4. Ten ways to put the Super into Supervisor

Before I consolidate 50 odd combined years of supervisory experience into a few paragraphs, let us rewind five years…

My first two Honours students were driven and smart but also young and a little smart-ass. They moved up from the University of Sydney to come to my small, regional university after volunteering with me through their undergraduate studies. In my eager excitement to nurture and inspire them, I took them to my weekly ukulele club where out of the mouths of babes they sang like angels… but where I simultaneously broke the golden rule of supervision and handed over the key to my precious, private chill-out space where I was free of the worries of work and the only biology I had to consider was the yeast in my beer.

Later that year, rookie Deb hosted a party, which was also a fun experiment aimed at comparing the relative alcohol tolerance of my lab members. The event got a little rowdy, as parties do after moderate consumption of tequila, and ended with one student throwing up in my house after some overzealous drinking; cue an angry girlfriend and self-discovery that it’s actually quite difficult to try and hide resentment in a thesis draft when the track-changes are getting out of control at 2 am on a Saturday night. But at the end of their projects, I was so very proud and they gifted me my favourite beer, wrote a beautiful yet factually questionable song about our journey and both published their research in peer-reviewed journals. So many highs, a few unnecessary lows.

Other people must have experienced similarly steep learning curves because my next university insisted that I attend an advisor-training course before entrusting me into the mentorship of any aspiring postgraduate students. Part of the training was to interview two senior members of faculty for their advice on supervision. I approached two strong, successful female academics at James Cook University, who are far from their first rodeo. This is what I learned:

1. Create the culture you want to surround you
A functional happy research group requires communication, trust and generosity. Supervision should be horizontal between students as well as vertical from the supervisor down. Lab members should become more independent as they gain experience and then help out newer students. Everybody should look after each other – if someone sees a problem with someone else they should report it to the supervisor. Impose a rule to dob it up the food chain, this means problems are knocked on the head early and it fosters a culture of good mental health and looking after each other. Go into the postgrad room and clear it out at 8pm on a Friday night. Students should take downtime to relax and socialize during their PhD studies.

2. Be self-aware
There is a power dynamic and you are top dog. Remember that the student is not there to advance your career; they are there to learn, to grow and hopefully this translates to useful research. Using students to advance your career by treating them as slaves, using them to make a political point, or not acting in their best interests is unfairly taking advantage of their vulnerabilities. Students are there for guidance, treat them as you wish your supervisor had treated you.

3. Maintain space
You are always going to have to talk to students about things they don’t want to hear. Set up expectation by discussing that these conversations are inevitable at the start of their project. Tell them what you expect from them and how the research group works so that they can agree to your terms before they commence. Maintain space by being their supervisor, rather than their friend. Address problems strategically by going through a progress report or agendas with a record of previous commitments to maintain objectivity and take the focus off direct confrontation.

4. Pick the right project
Find out what the student likes and match the student to the project. A computer-lover will excel in places where an outdoors person may not. Identify people’s strengths and play to them, this will help to develop skills and researchers with confidence. Try to identify if the student can finish tasks before you take them on and talk to people that have worked with them. Students with the highest grades in undergraduate studies do not always make the best postgraduate students so take the time to consider if the student is passionate, whether they can think for themselves and why they want to enroll before you commit to supervising.

5. Hold regular meetings and surprise meetings
Regular meetings are an important part of staying connected with the students. Run some planned regular meetings in your office and drop by with some impromptu meetings in places the student is working. This gives you a chance to see them in their natural habitat when they are relaxed and not expecting you, and gives you a chance to pick up on things that might be amiss. Give them notes at the end of the meeting so everyone has a record of what you have suggested and what each person has agreed to.

6. Stay on track
A thesis is like a tree that needs to grow upwards, cut off its branches and store them in a special spot. The branches are the side projects that can be distracting and need to be put aside until the thesis is complete or until they are needed as a back-up. After each piece of data is collected, ensure that students write up their methods immediately and give you copies of the results so that the work is backed up by both of you.

7. Communication is key
Communication can avoid problems before they arise. Allow students to vent about problems, rather than stewing on them. Keep broad goals and timelines that you follow up on with the student to track progress and maintain an open dialogue. Consider using a project collaboration tool called grape vine, it is the illegitimate offspring of dropbox and text message, and allows you to see all your collaborator’s tasks and due dates and messages.

8. Put yourself in their shoes.
PhDs are teenage years of academia. They are awkward, the student is still finding themselves academically, towards the end they can pretty much do everything on their own but they’re probably not allowed. Being a PhD student is frustrating as hell. A supervisor’s job is to train students to be resilient in the harsh world of academia, to teach them to play to their strengths and to develop their career. After 6 months in the game, they should know more than you in some areas. They are becoming their own expert, you need to be able to deal with that while being confident in your fundamental knowledge and ability to guide and lead them.

9. Think like a man.
Interestingly, both of my superwomen advisors referenced the different approaches of men and women. Women tend to nurture more, take on more and over prepare themselves. If you are female supervisor you need to take this into account, and if you are mentoring a female student, you need to prepare her to be resilient. So think like a male, or teach her to do so too. Hold your own, take on what is reasonable but no more. Back yourself.

10. The end goal
Teach students how to think. Let them take ownership over their projects. A supervisor’s job is to give students the confidence to make decisions and conduct research. Be generous, let them take the senior author place if they need it, go over the authorship expectations with them and your coauthors before you commence each project and refer to the university guidelines if you need to remind a colleague that the student owns the project.

There were some real gems in my chats with these wonder women. One thing that came across strongly was how much both women enjoyed supervising and how rewarding it is for them as well. I think a special bond is created in the process of helping someone to achieve such a monumental task and it does provide great satisfaction. The overriding themes here are really just not to be an asshole but not to be a best friend either; to give generosity and respect. Prop them up when they need it but give them the space to fail. It seems like if you are a decent person and you communicate well, you will be well on your way to many fulfilling collaborations with postgraduate students. We can’t deny that the system has inherent risks for both parties, in the same way as any relationship with a power-dynamic. Being aware of this and staying transparent and honest is the key to healthy, satisfied students-supervisor relationships.

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