Pick the Right Supervisor

By |2024-02-23T11:15:12+00:00February 23rd, 2024|Uncategorized|0 Comments

Do me a favour?

Pick the right supervisor.

It is THE power relationship that matters when you are writing a PhD, and its impact not only on your work and career, but also on your wellbeing should not be underestimated. If you are looking for a PhD position, don’t just start with the university, the reputation of the department or the field. People matter, and academia is built on personal networks. Being part of the right ecosystem so to speak, is everything.

I’ll tell you a story to illustrate.

I thought I had all this supervision business covered when I applied for my PhD position. I researched the person who would likely become (and in fact did become) my first supervisor ahead of time. He had worked very closely with a professor I knew well at my home university, a professor who had been a mentor figure for me and who I trusted. I had read the papers they had co-authored and they seemed interesting enough. My thought process was as follows: well, they seem to like each other, so he is probably a decent person, and they have written some interesting stuff together, so all will be good.

Not so.

Turns out he was a bully.

During our first ever group supervision meeting, he decided to put me down in front of my peers by saying: “I doubt you’re capable of producing one single coherent and rationally sound argument,” when I stumbled trying to answer one of his questions, after he had already made clear my PhD proposal did not fit into his idea of what political science was about.

Rather ironically, these group supervision meetings were an initiative to try to create a more supportive, collective supervision culture.

It worked in a way, I suppose: later that week at the bar (and after a couple of drinks) one of my colleagues remarked: “he is a pig to everyone, you know.”

I switched supervisors soon after and this man left no mark on my self-worth or the rest of my PhD trajectory. In a way him being so extreme made it easier to see the problem was entirely him. But I don’t even want to think about what it might have been like to have to complete a PhD under his ‘guidance’. As some of my colleagues would have to suffer through.

So, how to prevent supervision mishaps and disasters?

My advice would be to get in touch with a prospective supervisor’s current or past supervisees for a coffee and an informal chat and see what they have to say. Don’t be afraid to ask: this information is key! If you hear multiple negative stories, it’s an easy decision: don’t do it. Just don’t. There will be other, better opportunities for you, trust me here.

I may have a skewed perspective because I hear all the stories where things have not gone well, but my conclusion is that if you have ambitions in academia a supportive supervision relationship is one of the most important pieces to get right. (Support may mean different things to different people, but that’s a post all to its own.)

What are your thoughts on supervision? Any stories to share?

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