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Accomplished academics can still learn from their supervisees

Written by: Lucas Lixinski
Published on: 18 May 2021

Even the most accomplished academics should not see themselves as incontrovertible sages and open up to the prospect of learning from their charges.

Source: iStock

Academia often has a wonderful intergenerational flow to it: doctoral students are trained to become academics and, if they end up in research-intensive institutions, then get the chance to train the next crop of emerging academics. For me, though, this is a two-way street: not only am I training supervisees, I’m also constantly learning from them.

From where I sit, having transitioned from supervisee to supervisor a while back, I think a lot about what it means to be a good supervisor. And I believe it’s time for us proverbial old dogs to acknowledge we can learn new tricks (despite received wisdom to the contrary). Here are three big things I’ve learned about the cutting edge of the field:

1. Researcher (and research) styles vary wildly
My only experience before I started supervising was my own experience as a supervisee. It was quite an awakening to realise that people’s research, thinking and writing processes can vary so much, and that I need to be adaptable to those. I knew those things in the abstract, but being up close and personal was something else.

Observing these differences as a supervisor made me a better collaborator, a better teacher and it made me check my own privilege and assumptions. That I learn in a certain way and had a relatively smooth ride (more on that below) should not be a reason for me to exclude alternative pathways to conform to (or challenge) the parameters of my professional field, especially not if the only reason behind exclusion is that it’s “too hard” to supervise that person or that work.

My job is to help supervisees negotiate their own varied and wondrous paths, not track (a version of) my own. In learning how to do my job, I learned more about how (some of) the world works and what it means to produce knowledge that is to be consumed by people whose pathways to knowledge are vastly different.

2. Research is just the tip of the iceberg
There is a term in German, doktorvater (doctoral father) for the supervisor-supervisee relationship. Gendered as it is, the idea of a “doctoral parent” shows to me that there’s a lot more going on in this relationship than producing a thesis. It’s teaching not only how to research but how to be an academic in many facets (teaching, administration, collegiality, ethics).

We have a tendency in academia to privilege and reward research above all else. That bias may be a result of our own training to become academics, and it passes over to the next generation. But it’s a bad cycle, not to mention an untruthful one.

While institutional and regulatory incentives are largely geared only to the completion of a doctoral thesis, I would be a negligent “parent” if I did not engage fully with a supervisee’s career aspirations, offer advice and try to create opportunities in all those directions.

These directions include stimulating supervisees to teach (and mentoring them in the nuts and bolts of it, both pedagogically and bureaucratically), giving insights on grant-writing, help with communicating with academic and non-academic audiences, inviting them to publish their own work in venues I can facilitate for them in my discipline. Happily, having to “teach” many of these things makes me better at doing them, too, because I need to make sense of the how and why of parts of my job that, over time, have become second nature.

While doing this, I’ve learned from my supervisees not only to appreciate academia more fully but to be more self-reflective about many facets of my own job.

3. There is only so much one can control (and I’m not all that)
This is the big one, a lesson I’ve learned for use within and beyond academia. And there are two related aspects to it. First, life gets in the way more often than one would expect or hope, and I’ve just been lucky to have fewer detours happen in the critical formative years of my career. It is unreasonable of me to expect others to be just as lucky.

Second, there are far too many factors out there when pursuing career goals, and I can only control a small number of them. I’ve worked hard but also been incredibly fortunate in finding people receptive to my ideas and a community of minds that comforts and challenges me. But I’ve also been knocked back plenty. Those instances were not about my worth in general, it was just a matter of fit. It’s a mantra I still use to this day.

So, I learned to be grateful and stay humble. I already have supervisees who I’m convinced will be a lot more accomplished than me in their careers and in a lot less time than it took me – with a bit of luck. All I can do is prop them up to the best of my abilities, help them control the few things that can be controlled and watch as they take the world by storm in ways I can’t. That is my responsibility and my privilege as a supervisor.

Lucas Lixinski is a professor in the faculty of law & justice at UNSW Sydney.