How to be a supervisor (when you are barely a grown up)

In my last post, I wrote about learning how to take care of myself during a difficult PhD candidature. In this post, I’m going to discuss my experiences of learning how to supervise.

I finished my PhD in 2011 and spent the next few months in an unexpected purgatory. I was relieved to finally finish, but confused. I was exhausted. I was uncertain about what to do next. I was poor. I had papers to write and a career to plan but also unreasonable expectations that I should be enjoying the most exciting and carefree time of my life. Somehow, even with a crippling lack of confidence, I talked my way into a postdoc. I was tentative, feeling under-qualified and devoid of skills.

Within a few months, I found myself being asked to co-supervise a new PhD student. It was surreal. What did I know about supervising? Heck, what did I know about doing a PhD? My PhD was a nontraditional experience of years of crying and scrounging money together to be able to visit overseas institutions. I was supervised under the ethos that students must be broken and forged anew. How would I manage?

Now, a few years down the track, I co-supervise three students. I work with three very successful, intelligent and kind PhD students. They are very different, with different skills and challenges, but together they are one of my favourite parts of my work. Indeed, I adamantly believe that supervising students is some of the best use of my time and one of the most important facets of academic work.

Here’s some thoughts of what I’ve learnt about supervising.

Learn widely

When I was first asked to supervise Alison*, a PhD student newly arrived in my department, my only experience of PhD supervision had been negative. My own PhD supervisor had intensely disliked me and we had an irrevocable relationship breakdown. This role wasn’t filled by anyone else, and I used a sprawling network of mentors to plug the gap. I didn’t want to start out with Alison thinking only about what to avoid by way of supervisory approaches.

John*, her primary supervisor, and my postdoc boss, provided a fantastic positive role model. He is an attentive and engaged supervisor. He works his students hard and has high standard of output. But he also provides incredible time and care. Although I formed only a small proportion of her overall supervisory panel, I made sure that I attended all Alison’s meetings. For a long time, I provided little input and instead focused on how John directed the meetings and the overall structure of her supervision.  After a while, I was more confident, and we began meeting on together on our own.

Later, I was asked to co-supervise another student, David*. He was sitting at my university but was enrolled through another institution, due to his particular personal circumstances. He was a very different from Alison and his primary supervisor also had quite a different style to John’s. Both supervisors have been fantastic role models.

Look out for good supervisors and take note of what you think they do well, but equally look out for supervisors who are abusive, neglectful or hapless and take note of what they lack.  Also, look out for any formal workshops on supervisory training. Contact your research training office to see if they have any resources that can help. Finally, familiarise yourself with relevant university policies on supervision.

Build a relationship

When I first started supervising, I was keen to jump straight in. I wanted the student to launch into a project and get some momentum building. For my second student David, I knew that it takes time to set up a project and even more so to settle into a relationship. Going for a coffee, having a meeting with no agenda or catching up at lunchtime isn’t a waste of time. This is laying a solid foundation for a relationship. This is where you learn how the other talks and works. It’s an excellent investment in building a base for navigating tricky times later in the candidature.

Know your role

I jumped onto a supervisory panel with little understanding that each person on the panel fills their own, distinct role. I was terrified by the thought that I’d have to help guide the long-term project goals, provide high-level technical advice and navigate the administrative requirements of a PhD candidature. Of course this wasn’t the case. The primary supervisor took care of most of this. I was there for a different purpose – I was there for as supportive sounding board, for gentle words of encouragement and for an occasional dealing of tough love. I consider Alison to be a student, a friend and a mentee. I’m there to help her on stuff that’s important but too small for her primary supervisor. I read her written work, I explain how to write a cover letter, and I encourage her to send those tough emails nagging someone for long overdue data. She had an impressive scientific mind, an enviable work ethic and advanced technical skills. I’m there to help her see this.

Knowing your role isn’t just about working out how you fit into a group, it’s also about recognising how the student contributes to your experiences of academia. My students are all energetic and engaged young researchers. It is a great privilege to be a part of their experience of learning how to be a researcher and I am extremely grateful for these opportunities.

Ask the student what they want

Many supervisors have a distinct way of supervising. They apply this to all students and see this as the clearest way to guide a student to a timely PhD thesis submission. For some, this is a highly successful and proven model. However, this doesn’t really work for me and it doesn’t suit my collection of varied students. My students are increasingly independent young researchers, whose ideas are no less legitimate than my own.

It’s important to ask your students what they want. What do they expect of their supervisors? What do they want out of a project? What skills and experiences are important? What do they want to research? What do they aim for in a career? How do they want to be supervised? Talking through these types of questions and revisiting them now and then is a worthwhile use of time.

* No real names in use.

5 thoughts on “How to be a supervisor (when you are barely a grown up)

  1. Thanks for the wise advice Soph! I attended a Supervisor training session a couple of months ago ( and found it really informative, particularly hearing from more experienced supervisors. Tools like checklists might also be helpful for those of us who need lists to feel like progress is being made 🙂 Apparently there are some good resources here…

  2. Nice piece, Sophie. I am hoping that one of my supervisors will come across this post one day. She used to be in your shoes, but she has never seemed to be engaged with my study or supervision work at all. Throughout my candidature, I have observed the following demeanour of her consistently: always in a rush (looking at his watch) when time is almost up in a meeting, unresponsive to some of my emails, occasionally refers me back to my main supervisor without engaging very much with the research problems I raise, etc. Hence I began to lose confidence in her and relied on my main and other supervisor to fill the gaps. The bottom line, as a student, I really don’t mind if a supervisor is new to supervision. What seems to irk me is when supervisors seem reluctant to take on the learning curve; this is honestly quite hard to fix. The good news is that these supervisors are only a minority and I’m pleased to learn that there are new supervisors like you who wants to be a better mentor. Keep it up.

    • Oh this sounds tricky. It doesn’t sound like she would even be open to sitting down and talking about your needs and expectations? I’m glad your main supervisor is engaged, but still hard…

      • It’s really tricky. I tried talking to her about my needs and expectations, but that’s when she would ask me to discuss those with my main supervisor without trying to work out some possible solutions with me… Anyway, despite sounding a bit whingy here, my point is: it doesn’t matter when you’re only barely a grown up, what matters more is that you’re willing to grow up as a supervisor. The fact that you’re learning widely about supervision means that you will make every effort to be a good one. With that willingness to take the learning curve, I’m sure your PhD students enjoy their conversations with you. All the best.

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