the lab for a promotion in another university. I was told to move or leave and the program would not intervene with any alternative project or facilities to continue the project. I was forced to stop work and pack up the lab, organizing the logistics of the move as well as the construction of the new lab which was not fit for purpose upon arrival. I was intimidated into working on this under the false promise of an extension, spending 6 months working on equipment purchasing, installation, lab infrastructure designs, and cleaning. The extension was denied and my appeals to the university resulted in clandestine phone calls and back room chats where I was told to simply shut up and get on with it or my PhD would be burned. The extension application would invoke an enquiry by the funding body, exposing the problems with the program and it would be easier to blame it on a bad student. My supervisor abandoned me in the final year and told me to expect to fail. I worked the remainder of my time living in the lab, without sleep during the week, eating pro-plus and whatever was in the vending machines, away from home with no financial, pastoral, or technical support. I became depressed and exhausted, but I managed to cobble together a thesis and submitted on time. I organized my own examiners and the viva was the most constructive and supportive experience of my PhD, resulting in a pass with minor corrections. Some of this I attribute to my work, the rest to back room dealings to ensure no further problems. Due to the nature of the experience I gained no publications from my work. I am now left in a position where my chances at a career of any kind in science were over before the training ended. Many of my friends from the program are in a similar position, but are scared to come forward and raise a complaint for fear of retribution should they ever be able to interview for a post doctoral research position. Some of the students had good supervisors and have done well from the program, however these were a minority, and for those that had a bad experience, it was very bad indeed. While I must simply pick up the pieces and move on, I am saddened that the awareness of the culture of PhD training is largely unknown outside of academia. It is an antiquated medieval system that is too insular and protects those in positions of responsibility. Provided that supervisors are bringing regular funding into their institution they are often able to behave however they like, with total impunity. Employment laws and even human rights can be violated and the university with seldom intervene if they can avoid it. These programs are also enjoying large sums of tax payer funding which in my case was entirely wasted. Provided with the most minimal of organization and management these projects could have been very successful and impacting, however they didn't have to be because payment was up-front, and consequently they were not. I hope that in future this "industry" can be cleaned up through proper regulation by the funding bodies. But until then I fear the medieval guild system will persist, and students will suffer in silence.
Interesting commentary. However, from those in the know, is it not believed that the "10 truths" describe what has been known for years / decades? In fact my former Ph.D supervisor has taken to highlight the article in his Twitter feed. I found such a highlight extremely ironic, because I felt it described him to a 'tune'. Unfortunately, neither the article nor the comments subsequently - explain what happens to non-registered Ph.D students upon discovery of commercially insightful data / information. Though I was royally booted-off my Ph.D (along with some highly derogatory comments) - a few years down the line I am still being heavily harassed, threatened, etc. by my so called 'friends' at an UK university. Frankly it is damn right disgusting, that personnel whom describe themselves as 'looking-out' for the wider public via tax payers monies - are involving themselves in such activities. Finally, as stated by the last comment - until Ph.D program's, studentships, supervisors, etc. are heavily regulated (as similar to the financial services sector), then such unfortunate practices will continue on. Nothing will change...
Here's another truth: The 3-year PhD is based on an outdated model, from times when there was no lightning fast access to research or information. One could spend 8 hours in a day looking for one or two articles, but not have energy after that to read them. Now everything is at our fingertips. It takes 30 seconds to find most relevant articles, leaving many 8-hour workdays unencumbered by wild goose chases. There's really no excuse for a PhD to take so long. Unless a person works in a field requiring experimentation and lab work, the PhD project should take no longer than 6-10 months, start to finish -- that's if a candidate comes in with a solid background knowledge (preferably a taught MA -- yes, a TAUGHT MA, since a BA doesn't really even scratch the surface of any subject). I know people will hate me for saying this, or find me stupid, but I've yet to meet a successful doctoral candidate who took longer than 6-10 months of full-time work to do a PhD, whether they did it in one fell swoop or broke those hours up over the course of a 3- or 4-year candidacy. We could drastically shorten the length of candidacies if we would only recognize new realities of access to information and research.
