The tyranny of the awesome supervisor



I am approaching the end of my PhD. With just a few revisions to do before I submit, now is the perfect time to procrastinate reflect on my experiences. Like many of you, I’ve been an avid reader of Inger Newburn throughout my candidature, and it’s no secret that one of the major problems faced by PhD students is inadequate or inept supervision.>/p>

We should acknowledge that supervising is really hard to do well. There isn’t a whole lot of supervision training available, and a lot of well-intentioned supervisors aren’t malicious, they just get it a bit wrong sometimes.

But sadly, a supervisors few are simply Asshats.

I have what I like to call an Awesome Supervisor. Let’s call him Dr Awesome. Dr Awesome is diligent, encouraging, supportive, genuinely cares about me and my professional development, and we get along really well on an interpersonal level. Dr Awesome is also an incredibly accomplished, well-liked, and respected academic. I learn a lot just by watching how he does things, and I have infinite respect and admiration for him.

Those of you who have difficult relationships with your supervisor(s) may be thinking ‘stop rubbing it in!’ I assure you, this is not my intent. Reading the posts and comments on TW about negative supervision experiences makes me feel all the bad feels, and I wish I could give you all a big hug and tell you that you’re amazing, and it’s all going to be ok.

These sad stories leave me feeling pretty guilty, because, y’know… my supervisor is an Awesome Supervisor. But upon further reflection, my situation of having an Awesome Supervisor actually comes with its own set of challenges.

It’s taken me a long time to feel comfortable sending drafts to Dr Awesome for fear of disappointing him. I wasn’t scared because I thought he would yell at me, or give me mean feedback, or joke with colleagues about my stupidity (things that say, an Asshat supervisor might do). I was just worried that he would think less of me. I know this has more to do with my own insecurities than anything he has ever said or done, but it’s a particular kind of vulnerability that has affected my progress over the years.

Having an Awesome Supervisor has also meant that I’ve found it quite hard to ask questions or clarify things he’s said. I haven’t wanted to appear silly or uninformed, so in some of our meetings I have done lots of smiling and nodding while making a mental note to google lots of stuff pronto. Again, more to do with me and my insecurities than him!

I don’t buy into the “tough supervision is good for students because it makes them more independent” trope. I think this is often just an excuse for Asshat supervisors to be Asshats. But I have a sneaking concern that working with someone like Dr Awesome has perhaps sheltered me a little too much from some of the tougher aspects of working in academia.

Don’t get me wrong – I’ve had a decent share of troubles during my candidature. I received a heavy dose of Academic Arrogance early in my candidature, and I pitched a tent in the Valley of Shit for my entire second year. But throughout all of those struggles, I knew Dr Awesome had my back. How am I going to go in the big wide world without that close and reliable source of support?

I wish this could be one of those blog posts where at about this point I talk about a momentous event that changed my whole outlook on things, and that everything is totally fine now. But I think that would be a bit disingenuous, because I still find showing him my work difficult.

But recently I have realised that there are some pretty solid reasons to trust Dr Awesome that he will give me feedback on my work. These are the things I try to keep in mind when all the scary “but what if I’m terrible at this?!” thoughts come creeping in:

  1. He’s just as invested in this project as I am.
  2. He takes my education seriously, and he really wants me to do well. So if there are improvements to be made, he’ll let me know. If he says the work is good, I should just believe him and leave it at that.
  3. He’s a nice guy, and nice people tend to not become awful when giving feedback.
  4. He knows me and my work patterns really well, and carefully considers strategies that will help me move forward when things aren’t working.

I still have to actively keep these things in mind to keep my insecurities at bay. So even though Dr Awesome is awesome and not at all an Asshat, there are still challenges to be dealt with when it comes to the supervision of my project. But I’d be really interested to hear from other students what kinds of strategies they use to keep their insecurities in check when it comes to interacting with their supervisors.

Author Bio: Dr Catherine Ayers, who was a PhD candidate in the School of Sociology at the Australian National University, researching the multiple and sometimes conflicting ways we conceptualise and experience ‘Nature’, specifically in the realm of national parks and other protected areas. She has been known to nerd it up as an intern at ANU Research Training but now she works in the ANU school of Law.