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:
We are often still young and inexperienced at the start of our PhD
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.
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.
Dr. Lucia Rotheray