I'm sorry but it's simply impossible to do a single PhD project in any area of Science in under a year (2 years if you need to collect data and analyze it, 1 year if it's mostly analysis and modelling and you really kill yourself). I mean, you could do it but it would be worthless. And for a PhD thesis in North America you're expected to have 2-3. So if you really work hard full-time (and if you're very lucky) it ought to take you at least 4-5 years. In North America where students are involved in projects from conception to analysis (and often experimentation) PhDs often take 6-7 YEARS, not months (this is in my field, with Master's level knowledge). I think it could be shorter if the supervisors put more work into coming up with well-formulated ideas, but it takes at least 1 year of research to design a semi-decent project. A 6-10 month PhD contributes nothing. You're better off not wasting your time. I'd even have strong reservations about hiring a postdoc that only has 3 years of experience, to me that's barely scratching the surface. Maybe in the humanities but definitely not in any hard science field.
This article just emphasises to me the divergence between Arts and Humanities PhDs an those in STEM subjects. Some elements of the criticism of co-supervisors are valid, but really, if you plan to do original research in science it will often be across subject areas. You will need expert input from supervisors in different areas to make your project even feasible, let alone succesful. I'm involved on projects that involve physics, molecular biology and geochemistry ... None of us could supervise the whole shooting match individually. Science students beware of paying too much attention to articles like this one which has a very limited viewpoint. I welcome the idea that weekly meetings are the ideal, and in my ln own institution I don't know any colleagues who don't maintain this method. As for the idea of 6 month PhDs as proposed by another responder ... A failure to understand the depth of thought, investigation and scholarly activity involved in a real phd project. It certainly ignores any idea of practical development of skills during a phd ... Crass, stupid and ill thought out.
As with all "10 things", these ones are at best half truths and tend to draw on hyperbole and anecdote to attract interest (eg her assertion in several secrets that it is an “us and them game” between students and supervisors/institutions. And the use of “I once” did this or “I know of a disturbing case” etc). But what the good Professor doesn’t tell you is that a PhD requires four years of hard work. Perhaps this is something potential PhD students would rather not hear.
Micronaut, your experience sounds like an unacceptable nightmare. were there no opportunities for you to complain formally? for example, postgrad tutor, head of research etc? in terms of publications, can you not start to publish now? Most of my publications came post PhD, not during it (I simply didnt have the time). Most students put up with bad supervision because they think complaining will amount to career suicide. However, such students often drop out, fail or end up traumatised by the whole experience, which IMO is far worse. as for the comment about completing a PhD in 6-10 months - get real. A PhD in one of the health disciplines that involves recruiting NHS patients usually takes at least 6 months just to navigate NHS ethic and R&D approval. finding evidence is also only part of the PhD. I could probably count on one hand the number of FT PhD completions I've seen in 3 years. I'd imagine Marty McFly would struggle to complete in 6 months...
I think these truths are more suitable for guidance of supervisors. As far as the phd students are concerned they have to compromise on many issues, specially for choosing the supervisor mainly due to competition and very limited opportunities of phd funding.
Thanks for the advice on the authorship. Any suggestions on the source code? If the supervisor is a co-author, should a PhD student hands over all the codes he or she coded alone?
Some of these need to be taken with a pinch of salt, particularly the idea that only having one supervisor is some kind of ideal but the general themes are pretty true. I would really enforce the idea that your supervisor needs to be a decent human being. Whilst an expert in your field is great a PhD student should be capable of doing a lot of work by themselves, after all you should be aiming to know a lot more than your supervisor by the end of your work. What you will need is mentoring and administrative help, where is this? What form do I fill in? Who do I need to speak to about XYZ? A supervisor who is on top of these little issues is invaluable in the long run. I know students with supervisors who are actually mean, rude and even spiteful. I have no idea how they cope, I would gladly have a supervisor from an entirely different subject field who was supportive than one who was very knowledgeable but hostile.
