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10 truths a PhD supervisor will never tell you

There are some important dos and don’ts to bear in mind when choosing someone to oversee your doctoral thesis, advises Tara Brabazon

Katie Edwards feature illustration (11 July 2013)

Source: Katie Edwards

My father used to tell a joke, over and over again. It was a classic outback Australian, Slim Dusty joke that – like the best dad jokes – I can’t remember. But I do recall the punchline. “Who called the cook a bastard?” To which the answer was, “Who called the bastard a cook?”

This riposte often comes to mind during discussions about doctoral supervision and candidature management. Discussions go on (and on and on) about quality, rigour, ethics and preparedness. Postgraduates are monitored, measured and ridiculed for their lack of readiness or their slow progress towards completion. But inconsistencies and problems with supervisors and supervision are marginalised. In response, I think of my father’s one-liner: Who called the supervisor a bastard? Who called the bastard a supervisor?

To my mind, I never received any satisfactory, effective or useful supervision for my doctorate, research master’s or two coursework master’s that contained sizeable dissertation components. I found the supervisors remote and odd. A couple of them tried to block the submission of the theses to my institution. Indeed, on three separate occasions in my career, academics informed me that if I submitted this thesis, it would fail. The results that followed these warnings were 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. I was left with the impression that these supervisors had no idea what they were doing. The worst supervisors share three unforgivable characteristics:

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

I am now an experienced supervisor and examiner, but I still remember my own disappointments. For the doctoral students who follow, I want to activate and align these personal events with the candidatures I have managed since that time. Particularly, I wish to share with the next generation of academics some lessons that I have learned about supervisors.

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.

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Readers' comments (29)

  • rose leach

    Mine's brilliant in all ways, so I am lucky!

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  • These "truths" are very helpful - thank you Dr. Brabazon! Have only just begun a professional doctorate but am planning and thinking ahead regarding my dissertation.

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  • A bit of a counsel of perfection but useful insights. I don't think 'complete commitment' to a PhD student is feasible or even desirable. Most supervisors have other things to do, teaching, admin., their own research and that makes them a better supervisor

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  • Great insight

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  • Truth number 1 would suggest that you should never be the first PhD student of a researcher. This would mean that no-one can ever start supervising PhDs.
    Truth 2 only applies if the studentship is not a project for which the supervisor has generated the funds (this is only true on the minority of cases).
    Truth 3 and 4 are almost mutually exclusive. Administrative decisions are taken by multiple layers in the University. If you want to be protected against administrative delays, you need a supervisor with enough "muscle" in the University. These will be the stars, which are mostly absent. What you need is a star supervisor, who has a good and permanent lab head who has all the technical knowledge and is usually present in the lab.
    Truth 5 suggests that all PhD students can write up their own work for publication and get it published in a good journal without the supervisor's input. Some exceptional PhD students may be able to do that, but they are few and far between.

    So I would suggest to take these "truths" with a pinch of salt.

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  • Many of these strike me as either banal or incorrect, at least in my field/experience.

    "Ensure that the department and university you are considering assign supervisors on the basis of intellectual ability rather than available workload. Supervising students to completion is incredibly difficult. The final few months require complete commitment from both supervisor and postgraduate." (From 1.)

    So you shouldn't accept a supervisor determined on basis of workload, because supervision is so demanding. How is an overworked supervisor going to be able to dedicate so much time to helping you then?

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  • "But it is teaching that will get them their first post (and probably their second and third)."

    This is a half-truth at best from my experience of University recruitment (from both sides of the table - management sciences) - teaching is a hygiene factor, once you have some it becomes irrelevant.

    So yes pick up some but you that generally only puts you on par with candidates, income generation/paper outputs will put you over the top - so if it is a choice between a little more teaching and turning out a paper, turn out the paper.

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  • Ah the market pressure of shopping for a Ph D and all because the lady wants to be an educated wage slave.

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  • Thanks a lot for the valuable suggestions. I started my PhD about one month ago but i have decided to change groups now. I know 1 month is too early to decide if i want to stay with this group but seeing the circumstances i decided to change. I had arguments over non-sense things with the PI and then he threatened me to destroy my career (by saying he won't write a good recommendation at the end) and he said leave if you want to leave. Then i said to him last week i am stressed out due to family problems and need 2 days off and he answered me keep stress at home, you just come here to work so work. And there were many more issues which led to the decision of quiting and moving over to some other place.

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  • It is particularly helpful if supervisors maintain information about present students and past ones. They way you can see if they publish and get jobs. Also, the sheer numbers that a supervisor has are important. In our university 7 is the max allowed and I am always at that, because at a top Australian university and in an area that is in demand. More than that number and I could not do the job effectively. Students are not often aware that we do other things with our time, too.

    Weekly supervisor meetings may be a good idea if you have 1-2-3 students. Otherwise I am afraid they have to be less frequent.

    Co-supervisors are absolutely mandatory in many Australian universities. Generally I have found them helpful, and have been one. They temper the ego or the cussedness of some main supervisors. What is annoying is Advisory Panels, which are on top of the 1-2 supervisors and who turn out for key moments like confirmation of candidature. They are too big and can produce conflicting advice when you have 4 -5 people in the room.

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