Getting a PhD: Working with your Supervisor

(If the level of attendance for workshops on how to work effectively with your supervisor is anything to go by, I would say this is one of the biggest challenges faced by postgraduate researchers, so let's explore it a bit).

PhD research requirements and learning outcomes
At my university, a Master of Research, Master of Philosophy and Doctorate all require you to produce original work with potential for publication but what differentiates a Doctorate from the others is independent critical ability. It is important for you to be aware of your university’s expectations because anything your supervisor asks of you should fit into the learning outcomes set by the university. Knowing your ‘rights’ helps because if your supervisor is asking you to go beyond your learning outcomes and you have a problem with this, you have the right to query it. Generally, PhD learning outcomes include your ability to discover, understand and communicate new knowledge; develop plans for implementing your findings; analyse the significance of your research to related current issues including the ethical and legal implications of your research; develop the ability to engage professionally with others, and so forth.

"I, Supervisor… You, Student": The supervisor-student relationship
Some people say that Supervisor/Student relationships can be described as  Guide/Explorer or Master/Slave relationships depending on a number of factors and that this relationship evolves with time, but the key thing to note is that you both have something to gain in your research degree. For one, you are the one getting the doctorate, but your performance also reflects on him/her.

Note: As an international student, it pays to be culturally aware.
International students come from diverse cultural backgrounds, but you don’t want to be the international student who relates in an overly polite manner and shies away from answering questions beyond “yes”, “I will work on that, thank you” because you assume that engaging your supervisor in debate on research (and other things) is like questioning the authority of persons in power which is, you know… “rude”. Neither do you want to be the oblivious international student who talks too loudly, finds nothing seriously wrong with arriving late for meetings, and expresses his/her opinions quite aggressively (pardon my extreme generalizations).

The fact is, most UK supervisors prefer to be on a first-name basis, and value well thought out opinions expressed courteously because of the value that is placed on discovering new things (“…[their] continuing mission to explore strange new worlds… to boldly go where no one has gone before” J) so every individual’s opinion presents an opportunity to see something from a different/unique perspective.

Preparing for meetings
Supervisors and students both have expectations of meetings so it is helpful to think about what you want out of the meeting, the questions you want to be answered as well as what your busy supervisor wants out of the meeting. Supervision meetings are often scheduled for an hour every month, and meeting agendas that express what you both want to get out of the meeting should include your progress since your last meeting, challenges encountered, recommendations for future action and the next meeting date. Endeavouring to email your supervisor well-written copies of any write-ups or results you have obtained at least one week ahead of time is also key.

At the meeting
·        Take meeting notes, because it is a good idea to send your supervisor a summary of your action plans after the meeting so that you both have clear ideas of what you discussed. Meeting notes also leave a paper trail to protect you in the (hopefully unlikely) event of a serious misunderstanding between the supervisor/university and yourself.

·         Be professional- arrive early; maintain good body language (eg. good eye contact); don’t interrupt when (s)he is speaking; don’t be afraid to disagree with your supervisor, but tactics matters: a key to negotiation is finding common ground, so summarise the areas in which you agree before disagreeing as unemotionally as possible.

·        Make the most of your supervisor’s expertise - ask questions to clarify points or ideas you don't understand.

ps: If your supervisor is the chatty (or the extremely knowledgeable) type, it is easy to lose track of what you planned on discussing. In this case, telling him/her what you want to discuss during the meeting (ie. the meeting agenda) at the beginning of the meeting is helpful. Alternatively, you could email him/her the agenda prior to the meeting proper.

As a research student, you are entitled to receive frequent, accurate, specific and timely feedback, some of which will not be pleasant. On handling criticism well, someone explained it to me this way: "You have about 10-12 meetings a year with your supervisor... that's like 10-12 hours a year. You don't really expect him/her to praise your work. Rather, they'll try to point out all the areas that are lacking. In the process, you might feel that you can't write anything reasonable, but that's not true. It's just about 10 hours; they make it count". So train yourself to be less defensive and more objective.

I am also told that a good supervisor usually doesn't say whether your research is good or bad outright. Rather, they ask you lots of questions and offer suggestions (which could make you feel a bit dull but oh well, we learn everyday don’t we).

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