Just as some institutions now have teaching fellows who teach but do not research, there may be a role for supervisory fellows to be a title. These people will naturally research because without that contact many of the gains noted here will be lost, but it would distinguish them from the star researchers who are very poor at supervising. I have seen some institutions quietly discourage an academic from taking on any more PhD students because it is known that they lack the skills to really help the student. As not everyone can teach successfully, not every academic can supervise well. We need to recognise this and have some good researching academics who are not permitted to supervise, rather than allowing all of them to do it. I have seen a number of training courses which help PhD students get 'the most' out of their supervisors and I certainly encourage students to expect and demand good quality supervision and to complain if it is not forthcoming. I have known at least two cases of people changing supervisor and it was the best outcome for them; the original supervisors got over it without a problem, but it could have meant failure for the student. I had a wonderful single supervisor, but the age of the apprenticeship model is over. It is better for there to be a supervisory team, not simply to cover absences of the prime supervisor. Taking a PhD these days is about so much more than just research skills and the subject matter. The second and in some cases the third supervisor, can be invaluable focusing on the other skills such as writing articles, getting to conferences, getting the skills for a job; indeed as another article in THE this week shows, also thinking about options outside academia. You need to have everyone in the supervisory team working for you in a range of ways. If they cannot do that, then they should be off the list of supervisors.
I find these views rather pompous, and I feel that many of them are open to question. I also feel it is quite inappropriate to use language such as 'They are selfish, career-obsessed bastards'. I am very glad that my supervisor did not use language like this - it is not clever.
supervisors must have super-vision not narrow or flying vision!!!!
Thank you, Tara: I will share this with my current doctoral student. It's an excellent discussion paper. You make many excellent points that every student needs to think about them seriously, regardless of whether they are in STEM or social sciences, liberal arts and humanities. In the last 7 years, as director of a pan-university, inter-disciplinary research inst. I have had the chance to interact with grad students from diverse disciplines (every now and then, retreating to my lab, to breathe), and at the end of the day, it's all about 2 individuals interacting, and each supervision experience is unique.
Indeed, a great act of informing common issues among supervisors. This would surely attract the attention of our next generation and present employees. Thumbs up :) [url=http://www.fotorise.com/buy-instagram-photo-likes/]where to buy followers on instagram[/url]
Hi, Prof. Tara. Spot on. I must say I experienced almost everything you did, with my PhD. I had to suffer through supervisors in different camps, a topic change, 2 supervisor changes, the dormant and last minute waiting supervisors, failing to read and the works including the failed attempt to ruin me. Finally, with the decency of the last principal, I managedto complete. It was not just a journey, it was a battle. Maybe, at the end supervisors should also be given a progress mark with some impact on their careers when it is negative.
Hello! I'm still thinking about my career, but for now have this question. I have just began PhD studies and I don’t want to spend the rest of my life writing the thesis... Can you recommend a book that says how to write a PhD effectively? I mean, in a productive way that would not decrease the quality... Thanks a lot! Stev
Personal experience rather than evidence-based research - and from an experienced supervisor? How can these be 'truths'? While some points are useful (but not new), I question the wisdom of other 'advice'.
I very strongly disagree with number 9, 'Weekly supervisory meetings are the best pattern". This will certainly not be the case for many people, and it certainly wouldn't be for me. I do not lack time-management skills, and neither would I rather be partying (seriously, who on earth does a PhD if they would rather be partying or on facebook to the extent that they constantly need their supervisor checking up on them?!). Given all this, I have settled on meeting once a month with my supervisor for the last two years, and we have found that is what suits us. Desperately trying to write something every week just for the sake of it sounds exhausting (after all, some weeks are needed to perhaps work on other things, or just catch up on the literature), and could certainly be detrimental to some people.
I think these 10 ideas are worthy of debate. They would make an excellent discussion point for current supervisors. Personally, I think they range from the sensible to the banal, and even irritating. I am sorry that the writer has had such bad experiences. Of course, teaching on a 'professional doctorate' as I do I find we couldn't manage without co-supervisors - and many's the time that the complementary skills of two supervisors have helped a student out of trouble in my experience. The suggestion of a weekly supervision session might work for full-time doctoral students but I suspect that full-time doctoral students are in the minority.
The dependency of PhD students on their supervisors is like apprenticeship in the middle ages - being subject to the arbitrary whims of a certain individual. Doesn't say much for progress... This <a href='http://www.widiem.com/view/videos.php#02'>video</a> is a humorous take on it..
