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New PhD student: what would you want in her shoes?

(14 Posts)
Houseconfusion Thu 04-Aug-16 17:05:44

I have a new PhD student starting soon and am a newish supervisor myself (so 3rd student). She is a scholarship winner, very motivated, coming from abroad for a house hunt and an informal meeting this summer before formally joining in autumn.

In her shoes, what would you want from your soon to be supervisor? I am planning to meet her, show her around a bit, maybe go through some of the settling in stuff - library, endnote/refworks, resources in the university if she needs help for something, ask her what she expects/wants to know, and then plan to take her for a welcome meal in the local pub smile

Anything else to make her feel welcome and confident? She is from a different country, and is very hardworking from what i gatehred over the application process.

haybott Thu 04-Aug-16 18:01:49

Be prepared to answer practical questions, or point her to people in the university who can help. For example: there is always the issue of how to open a UK bank account without a UK address, but then how can you get a UK address (rental contract) without a UK bank account! (Temporary university accommodation doesn't count and banks are increasingly reluctant to accept departmental/university addresses.)

Generally chatting about what is normal in renting is also useful i.e. what will typically be provided, what not. Even within Europe this varies a great deal - in other EU countries it's quite normal to be allowed to paint the walls of a rental property, which would be considered bizarre in the UK!

Depending where she comes from, you might like to touch on how to address academics around the department. Some foreign students are over-formal and are reluctant to use first names for senior academics in my field (but using first names is the norm for our PhD students). Also maybe introduce her to other PhD students?

Otherwise I would just go with being friendly and supportive. I've had dozens of international PhD students and on the whole they settle very quickly.

Houseconfusion Thu 04-Aug-16 20:31:11

Fab, very useful, thanks a lot!

TheWindInThePillows Thu 04-Aug-16 23:57:07

I think I would be guided by her in terms of how much she'll want to socialize, for some people, making polite conversation over an entire evening with a supervisor might be a bit of a strain, as you are not really friends, so if it is a meal, I'd make it a quick lunch or supper. On that note, a good friend of mine who has supervised many students gave me the advice never to mix friendship and supervision, she did only once and regretted it. I tend to keep a very friendly, approachable, but not 'friends' vibe if I can.

FoggyBottom Fri 05-Aug-16 10:09:32

On that note, a good friend of mine who has supervised many students gave me the advice never to mix friendship and supervision, she did only once and regretted it. I tend to keep a very friendly, approachable, but not 'friends' vibe if I can

I'd second that advice.

You're doing far more than I would ever think about, tbh. But then my university has a pretty good support system for new PHD candidates, and our Department has a strong network of PhD students - they're learning about collegiality from the start. We have a start-the-year 2 day research event in our Faculty where staff and postgrads meet and give papers, and there's induction for new postgrads (and re-induction for returning PGs). A lot of the information they need is given to them then.

Is there a second supervisor? It would be useful for the 3 of you to meet asap.

I also have an early conversation about how I tend to supervise, and ask them to think about how they work. I aim to adjust my supervision to a student's pattern of working, unless that pattern isn't likely to be successful eg the student I had who'd been very talented as an undergrad in writing essays the night before. It was very difficult to get them to see that this would not work for producing 100,000 words!

I also have a conversation about "independence" and what that really means in a PhD candidature.

Houseconfusion Sat 06-Aug-16 17:07:36

Thanks all! interesting accounts!

LikeDylanInTheMovies Sun 07-Aug-16 02:49:40

What subject?

As someone who has recently completed a PhD in a humanities subject and enjoyed a very good relationship with my supervisor, I can appreciate there's a happy medium to be had between directing the PhD student to such an extent that they aren't working independently and letting them plough their own furrow. I've seen both extremes at close quarters and in both cases, they got major corrections. I think you are leaning a little too much toward the former.

By PhD level I wouldn't expect or need advice on using referencing software or a tour of the library. If they can't figure out either for themselves, I'd worry about their capacity for independent scholarship.

I'd 'third' the suggestion that a 'friendly, but not friends' approach worked well for me. In my supervisor I had someone who, whilst had my best interests at heart, was distant enough to tell me that what I'd written wasn't up to snuff or that I needed to pull my socks up and work harder and able to evaluate my work critically and dispassionately.

I also valued the consistency - if he said, he'd read something or do something by a certain time, he invariably did. Mind you, it did me no harm to learn that my supervisor had other time commitments (undergrad teaching, his own research) and that I didn't have exclusive dibs on his time, so it might be good to subtly make it clear the level of contact and support a PhD student can expect.

