In 2012 I reached the end of my undergraduate degree and I started applying for PhD positions in theoretical physics. That PhD journey did not go as I had expected but now in 2021 I have managed to become a doctor of mathematics!


During the last nine years I’ve done a MSc, attended classes at five universities in two countries, enrolled as a PhD student three times and had the chance to work with four different supervisors. Getting to study in these varied environments with lots of different people taught me how important human relationships - in particular the student-supervisor relationship - are for getting through our studies.


A PhD is a huge part of our lives for 3-5 years and sets the course for our careers. Having a supervisor who is understanding and supportive helps with productivity, creativity, independence, networking and mental health - during the PhD and sometimes long afterwards. So, given the chance, we should make sure a potential supervisor is going to be a great fit, right?


One great way to start is to interview our interviewers when we apply for PhD positions. In many areas asking questions about pay, duties and the work environment at interviews is normal and even expected.

However, in a (small, non-scientific) survey of people who had started PhDs, I found that

  • <25% of participants asked about pay or conference funding

  • <15% of participants asked about workload, work hours or duties

  • <25% of participants clearly stated their supervision needs and <25% got a clear statement about their supervisor’s expectations

  • around 33% of participants asked the current PhD students and postdocs about life in their potential group

during their PhD interview. Around 66% said that they had focussed on showcasing their knowledge to impress their potential boss. Of course this is also very important, but the experience shouldn‘t be so one-way!

I think interviewing potential bosses is difficult for us as MSc and PhD students for several reasons:

  1. We are often still young and inexperienced at the start of our PhD

  2. We are used to being students, who often have little control and are under pressure to impress professors rather than building a two-way relationship.

  3. We’re not always told that it is an option!

Here are some examples of the kind of questions we can very reasonably ask in interviews to get an idea of what the PhD experience will be like:

  • How often and for how long do you meet with students?

  • Do you have regular student progress updates or evaluations?

  • How many hours a week do your students generally work?

  • What is the group dynamic like? Do you go for lunch together?

  • What are your expectations for publications? How do you support students writing their first paper(s)?

  • Is there any soft skills training available?

  • How concrete is the project plan? Is there room for me to apply my own ideas?

  • What is the monthly pay? How long is the funding secured for?

  • Is there funding to go to conferences and summer schools?

  • Does the group/department participate in any diversity or equality action?

Exactly which questions need to be asked and what makes a good answer is of course very personal. Before an interview or meeting, try to make a list of your experiences, needs and priorities, and evaluate your goals for achieving a good work-life balance.


What is the goal of these questions? Well, almost every PhD student will face obstacles, but there are some common problems which I think can be caused or influenced by the student-supervisor relationship.


Lack of contact

I’ve talked to a lot of PhD students who spend little or virtually no time with an active supervisor. Some of us thrive when left alone but for many it is a huge cause of stress, uncertainty and wasted time. Whether or not they are your “official” supervisor, it is important to have regular contact with someone who can guide and advise you.


Inability to recognise and nurture your strengths

There are many qualities that make a good PhD student: persistence, creativity, attention to detail, big picture thinking, a passion for teaching, coding skills, focus, presentation skills…and each one of us possesses a unique mix of them.


Whether it’s’ because they don’t have time to get to know their students or because they only value particular qualities (such as exam grades or publications), some supervisors sadly overlook their student’s skills and value. This lack of recognition or being forced to work in a way that doesn’t suit us can lead to demotivation, frustration and low self-esteem.


Conversely, a supervisor who sees your individual strengths and weaknesses can value what you have to offer and give specific support where you need it.


Different views on equality and discrimination

Colleagues who don’t believe in the problems of inequality and harassment in the academic world can be very frustrating to talk to, and in the worst case might stop us taking action when serious problems arise or even commit harassment.


On the flipside, colleagues and supervisors who support the cause can be great allies both in everyday life and when it comes to organising events or training.


Even problems which aren’t directly related to supervision (such as teaching duties or contract issues) can be much easier to deal with if you can talk to them your and count on them to be on your side.

So if you can: work out your priorities, ask lots of questions and go into the PhD knowing you can get the guidance you need to succeed!