This is the correct link: http://www.widiem.com/view/videos.php#02 (see previous comment)
I would like to embark on a Ph.D. in the Uk, where I am moving in a few weeks. I have been working on a proposal for a month now, but I have read so many emails from Ph.D. students being ignored by prospective supervisors, that I feel stifled and frustrated. I have already sent one e-mail, just to show my interest in commencing with a Ph.D.(not sending a Proposal or a CV, and haven't received any response yet. What do you think is the best way to approach a prospective Ph.D. supervisor? Face-to-face or by e-mail? Should I be brief or elaborate on my proposed study? Furthermore I wanted to ask the following: If I find a Ph.D. with no funding attached to it, can I still expect that in the case of fruitful discussion with a potential supervisor he/she could guide towards the process of funding? Thank you in advance
insightful observations especially for postgraduate students, however subject to debate
What can one say when a man is pointing a gun at you at a range of 10 feet? One thing i now know, is that, the so called Professors have already made name and hence, do not care that much for others (most of them). I finished from the University of Gent in Belgium with a Master's degree. After the approval from my supervisor to come and defend my thesis,i defended in 9 minutes of the 15 minutes allocated and praise was poured out in the hall, but guess what? One of the examiners refused giving me even a pass mark, saying the text i have to edit and this that blah blah blah. The consequences is that i lost another 1yr 3mths before i could finish and get a masters certificate.But why didn't they indict my my supervisor? Meaning my Prof never even take a critical look at my work. Asides, he is their colleague and would never make a fool of him before me, making me a scape goat. My advice is; the ultimate goal in life is, the end that matters and, if you chose to carve a niche for yourself whether in the academia or otherwise, shut up and try and navigate your way towards getting your PhD and fuck those shylocks. Sadly, most Profs forgot they were once below the ladder, but do they really care? Sorry they don't!!! Your thesis, PhD certificate is your own, your life and your future. Whether straight or crook, your approach towards getting it without probs depends on you. Oh, it was a nice piece from you Katie. Love your write up and keep it up!
For me, the PhD was a strange experience. In some respects, the PhD itself was far too easy. In my opinion, over the three years, I got very limited feedback on my research or writing (that's when I managed to get feedback) and my work wasn't subject to any real challenges or criticisms. In truth, I don't believe my thesis was read in any detail before submission. These reasons were the source of stress for me and I felt the viva would be very tough (I know I was convinced I was going to fail and debated whether or not to actually attend the viva). The viva was a horrible experience and very, very challenging but I could not fault the examiners as they did a superb job (in my opinion, they provided much more feedback on my work than my supervisors did over the course of three years). Post viva was even stranger. In brief, the supervisor who sat in on the viva must have got unnerved because, from what I can gather, this supervisor asked for the corrections from the internal and although the supervisor passed a copy of the corrections to me, it was the supervisor who, in my opinion, started doing them, passing some of the corrected corrections to me and would happily have done the lot - had I not eventually asserted myself and taken control of the situation. It's not good being placed in a situation where you have to challenge a superior and I feel I was placed in a no-win situation. On a positive note, although I've suffered and am still uptight about it all, I don't feel this supervisor will attempt to do this again.
OK, this article needs to come with a content warning: "Most of this content does not apply or is irrelevant for laboratory-based science PhDs". Seriously - take this bit for example: "Some supervisors claim co-authorship of every publication written during the candidature. Do not think that this is right, assumed, proper or the default setting" Really? When I as supervisor may have (a) had the research idea and posed the questions; (b) come up with the money to support the student and the work; (c) supervised the project work closely and aided in the interpretation? Sorry - this may work in social sciences or humanities, but not in wet/hard science!
It is true, I am in a laboratory-based engineering science. My supervisors' are always included as co-authors.
It's a long time since I've read such a pompous yet flawed essay.
The 10 truths are quite helpful in that it is an insight to some of the things to expect during your program. However, i am currently a doctoral student and have been under a supervisor who is so nasty to her students. My case is very similar to that of the poster (csadangi) where the supervisor doesn't care about your health but expects a doctoral student to be in school daily from 8 am - 4 pm either busy or not without any financial support. I have being under supervision for 2 years researching on things that most of the masters and doctoral students have being doing for years. I spoke to her about creating my own research niche but she refused and threatened to write a bad recommendation letter for my postdoc in future. well, i have decided to get a new supervisor and complete my doctoral program in with a specialist in my field of study. This system should be looked into because most of these supervisors use the students as money making machine like my former supervisor will always say to the PG students.
Hi, I have started my phd about 15 months ago. I have gathered some bibliography, made some initial reading, but work and family difficulties do not allow me to invest the time I would like. What would you advise me? To drop it, or adopt a more systematic strategy, like part time, put small goals to achieve, and organize better my time? I am totally confused. Although I have gathered a lot of books, articles etc, I have not written a single page. Some advise/ encouragement please? Many thanks in advance!
