10 truths you need to know when choosing your PhD supervisor


Tara Brabazon outlines in the THES (13/7/2013) 10 truths she has learnt about PhD supervisors.

Discussions about doctoral supervision and candidature management go on (and on and on) about quality, rigour, ethics and preparedness.  As Brabazon notes, "postgraduates are monitored, measured and ridiculed for their lack of readiness or their slow progress towards completion", but more often than not, the inconsistencies and problems with supervisors and supervision are marginalised.

Brabazon confesses that she "never received any satisfactory, effective or useful supervision for her doctorate, research master’s or two coursework master’s that contained sizeable dissertation components". She says that she found the supervisors remote and odd. "A couple of" she says, even tried to block the submission of the theses to her institution!  On three separate occasions in her career, academics informed her that if she submitted her thesis, it would fail. But she proved them wrong.  She earned 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. This left her with the impression that her supervisors had no idea what they were doing.  According to Brabazon, the worst supervisors she experienced, share three unforgivable characteristics:

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

Brabazon is now an experienced supervisor and examiner herself, but she still remembers her own disappointments.  She notes that "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".

TRUTH #1. The key predictor that your supervisor will be able to guide you to completion is a good record of having done so

You should ensure that at least one member of your supervisory team is a very experienced supervisor. Anyone can be appointed to supervise but there are only very few who have "the ability, persistence, vision, respect and doggedness to move a diversity of students through the examination process" according to Brabazon.  You should ensure that the department and university you are considering to do your PhD at, assign supervisors on the basis of intellectual ability instead of on the basis of their available workload. It is not an easy task to supervise students to completion. Brabazon warns: "The final few months require complete commitment from both supervisor and postgraduate".  You should therefore make sure that "you are being guided by a supervisor who understands the nature of effective supervision and has proved it through successful completions" says Brabazon.

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

You have the right to select a supervisor with whom you feel comfortable as you are a postgraduate who is about to dedicate three or four years to an institution.  This is your right. However, it is becoming increasingly evident that as the postgraduate bureaucracy in universities increases, administrators and managers “match” a prospective candidate with a supervisor. You should not let this happen. Do your research on the available staff. Go and meet with individual academics. Find out whether they would be willing to supervise you, and then inform the graduate centre or faculty graduate administrators of their commitment.

TRUTH #3. Supervisors with 'star' quality may be attractive but may be distant. Pick a well-regarded supervisor but one who does not spend too much time away

Finding a supervisor who has a strong profile but rarely goes away on research leave or disappears to attend conferences, may seem like an impossible task. It is to your advantage as an international student to be supervised by someone with an international reputation whose name carries weight when they write references but - make sure they are not just "jet-setting professors, frequently leaving the campus and missing supervisory meetings to advance their own career" says Brabazon. "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" Brabazon notes.

TRUTH #4. Bureaucratic immunity is vital. Try to find a supervisor who will protect you from ‘the system’

Doctoral administration is excessive. There are milestone reports, public confirmations of candidature sessions, biannual progress reports, annual oral presentations of research and – in some universities – a form that must be signed off at the conclusion of every supervisory meeting!  But every minute a student spends filling in a form is one less minute they are reading a book or article, or writing a key page in their doctorate. Unfortunately, time is finite and bureaucracy is infinite!  Brabazon notes: "A good supervisor will protect you from the excesses of supervisory administration".

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

Brabazon warns that a supervisor that writes with PhD students is good. But a supervisor that writes almost exclusively with their PhD students is not so good – in fact, she says "alarm bells should start ringing". Supervision is a partnership but if your supervisor appears to be adding his or her name to students’ publications and writing very little independently, then you should be concerned. According to Brabazon, some supervisors claim co-authorship of every publication written during the candidature. You should not assume that this is right, assumed, proper or the default setting. The authorship of papers should be discussed. It is important that every postgraduate finishes the candidature with as many publications as possible. Find out how your supervisor 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", says Brabazon.

TRUTH #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 ensure that if a supervisor left the institution, the student would not be stranded, or that if the supervisor and student might had a disagreement, again the student would not left without support.  There are also occasions when an academic is “added” to the team of supervisors - but this is sometimes done to 'beef up' his or her workload and not for the student's benefit.

Brabazon maintains: "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." "A strong relationship with a well-qualified, experienced and committed supervisor will ensure that the postgraduate will produce a strong thesis with minimum delay".

TRUTH #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.

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

Brabaz notes that in Australia, teaching with your supervisor is often the default pattern but 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 of course this only applies to postgraduates seeking a career in academia.  For them, teacching experience is crucial as they can use the doctorate as a springboard. Of course, you can be supervised well without teaching experiences. However, if you have a choice, select the supervisor who can “add value” to your candidature.

TRUTH #9. Weekly supervisory meetings are the best pattern

According to Brabazon, 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".

Brabazon notes: "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. Weekly meetings are 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".

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

It may be self-eviden, 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", says Brabazon. She goes on to note: "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".

Brabazon gives some examples from her experience.  She says: "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".

According to Brabazon 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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