October 12, 2018, by Lisa Chin
A Session with Supervisors
What are the expectations of postgraduate research supervisors?
This was the question we delved into during a session with supervisors held on 1 October 2018. The session was organised as part of the Postgraduate Welcome Programme for new postgraduate students.
The panel of supervisors was made up of experienced PhD supervisors which included Professor Nashiru Billa, Associate Dean of Research for the Faculty of Science; Dr Hazel Melanie Ramos, Associate Dean of Teaching and Learning for the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and Head of Division of Organisational and Applied Psychology; and Dr Svenja Hanson, Associate Professor at the Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering. The session was moderated by Dr Jiin Woei Lee, Research Training Development Manager.
Level of Independence
One of the main topics discussed during the session was the level of independence expected from a PhD student. “Don’t expect your supervisor to chase after you,” said Professor Billa. A supervisor is primarily someone who helps and guides you through your PhD studies. The emphasis here of course is on helping. First and foremost you will have to do the work yourself. “You are the driver of your PhD and your supervisor is sort of like a ‘bad cop’ who would steer you in the right direction,” said Dr Ramos. Clearly, your supervisor is there to guide and not drive. You yourself are responsible for the planning and progress of your PhD. “You have to do the day-to-day running on your own,” said Dr Hanson. So do not expect your supervisor to be looking over your shoulder all the time.
Postgraduate Research Handbook
There is a lot of important information to digest at the beginning of a PhD, from the details of the multiple inductions (some may even be compulsory) to the slightly less exciting guidelines and handbooks. The postgraduate research handbook is a lot like the YouTube terms and conditions, a bunch of boring stuff but you will be required to read it. Professor Billa emphasised the importance of knowing and familiarising yourself with the postgraduate research processes and requirements. You would not need to refer to the handbook during the day-to-day progress of your PhD but you would need it for the important milestones e.g annual review and viva. So how do you get hold of these information? The panel highlighted that it varies between different faculties, schools and departments. While you can look up for the information on SharePoint and/or Moodle, the easiest way would probably be “contact your PGR administrator who is based at the Faculty administration office,” said Dr Ramos. So read the handbook, at least once. Then keep it somewhere for future reference.
This is one of the most common topics discussed during a session like this. Understanding what your supervisor expects of you is essential to a successful student-supervisor relationship. With this understanding, Professor Billa said that it can provide you with a foundation for building an effective working relationship with your supervisor. “Come for supervisory meeting with agenda,” said Dr Ramos. You should take these meetings and appointments seriously, show up on time and make sure that there is something to talk about. “Don’t expect too much from your supervisor as you are not the only one to attend to. Supervisors are busy juggling between teaching obligations, research work and administrative duties. So you are one of the many responsibilities for your supervisor,” said Dr Hanson. In addition, supervisors are far too overcommitted to be confronted with late cancellations or appointments that turn out to be meaningless because you did not do anything.
Formal supervisory meetings are an opportunity for you to discuss your progress, describe your findings and alert your supervisor to any problems. These meetings are so important that it is a requirement of the University to have supervision records in place. “Keep a written record of points agreed upon during meeting and the actions to be undertaken,” said Dr Ramos. “This is more of like a measure to safeguard both the student and supervisor in case of conflicts,” said Professor Billa. He also added that the supervision records should be progressional where they reflect your academic and research development as a researcher.
Loneliness & Stress
It is no secret that getting a PhD is a lonely and stressful process. “It’s a lonely occupation but don’t be lonely. Make friends and make the right friends,” said Dr Hanson. While you are studying for your PhD, your research and thesis will be your main focus and you will, most probably, spend most of your time doing research. This does not mean that you would not be able to have a life outside of your PhD. It is equally important to socialise with other people. It is absolutely okay to take breaks without the feeling of dread and guilt that you are behind in your research. “Remember why you decided to do a PhD in the first place and don’t compare yourself to others,” advised Dr Ramos. She also warned of panic projection where you get influenced by your panicked friends or colleagues.
“Keep your supervisors on their toes and be crafty in navigating your relationship with them,” said Professor Billa.
“Start solidly with literature review. Write more and keep writing. Write as often as you can, as much as you can, so that by the time you write your thesis, you’ll have become a fluent academic writer,” said Dr Hanson.
“Don’t procrastinate! It’s a problem when you think you have the luxury of time,” said Dr Ramos.
However hard a PhD can be and whatever the challenges you have to overcome, remember that you are not alone. It is academically challenging, occasionally isolating and requires a lot of self-motivation, but we hope you will find it a phenomenally rewarding experience at the end of your PhD journey.
If you are a new postgraduate research student, tell us what do you want to get advice on?
If you are a returning postgraduate research student, tell us what is your best advice for surviving a PhD? What keeps you going when it gets tough?
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