Acknowledgements & notes

I’d like to thank the many people who taught, supervised and encouraged me during my undergraduate and postgraduate studies. They were all dedicated, interesting and open people who taught me a lot!


Even if you feel like you don’t have a choice of supervisor or if you’re continuing with someone you already know (as ~33% of our respondents did), I still think that analysing your needs and having a professional but open discussion about them with your supervisor can really help to make the most of the PhD experience.


I’m not trying to class professors as GOOD or BAD supervisors, just encourage students to make choices that suit them best. Not the best supervisor for me does not imply a bad supervisor or a bad person.


For some insight into the idea of interviewing your interviewer in the business world, check out these interview tips from Glassdoor, Indeed and The Balance Careers.

Dr. Lucia Rotheray

Mathematician

Dr. Kenza Benabderrazik is a lecturer and outreach coordinator for the Sustainable Agroecosystems Group at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH). She teaches lectures on sustainable agroecosystems and agroecology. Her research focuses on tomato producers’ resilience in the face of weather events and market instability in Morocco and Ghana.


Dr. Benabderrazik conducting a survey encounter assessing the resilience of tomato producers with the Women Farmers Group of Wuru Wematu, Upper East Region, Ghana, 2019.


Dr. Benabderrazik describes her upbringing in a highly scientific family as a benevolent brainwashing. Her genetics professor mother and ophthalmologist father led family outings to forests and botanical gardens. “For me, the environmental component was always important,” she says, “to relate to nature in a big sense.” While she stresses her path through science is not a “Hollywood narrative,” she does notice intriguing patterns in retrospect. As a child, she wanted to be a cook. In environmental consulting, her main projects all related to agriculture and food in some way.


Growing up in Morocco, Dr. Benabderrazik noticed the striking contrast between “wonderful landscapes…beautiful nature, and pollution,” as well as the dissonance between waste production and waste treatment. These social and environmental dynamics fascinated her, offering “so many opportunities to dive into one of those subjects and being able to see a result.” Her interest drove her to get a degree that would “be useful for the spaces around [her].”


Survey crew assessing the resilience of the Teff Value Chain in Ethiopia, 2018.


Studying environmental science and engineering at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL), Dr. Benabderrazik pursued her interest in how“we embed ourselves in built…and natural systems.” Over time, she shifted towards waste management and resource efficiency, which was “highly linked to [her] Moroccan life.”


She worked as an environmental consultant after her master’s studies before diving back into research with her interdisciplinary PhD at ETH, studying food systems at multiple scales.


Teff field trials at the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research. Photo by Debre Zeit.


Critical thinking and questioning skills help Dr. Benabderrazik “move in stimulating directions.” She sees her work as a rewarding journey of deconstructing models and seeing how hypotheses change, whether she is elucidating the sometimes-invisible dynamics of the food system or breaking down scientific stereotypes and interrogating her own self-doubt. While she uses dynamic modeling tools to “dive deep into conceptual elements” of the food and agricultural system, her main research medium is human communication. She enjoys exchanging with human beings and conducting interviews, each one an opportunity to interact with people in a way that aligns with her values.


Beginning the survey assessing the resilience of the Cocoa Value Chain in Kumasi, Ghana, 2017.


Dr. Benabderrazik’s work is inherently political, as well as social. Despite the difficulty of criticizing water-depleting policies in her home country, she believes fervently that sustainable transformation of the food and agricultural system is possible. She also hopes that her field will become more inclusive and just in the future. Transdisciplinarity will be taken seriously, care will be embedded into scientific practice, and practitioners will take a systemic thinking approach to resilience and sustainability.


In her own future, Dr. Benabderrazik is excited to dive more into political ecology in the food and agricultural system, focusing more on the power relations within food value chains. She is taking advantage of the pandemic to teach with online guest speakers from all over the world and working on an art-science augmented reality exhibition about food value chains. Like the rest of her work, the exhibition provokes “an intensive dialogue about the importance of sustainable food systems for food security around the world.”


Dr. Benabderrazik presenting her research at the System Dynamics Conference.


*Thank you to Dr. Kenza Benabderrazik for sharing her story and images with 500WS Bern-Fribourg. Click here to find out more about her upcoming exhibition and here to find out more about her resilience studies.


Gabrielle Vance

M.Sc. Geology