what does ‘good supervision’ mean to you?

The SuperVisionaries ‘Name and Acclaim’ project* has opened again, deadline 10thJune at 5pm. The 2018 celebration of good supervision had 199 inspiring nominations – read Kay’s reflections on the process here.

We are asking, what good supervision means to you?

This is a guest post by Eleni Routoula, PhD researcher in the dept of Chemical and Biological Engineering at the University of Sheffield.

We all have heard those stories, and read those articles, about horrible supervisors that treat postgraduate students as lab minions, require them to work specific – usually super long – hours, allow zero input from the students into their projects and do not do any favours. But what about the stories about the ‘good’ supervisors who are helpful to students (and not only when they want something), are supportive, give good advice when its needed, allow students to design their project according to their interests and/or needs and cultivate a friendly professional relationship with their students.

Perhaps if we want supervisors to learn good ways of supervising, and if we want students to have expectations of good supervision, we should focus on some positive examples and explore what good supervision actually looks like. What follows is my personal account of good supervision, what works for me, based on my experience.

During my masters, I got asked by my then supervisor whether I would like to pursue a PhD. Previously, I had never thought I would like to advance my level to a ‘Dr’, but at this point something had changed. It was not the fact that I deeply cared about my specific topic of research or I had an urge to figure out how to save the world (you can try to do that without a PhD). It was the fact that I really enjoyed working with my supervisor. Although things did not always necessarily work in the lab (neither do they now, 4 years later, tough luck), he was there, available to help and ready to listen. The fact that he had, and still has, a clear policy of individual meetings once a week, group meeting once a month and a ‘knock & enter’ privilege when he was in the office, made things easy. 

Availability is key to me for good supervision.Although as PhD researchers we are told that we need to solve our own problems and go to our supervisors with innovative solutions, ravishing results, patents and Nobel Prize worthy ideas, very frequently we will struggle to get past knots. We will have problems that cannot be solved with a simple Google or Research Gate search (no shame) or a day or two in the lab. We will experience turning points where someone will have to put an end to an idea that does not work, or we will have to find a way to push for more effort. If supervision availability and engagement are low, how can supervisors expect miracles to happen? I am sure that we all know cases where the supervisor is not fully aware of the projects their students are working on, because last time they had a meeting was before Brexit was announced… 

Another thing that turned the scale ‘pro’ when deciding on pursuing a PhD within my group, was the respect our supervisor was showing us. He knew and understood that we had a life and other commitments and he did not press us to follow a specific work schedule. As long as we produced a reasonable amount of research (or showed some progress one way or another), he was happy for us to work day, or night, or both, or none. 

Respect is very important in the relationship between academic and student, as they both need to understand and accept each other’s needs and co-exist in a way that leaves both parties happy, content, with some novel research produced and a degree title acquired. Ok, doing a PhD is not an easy ride. There are days or periods where long hours are needed, but there are also periods where, due to overstress, personal issues, or just because a Wednesday feels like a Saturday or you found cheap tickets to Barcelona, time is needed for a break. And that is OK. Or at least, it should be OK. Respecting someone’s choices, and their needs, is crucial for successful supervision, especially in eras where mental health issues are publicly recognised. Respect also involves hearing each other out, allowing the student some freedom to carve out their own project, have their say and follow (or not) the advice suggested, without complications. 

Sticking with the topic of advice provision, would you go to your supervisor for advice, for personal issues as well? I am glad that my answer is ‘yes’! During a PhD, the supervisor is the person who we are (or should be) in close contact with, who is there with us from the beginning to the – hopefully successful – end, who trust is with their research ideas and perhaps also their research money. During these 3 or 4 years, we will definitely need advice on various aspects. It might be on which machine we should buy, which might be the best reagent for the X procedure, if we should go down the Y or Z route with our research in order to achieve A, B and C. And it might also be advice needed because we feel we are burning out, or we are not progressing fast enough, or we feel lost, or we want to quit (I have been there, it is a horrible feeling). 

Being supportive and offering advice is key for good supervision. Even if their advice is not quite right for your situation, sitting down and chatting things through creates a bond, promotes trust and allows both parties to see the human aspect of each other. I am glad to report that universities nowadays have great support services, but support from a supervisor is different, and it is valued.

Sharing an office with fellow PhD researchers supervised by different academics and being generally active within my department, I have heard a lot of stories about ‘supervising skills’. Majority of the stories I hear have at least a strong positive and a strong negative point, such as ‘He/she is very well organised, BUT has no time for my project’, ‘He/she will push you to go to conferences, BUT only if your project is worth it’ or ‘He/she gives extensive feedback on my paper drafts, BUT he/she is always pushing for more work to be done’. Another ‘complaint’ that I hear a lot is that supervisors don’t care about their students on a personal level, their relationship is only about producing and sharing data and nothing more. These testimonies and many more, undoubtedly show some aspects of good supervision. They also show the essential value added of interpersonal skills – caring about the feelings of other people, connecting with them and showing them your appreciation. 

All in all, there are many hues in ‘good’ supervision, and almost always there is room for improvement. If supervision is good (effective, efficient, you name it), then the basis of a successful PhD is stronger. Since supervisors and students will most probably be ‘stuck’ together for 3 years, building the tower of a PhD, why not start with a strong base?  

*the opposite of ‘Name and Shame’.

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