Me and my PhD supervisor: tales of love and loathing

Academics discuss how supervisors shaped their teaching

Supervisors illustration

Source: David Parkins

When a PhD supervision session constitutes just another blocked-out hour in a besieged diary, it can be all too easy to forget that it could make an impression that stays with the student for the rest of their research career.

We asked five academics for their recollections of the PhD supervision they received, and the way it had informed their own approach to tutoring. Three had enjoyed excellent supervision that had deeply influenced their own practice. But two had not. One recalls exchanges with their tutor characterised by yawns and silences, while another was treated with a “cutting harshness”, valuable only as an exemplar of how not to conduct yourself.

The fact that both unfortunate tutees went on to have successful careers – albeit, in the former’s case, largely thanks to a second reader – suggests that sympathetic PhD supervision is not an absolute prerequisite for future academic success. But it is surely important. So what characterises it?

According to one highly experienced supervisor, good supervision is like good parenting: you have to be “tough and clear”, as well as “kind and generous”.

Another contributor suggests good supervisors must have “great curiosity and even greater responsibility”, while a third suggests a certain virtuosity with the F-word can also be an asset.

But the most important piece of advice for supervisors must surely be that if you see a fire extinguisher flying from your tutee’s hand towards your head, be sure to duck.

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