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Tuesday, 8 January 2013

How to manage your PhD supervisor

‘Life is not a bed of roses’, and who else other than the PhD student knows it better! This journey in pursuance of knowledge, like any other, also has it joys and pains! Every student has to craft his own path, as his predecessors have done before her/him (Villa, 2005, p.78)! But then, what is a PhD and why bother about it? Practically speaking, it is an academic qualification which shows one’s worth as a researcher. It is necessary for building career in academia, is recognized by the learned community the world over, and yes, it also helps in getting you a higher salary (Rugg and Petre, 2004)! 

The PhD process and the importance of supervisor(s)
PhD training is carried out under the guidance of one or more supervisor(s) and as such, knowing and managing them is vital for students’ survival. This relationship between the student and the supervisor is sometime compared to the relationship between the adolescent and her/his parents where a fine balance is to be maintained between the adolescent’s need to be independent and the parents’ anxiety to guide her/him away from harm. Honesty, sincerity, and punctuality, combined with good communication skills, are some of the key requirements for success in the process which are discussed in detail by Phillips and Pugh (2005) and summarized by Gauntlett (2008) for quick referral!

The survival kit
First of all, know your supervisor(s), do a good amount of research on her/him, both as a person and as a subject expert, before beginning the actual task. This clarifies mutual roles and expectations of the two (Phillips and Pugh, 2005) and help the student to draw a survival strategy of their own. Here are some elements of the strategy.

Planning meetings, tutorials!
One of the key elements is managing meetings/tutorials with them: be sure to pre-plan the date and time of the meetings, issues to be discussed and the deliverables with deadlines. And try your best to stick to these because it helps grow confidence in you by your supervisor. Go to the meetings /tutorials with open mind, take constructive criticism positively, arguing your point of view with solid evidence and take adequate notes. At the end of meetings, summarize the content of conversation so that you are on the same level of understanding regarding the outcome of the meetings. At times, when the goings got tough, use some distractions to ease the situation e.g., raising a relevant point from a recently published article, or discussing a recent trip by your supervisor(s) where s/he met some very important persons from the WHO, or may be discussing about how you can help another student who is working in the same field under the same supervisor! You may think of having a cup of coffee or light snacks during the meeting which also helps easing the tension.

Modesty pays…
Be modest while arguing your points at the meetings/tutorials so as not to hurt the egos of your supervisor(s), especially if s/he is younger than you.  Try to remain calm, and in control of your emotion. Have a close circle of friends who will always be there to give comfort and support, and after every meeting, as a coping mechanism, spend some quality time with them! This will energize you and prevent being let down by frustration!

Another strategy you can bank on is using instances of socialization…yes, lots of socialization with fellow PhD students at the department, with other students, faculties in- and out-side the department and also, your supervisor(s). during these events, a tip from your supervisor’s ex-student, or past experience of a co-faculty who worked with your supervisor on a project, or amusing anecdotes about handling past students by your supervisor may help you to understand her/his particular style of working. This will equip you to handle her/him accordingly in academic interactions. Once in a while you may have lunch together when s/he may open up and help to understand each other as human beings like anybody else!

Be amiable with the staff
Taking a stroll or having lunch together with the office staff also will ensure a very smooth sailing for you e at the department and you will never have to run to your supervisor with trivial official matters. All this creates a positive image of you before your supervisor as a mature, independent student who can deliver--- the most common expectation of a supervisor!

Challenges faced…
There may be quite some challenges in the whole process, especially if you are doing PhD in a foreign country with a different culture and academic environment than you are accustomed to. In that case, you have to overcome several barriers: culture, weather, home-sickness, and last but not the least, food style! age and level of knowledge (I was no less knowledgeable on my research topic/issues than my main supervisor from a different background)! You have to prepare yourself for this and you can draw on your friends’ and relatives’ experiences about living and working in an alien culture, and how to accommodate a different life-style.

To summarize: doing a little research beforehand to know your supervisor(s), efficient time management, being professional and organized while interacting with them, not to bother them with trivial official matters if possible, conscious attempts for not hurting their egos, and lots of socializing are some of the elements which have been found useful in handling supervisors. So friends, as the saying goes, ‘look before you leap’ and wish you a very happy journey to this difficult terrain with patience and wisdom!

Gauntlett, D. (2008). How to survive your PhD. Retrieved February 24, 2009, from http://www.theory.org.uk/david /phdtips.htm.
Phillips, E. M., & Pugh, D. S. (2005). How to get a PhD: A handbook for the students and their supervisors. 4th edition. Berkshire, England and New York, USA: Open University Press.
Rug, G., & Petre, M. (2004). So you want to do a PhD ? In: G. Rug and M. Petre (Eds.), The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research (pp. 1-12). Berkshire, England and New York, USA: Open University Press.
Villa, C. (2005). Culture, learning and surviving a PhD: a journey in search of my own path. KM4D Journal, 1(3), 78-83.

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