Hi, I have just started my PhD. I think like all students there are good and more bad days. I have two supervisors, one which I chose and the other that was chosen for me. Both supervisors are useless. However, they have got students towards the end. At the end of the day I have learnt the best way to get through is to put up and shut and keep going in the end you will get the PhD as long as you keep going! As a student you just have to remember that 3/4 years of your life will quickly flyby and we will all look back at the experience and just think...glad that's over! Supervisors can make your life hell and they are in a position of power....my advice just play the game and keep going!
Having worked for many years as an Admin/Coordinator in a Research Centre (top univ) for PhD students, these truths really resonated with me. I constantly witnessed international students being put aside as the professor globe-trotted, attending conferences, networking, missing supervisory meetings and doing little research himself. His second in command became demoralised and increasingly worked from home, keeping out of students way. I was left with the responsibility of trying to reassure students everything would be alright in the end, when I could see what was happening. Students were taken on to boost the Centre's numbers, image and finances. Eventually students' complaints and slow progress or failures led to closure of the centre (publicly closure was said to be for economic reasons). I changed jobs and moved into another school at the same university and wrote my own proposal. On acceptance of a proposal said to be 'up with the very best' I was given a young very confident supervisor and felt simply grateful. I was her first PhD student and had an experienced second supervisor. The former had passed PhD a year previously, the latter was applying for a year's sabbatical for research. After 7 weeks as a PhD student, and after receiving constant ageist comments (why are you doing this, you will get tired, wasting your time) and no support whatsoever from the inexperienced lead supervisor who clearly did not want to supervise me (or prog director who said she supported her young trainee's comments), I transferred to another university who had praised my proposal and also offered me supervision. This time I checked their profiles, publications and agreed regular meeting dates with them. I then transferred from the Russell Univ to a 1994 University and had a wonderful PhD experience, completing in 3.5 years and working as a research assistant for the school alongside writing my thesis My new supervisors were supportive, answered emails within 48 hrs maximum, kept appointments, discussed, listened, praised, criticised and encouraged. Had I stay with the first university my story would probably not have been one of success, I would not have a doctorate and I would not be writing a book now, so yes these 10 truths are very honest and helpful to potential PhD students.
This is very insightful, As a postgraduate student myself I have learnt a lot. Especially 2,7,8,9
Indeed! My supervisor has these 3 characteristics
All very idealistic. On #1, how can you check a prospective supervisor's completion record? Such data is only useful if it includes both completions and non-completions. That's confidential and is something that no university or individual supervisor would want to publish (unless, of course, HE funding councils insist on this, and make it a condition of continued funding, but that's another argument altogether). On #9, I mostly come across termly meetings (yes, astonishingly, a maximum of 3 meetings per year!). I once asked for monthly meetings and was told that's unrealistic, even though the university's own PhD supervision code recommends it. The idea of weekly meetings would simply get no traction at all - at least not in my experience. I think a good solution to poor supervisors (and poor supervision, which is not always the same thing) is to give prospective students access to the supervisor's current students for advice. This would enable applicants to cut through the university's marketing hype and hear from those who have real experience of that particular supervisor, before signing away 3-4 years of their life. Of course, there should be no room for current students to take personal swipes, so if they were limited to objective criteria, in an email that the Director of PG Research proof reads before it's sent off, this would keep it all fair and professional. Such criteria can include: how often does the supervisor attend meetings? Is it with the frequency that the student has asked for? Does the supervisor read chapter drafts and provide feedback? If so, is it verbal or written feedback? Do meetings include discussions on the substantive topic, or does the supervisor limit him/herself to advising on dissertation structure only? If there is substantive chat, does the supervisor enjoy getting into the details, or does he/she stand back, only talk about high-level stuff and allow the student to 'fill in the details'? There's no right or wrong answer to any of these questions, just true answers that a prospective student would then match up with their own working and learning style. And that's the most important thing: to get matched up with the right supervisor, based on how that supervisor really does work. Only current students can answer those questions, not the supervisor him/herself, and certainly not the university's supervision code.
Very good insights. I can relate to 7 & 10 especially. The warning signs about their work is especially telling...

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