How to Make the Most out of Your PhD Supervisors

Choosing a PhD supervisor is difficult. Often you’re meeting them for the first time to discuss the PhD, and there’s not a lot of time to get to know the way they work. I’ve been lucky with my supervisory team and the unit I’m working in. I get on well with my supervisors, we seem to work in a similar way, and they’re super helpful and easy to work with. I realise I’ve been lucky here. Lots of other PhD students are not in the same position that I’m in. Some have difficult relationships to manage, and encounter difficult conversations throughout their project.

This week I thought it would be useful to give some tips on how to choose a supervisor you’ll work well with, and how to make the best out of those you are already working alongside.

Figure out what you want

Every PhD is different, and every student is different. Some students prefer a more involved supervisor. Others prefer to get on with their project on their own before reporting back; in that case a more detached style might be better. Give some thought to how you work, what will begin to grate and how you don’t want your project to pan out.
I liked a more involved way of working at the beginning of my project because it helped me build confidence. Once I had a handle on what I needed to do, I was happy to get on. I check in with my supervisors and know that they’re there if I need them, but it can be weeks between meetings if I don’t need to check in. I feel like they trust me but at the same time they provide support if/when I have a wobble or need their input.

Meet them

When you sign up to do a PhD you’re often committing to working with the same group of people for at least 3 years. That’s ages. If I had to work with some of the bosses I’ve had before for that length of time I’d be miserable by the end.. Anyway, it’s important to meet your potential supervisors before you apply for the project. If you’re miles away or can’t meet face to face, try and arrange a Skype meeting. You’ll be able to get a feel for them as a person rather than just a supervisor. What do they value, what are their hobbies, will they be supportive and understanding if you have some sort of personal disaster during your studies? Figure out if you like your potential supervisors on a human level before you commit to working with them. Some students I know didn’t figure this one out before embarking on the PhD. Now a few years in they’re ready to run as far from the project as possible – and it’s not the project that’s the problem.

Get more out of your PhD than a thesis

Your thesis should be your first priority throughout the course of your studies. That said, you need to build a network to create progression going forward – whether that’s in academia or not. Your supervisor is an amazing resource to help with that. Even if you’re mid-way through your PhD and don’t get on with your supervisor, this is one way for you to improve things. Say ‘yes’ more. Get involved with other projects. Network and meet people that are linked to your research field; use these extra projects as a way to work out what to do once the thesis is complete.
If you’re lucky enough to have a good supervisor that you’d like to continue working with, this is a great way to show that. Help them out and try to give as much as you take. Supervisors are busy people, we are often not their priority – and rightly so! Getting involved with side projects takes some burden from their shoulders and allows you to grow as an independent researcher too.

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