Regular meetings with a clear agenda really helped. (It started off at once every two weeks for the first two semesters, shifting to once a month thereafter). As the first year progressed, my supervisor got me to write 500/600 word pieces on the sources I'd been examining since the last meeting. He also got me to write short summaries of what the chapters were going to be about and an overview of the aims of the thesis. These 300 word summaries were really helpful in keeping me on track and thinking about how my research contributed to wider scholarship. These also gave a focus to the supervision sessions.

So for this first meeting, I would suggest a chat about her research, how the supervision process works and what you can offer her and try and agree a way of working that suits you both.

Rather than taking her out, I'd see if any of the other PhD students are in and let them tell her where the printer is, what it is like living in the city and where to look for accommodation and dish the dirt on life in the department.

Hopefully they'll take her out for a drink too and it will give her a much better sense of what live as a PhD student at your institution will be like, rather than a potentially nerve whole-day with their new supervisor.

Houseconfusion Sun 07-Aug-16 06:47:46

It's not a whole day. It's about an hour and a bit. It's quite standard for our department to meet new supervisees In our offices and have a bite to eat at the only pub around the corner. Not sure where the whole day came up. She is house hunting all day as only in town for a bit and most of our department is on summer holidays. I'm doing fieldwork all day till 5 pm. So, we only have a short while and yes we will have a bite to eat and then I will drive back home.

The rest of the stuff - about approaches to supervision etc is very interesting to hear, and there is such a diversity if experiences amongst just my own colleagues and my own three supervisees are all so different.

LikeDylanInTheMovies Sun 07-Aug-16 09:29:36

It's not a whole day. It's about an hour and a bit.

Sorry - I got the impression that you had something far lengthier involved, like a work induction day. Interesting to hear how relationships between PhD students and supervisors vary. Where I did my PhD, meals in the pub would be unusual and seen as way over familiar (not saying one is right, one is wrong btw)

LikeDylanInTheMovies Sun 07-Aug-16 09:29:39

It's not a whole day. It's about an hour and a bit.

Sorry - I got the impression that you had something far lengthier involved, like a work induction day. Interesting to hear how relationships between PhD students and supervisors vary. Where I did my PhD, meals in the pub would be unusual and seen as way over familiar (not saying one is right, one is wrong btw)

AgentCooper Sun 07-Aug-16 09:40:38

Not much to add to the above but Jesus, you sound like an excellent supervisor! My PhD supervisor did fuck all for me. To this day, I am sure she hasn't read my entire thesis. I am so glad I was confident in my own work before going into my viva (and passing with minor corrections).

Your helpful, positive attitude will make a real difference to your student smile

TheWindInThePillows Sun 07-Aug-16 10:06:23

We have supervisory teams now, so each person has two supervisors and a mentor, so if anything goes wrong, the mentor is there to sort it out. Sometimes the second supervisors are quite involved, if on 50/50, sometimes they are really on the sidelines, it's whatever suits the student and main supervisor. I enjoy being part of these teams more than I thought I would, it's good to get two lots of input especially in inter-disciplinary/applied areas where you do really need it from both disciplines.

I have seen terrible PhD supervision over the years, but I think it is improving, we have a minimum amount of contact points for example, so students can't drift on not being seen for months which did use to happen. We once lost a PhD student in my work, no-one could contact them and they disappeared for six months before anyone really did anything. I have known supervisors who haven't read their student's work, as above. My supervisor was excellent though, searing critique of all chapters, which was just what I needed though I did used to brace myself for her extensive red pen work!

In comparison with all this, your approach sounds great!

Houseconfusion Sun 07-Aug-16 10:11:31

Thank you! My supervisor (phenomenal, my mentor still, Star in the field) at a Russell group uni often supervised her students in the many bakeries and pubs surrounding us smile heck I've been supervised by her on the Eurostar to Brussels once for a meeting on a project ;)

Yeah so we have one not very nice pub round the corner from us and that's our go to for new students, new anybody, work dos.

Thanks all, and to the last two posters for the kind words smile

Houseconfusion Sun 07-Aug-16 10:15:39

Looking back, one of my most important supervisions where I figured out the main conclusions of my thesis and what I wanted to really do next was in a little bakery by the Thames. I had been quite demoralised because of visa changes and the likelihood of finding a job in the uk, and suddenly we talked through things in a different light, I applied for post docs across Europe and well that was a great meeting one of the last supervisions I think - over Quiche and tea.

She remains, however, my biggest critic as well as cheerleader. I know if she sees a journal article of mine today that seems iffy or thin on something I can count on her to ask me critical questions about it and it betters the stuff I do.

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