Wednesday, 31 August 2016
How to manage your PhD supervisor
There is a saying that “life is not a bed of roses”, and who else other than the PhD student knows it best…especially if he is a late starter, have a full-time job to manage and a full-fledged family with three grown-up children! Yes, I am speaking about myself and my challenging journey in pursuance of knowledge and fame and all of its joys and pains! But it is a long story and I don’t want to bore you with that. Rather, I am going to tell you how I managed the most strategic and critical part of the process i.e., how I managed my PhD supervisor and got the work done. This I am doing because I think that this may be of help to those of you who are dreaming of doing it, and also because ‘To know the road ahead, ask those coming back’ (a Chinese proverb)!
But let me begin at the very beginning. First, what is a PhD and why bother about it? Practically speaking, it is an academic qualification which shows your worth as a researcher, 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 2; ch. 1.)! Besides, parental expectations, competing with spouse or colleagues, going abroad etc. are some other reasons for doing a PhD (Bellare, “The PhD Experience”). It involves “[…] doing a decent sized chunk of research, writing it up and then discussing it with professional academics” (Rugg and Petre 2; ch. 1).
Role of supervisor and student-supervisor relationship
PhD training is carried out under the guidance of one or more supervisor(s) and as such, the relationship between the two is vital for the successful completion of the process. This student-supervisor relationship is sometime compared to that of adolescent-parent where a fine balance is to be maintained between adolescent’s need to be independent and the parents anxiety to guide them away from harm (Phillips 6 Sept. 2005). He suggested good communication, honesty, sincerity and punctuality as some of the key virtues needed for success in the process. These issues are discussed in detail by Phillips and Pugh (“How to get a PhD”) and summarized for quick referral (Gauntlett, “How to survive your PhD”).
Now I will tell you how I did manage my supervisor(s). By the way, I have had two: one as the main supervisor and the other as co-supervisor. As you can guess, I have had done a pretty good amount of research on the matter. This clarified our mutual roles and expectations (Phillips and Pugh ch. 8 and 9) and helped me to draw a survival strategy of my own. One of the key element was managing meetings with them. We together pre-planned the date and time of the meetings, issues to be discussed and the deliverables with deadlines. And I tried my best to stick to the timings etc. Believe me, this is the best way to help grow confidence in you by your supervisor. I used to go to the meetings/tutorials with open mind, take constructive criticism positively, arguing my point of view with evidence and at the end of meetings, summarizing the content of the meetings so that we were on the same level of understanding regarding the outcome of the meetings. At times, when the goings got tough, I used to lighten the atmosphere with some distractions e.g., raising a point from a recently published article, or referring to a recent trip by my supervisor(s) or may be discussing about how we can help another student who is working in the same field under the same supervisor. Occasionally, we used to have a cup of coffee or light snacks during the meeting which also helped in easing the atmosphere.
Another strategy that I used was socialization…yes lots of socialization with my fellow PhD students at the department, with other students, faculties in- and out-side the department and also, my supervisors (one of whom was from my own culture). These were good distractions, charging me with new energy to reflect upon what I was doing and whether I was doing the right thing! These socializations helped a lot_ sometimes with tips on important references or piece of relevant information, sometimes just discussing and reflecting on my work as well as others’ works taking these to a philosophical level. And yes, sometimes it was just talking about the world, the people and the joys of life and taking off the stress of doing a PhD! And the occasional dinner at my supervisors’ helped to understand each other as human beings with all our potentials and limitations! Taking a stroll or having lunch together with the department staff also ensured a very smooth sailing for me at the department and I never had to run to my supervisor with official matters. All this created a positive image of me before my supervisor as a mature, independent student who can deliver.
There were several challenges for me in the whole process. I was doing my PhD (in Sweden) far away from my home (Bangladesh) and family (three children and a lovely wife)… at the age of 50 years (quite advanced in Asian context) with full-length professional experience (25+ years) in doing research! Thus, I have to overcome several barriers: cultural, home-sickness, age and level of knowledge (I was no less knowledgeable on my research topic/issues than my main supervisor from an European background)! My earlier experiences in living and working abroad provided me enough tips to survive in an alien culture, and to accommodate a different life-style. I have to practice modesty while arguing my points so as not to hurt the egos of my supervisors (the co-supervisor was younger than me and a woman) and tried to remain calm whatever the situation. I won’t say that I always succeeded, but most of the time I did! At the back of my mind, there was only one thing: I should not let down my family and my friends! After every meeting, as a coping mechanism, I used to pass some social time with my modest circle of friends who were always there to give me support and encouragement, and thus energize me before reflecting upon the outcome of the meetings.
Yes, ultimately I defended my thesis successfully and to the satisfaction of my supervisors. To summarize: doing a little research beforehand to know your supervisor(s), being professional in interaction 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 of success in handling your supervisor humanely. So friends, as the saying goes, ‘look before you leap’ and a happy journey to this difficult terrain with patience and wisdom!