How to get a rock star supervisor

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Whether it is art, science or a little bit of magic, choosing the ‘right’ phd supervisor is one of the most important decisions you will make. There is no doubt that a little bit of luck (or magic) is involved, and both students and supervisors sometimes wish they had a crystal ball that would enable them to see into the future. In the absence of that, however, below I suggest four practical questions/considerations that might help you when selecting your PhD supervisor. This decision will have a significant impact on your PhD experience, so implore you to think carefully and make a considered decision.

 Are they an active, engaged and respected researcher?

Of course, they need to be an expert in this field of research. The best place to start is by reading your potential supervisors biography, publications and recent competitive grants. Have they held important leadership roles (e.g., conference, professional associations, journal editor etc), do they have a history of successful, timely completions and where do their students now work? Most of this information should be very easily accessible online, and if it is not, I would argue this is a warning flag.

What is their personality and “supervision style”?

Unfortunately, the first step only tells you whether they are good researchers; you also need to know how they supervise and if their approach is aligned to your personality, learning style and expectations. You need to meet face to face, or via skype, to have a conversation about whether they like to meet fortnightly, monthly or not at all, and if that meshes with your expectations. Some supervisors are micro-managers with Gantt charts, strict meeting and activity deadlines, whereas others are more relaxed and laidback – the best supervisors mix both these styles depending on the student and their time in the thesis journey. Being a good supervisor is very different from being a good researcher; it involves developing positive working relationships that foster motivation, honest communication and celebrate successes.

At this first meeting, you will get a sense of their personality and approach to supervision – and if they don’t tell you their expectations, ask. Trust your instincts: if you don’t get on with your supervisor, you’re going to have a very, very tough time.

 Research their “Character”. All academics are smart – find the kind academics to be your supervisor.

Ideally, you will be able to talk to their former students about their experiences (keeping in mind that people have different personalities and different thesis journeys). But if you cannot talk to past students directly, you can get a sense of how satisfied they were with their supervision experience by reading the acknowledgement section of their thesis. Below are excerpts from five PhD theses; while people differ in their writing styles and use of emotion, reading between the lines gives you a sense of how engaged each supervisor was in their thesis journey.

“For guidance, assistance and support in the research and writing of this thesis, thanks are due to my supervisors”.

“I would like to thank my supervisors for providing constructive feedback at critical points of the research development”

“You are a rock star supervisor, and I would not have survived this journey without you. You have been incredible, and I am so truly grateful to have had you by my side for the wild ride that has been my PhD journey. The clarity and knowledge you have imparted has been invaluable”

“This dissertation would not have been possible without her support, guidance and encouragement, providing me a shoulder to cry on when all seemed hopeless, instilling me with confidence when I questioned my ability, and for the early morning and late evening texts, emails and messages that seemed to shine a ray of hope on what appeared to be an overwhelming amount of information”.

“The person most directly responsible for my development as an academic is NAME. Knowing what I do now, if I could go back in time and hand pick any supervisor in the world it would be NAME. Work wise, the only thing that seemed more important to him than his passion for his research was the wellbeing of his doctoral student”

I would argue that, if at all possible, you want to work with “the rock star” supervisor; not someone who was helpful in providing “constructive feedback” at times.

 How can they help you? Be strategic.

Take some time to reflect on what you most what to get out of your phd – and make sure that the supervisor you select is in a position to support your endeavors. Do they have a scholarship on offer, part time teaching or research assistant work? Are they connected with industry or the communities you need to access. For example, if you want to conduct ethnographic fieldwork overseas or with in a large company, look for supervisors who already have these connections.

Develop an external support network 

Finally, you will be working with your supervisor for a minimum 3-4 years. Even in the best relationship, there will be disagreements and drama, criticism and crying – ideally in private, but a good friend of mine recently burst into tears at the start of her final seminar (the combination of 5 years part time thesis enrolment, while working full time with two young children).  We all understood: doing and completing a PhD is an emotional journey. Completing it requires a good external support network, so make fostering friendship with your fellow phd students a priority – unlike your family and non-academic newtork, they will “get it” when you are frustrated with data, tangling with theoretical concepts or are elated because you got an article published.

Finally, like many great ideas, this post was triggered by a conversation over dinner with friends who were doing their PhDs and lamenting their choice of supervisor. So, if you are reading this and thinking: I am or have completed my PhD IN SPITE of my supervisor – you are in good company. The reality is that many of us have less than positive memories and tales of supervisory conflict, woe and drama. And I know that some students do not have the luxury of picking their supervisors, or the relationship may have broken down. In these situations, how you manage the situation and your interactions is critical and I recommend (1) contacting the higher degree research support team at your university for advice (there are lots of processes, policies and practical tips to assist) and (2) reading some books on interpersonal communication and strategies.

If, like me, you completed a thesis with limited help, I have two messages for you – first, well done! You know that this PhD was hard earned and you did it.

Second, looking back, was there any early warning signs you could share to help others and any specific steps you could have tried / put in place that might have helped?

Author Bio: Associate Professor Evonne Miller is the Director of Research Training for the Creative Industries Faculty at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia.

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