Friday, August 29, 2014

Five Super Tips for Getting the Most from Your Supervisor

English: Mathematics formulas () in a PhD thes...
Mathematics formulas in a PhD thesis (Wikipedia)

by Thomas Bray, Warwick University Postgraduate Study:

Your supervisor is a key ally in your research, so a good relationship with them will help. Here’s some advice on ensuring that the partnership works for you.

Okay, so you’ve finally met your supervisor, had some frank discussions and begun an effective working relationship; good for you, you’ve overcome a major postgraduate hurdle.

But maybe you’re wishing for a little something more? Perhaps you feel that your relationship with your supervisor, while perfectly workable, is not what it could be? In this article, I’ll be giving you a few tricks and tips on how to make the most of your supervisor.

1) Be honest

This is the best policy from the off, and it is no less important a few months (or even a few years) down the line. Your supervisor will be able to draw on their experience of working with previous students, and they will be experts in their field, but it is highly unlikely that they will experts on you.

Openly and frankly discuss your expectations, as well as your perceived strengths and weaknesses. But always try to:

2) Plan to be concise

The amount of time which you have with your supervisor varies from department to department and from person to person. In any case, it can sometimes feel like just when you getting somewhere, your time is up and you are being released back into the wild without a clue about what to do next.

This is why it pays to plan your supervisions, and to make sure that you succinctly express your thoughts and concerns. Sending a quick email the day before your supervision detailing what you’d like to discuss and what you’ve been doing since the last meeting is often a good way to make sure that everything is covered in the allotted time.

3) Take both criticism (and praise) with a pinch of salt

Some of your work your supervisor will like, some they will feel could be improved, and, very occasionally, they will advise you to just outright scrap the draft which kept you up all night. It is at times like this that it is easy to feel that they are being vindictive and difficult, that they are putting you through unnecessary stress.

This is, of course, not true; they are simply pushing you to produce your best work. With a few months’ hindsight, you will understand. It can be a very tough process, but the confidence that your final product will be a representation of your finest research means that it is worth it.

4) Know their limits

Understand that there are some things which your supervisor cannot do for you or help you with. One of the most astonishing features of postgraduate research is often how quickly you find that you know more about your topic’s material and literature than your supervisor; essentially, you start to become an authority in your own narrow field.

Although they will often be able to challenge the internal logic and wider issues of your research, you may find that you have to go elsewhere, to fellow students and research groups outside Warwick, for the necessary extra challenges. It may sound strange, but by pushing yourself outside of supervisions, you can ensure that the time you do spend with your supervisor is effectively used.

5) Know that you’re not alone

The former point may help to alleviate any problems you encounter with your supervisor, but if you are really having difficulties, then it is essential to utilise the support networks which exist for such an eventuality.

Your department should have a Director of Graduate Studies (or similar) whose concern it is to ensure that relationships between students and supervisors run harmoniously. If you have genuine concerns about your supervisor, or your ability to work with them, they are often the best people to turn to. Hopefully, however, this won’t happen.

In the end, the best way to ensure that you get the most out of your supervisor is to hold up your end of the bargain: get drafts in on time, push yourself to improve, and keep your supervisor informed about your progress.

Most of all, enjoy the process: yes, it is unashamedly difficult, and completion is a real accomplishment, but by choosing to undertake postgraduate study, you have already demonstrated your passion for your subject.

Your supervisor is no different; choosing a career in academia requires commitment to the discipline. Between the two (or more) of you, you should be able to produce some exciting, innovative, and important research. Good luck!

About the Author:
Thomas Bray: Now in the third-year of a PhD in History, I first came to Warwick as a fresh-faced undergraduate in 2006, and after years abroad in Canada and Berlin, I completed an MA in the History of Medicine and begun my doctoral research in 2010. 

All this means that I am in my eighth year as a Warwick student, which is the kind of thought which makes me want to lie down for a while. When not doing academic things, I enjoy cycling around the countryside, playing with local cats, and getting into unlikely situations which later make for incredulous blog entries. You can follow me on Twitter @ThomasBray12

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