Supervising first ever PhD student, not sure I am up to it! Any advice?

(6 Posts)
superdocious Mon 10-Oct-16 10:38:25

Hi everybody.

I've been an academic for a while, mostly happily, but with very slow career progression, largely because I am slow to publish (ie what I have is OK quality, 4*, etc, and I was ref-able in the last round, there's just not very much of it). Anyway, I have recently acquired my first PhD student and am rather terrified. My imposter syndrome has got the better of me.

Generally, although there are many aspects of this job I love, I often feel that I am in the wrong one, and the limit of my intellect is below what is necessary to really succeed. My major 'concern' with respect to my PhD student is that he is more intelligent and academic than I am! Obviously, it's not a concern in itself that he's clever etc, that's really great, I'm just not sure how I can help him. And he is clearly looking to me for strong guidance, not just in practical terms, but also intellectually. I on the other hand feel that he's as much my peer as my student.

Did anyone else feel out of their depth when they first started supervising PhD students? Do you have any tips about how to make this a good experience for him (and me, I guess)?

More generally, what makes a good PhD supervisor, do you think?

In practical terms, my only experience of PhDs is doing one, ages ago, in particular circs where I had a good but very hands off supervisor (who was also a very big name in her field), who I met with quite rarely. I spent a lot of time doing paid work to support myself, and had to somehow squeeze my PhD in around that (it was full time, completed in three years, but I worked on average three days a week). I don't think mine is therefore a great model of how to go about it.

MedSchoolRat Mon 10-Oct-16 19:31:32

If he's cleverer than you: fantastic. You will collaborate & both get more pubs.

A PhD is as much learning how to learn the stuff you don't know, as anything else. So you aren't supposed to have all the answers. You're supposed to help guide him thru the process of getting skills to find his own answers.

It's a great opportunity.

Booboostwo Mon 10-Oct-16 20:25:03

If you have 4* research that means you are brilliant! Don't put yourself down. This idiotic focus on quantity is one of the worst features of the REF.

You will have a great time with your PhD student, intellectually speaking that is. Your job is to guide him and if he is clever then your job will be all the easier.

Practical matters: does he have a research topic? How firm is it? How well developed is it? If he does not have a firm topic you may want to arrange a period of time, taking into account any time pressures to submit (scholarship, financial, family), that he can spend on thinking around various topics and looking for inspiration. During this time you should still have frequent meetings (2 a month?) and he should produce written work for them, it's good practice for him and it gives you something concrete to discuss.

If he has a topic in mind he needs to do a literature review to situate himself in the topic, I.e. what have others said on the topic, what questions have been answered, which ones remain, is there unclarity in some areas, etc. Basically he needs to work on a conceptual map of the area which will help him to clarify what his unique angle will be, what his research will contribute to the topic.

Once he has firmed up his ideas it should be easier to see his argumentative strategy. He can set this down on paper as chapter outlines and then work on each chapter in turn. In my experience it is useful to set deadlines for written pieces of work every time you meet and remind him if he misses deadlines. It is also worth having an evaluation meeting once a year where you go over what work has been done and what is still left to do (your institution may have formal arrangements for such meeting. If they do, it's worth sticking to them if for no other reason than to have a record of lack of progress if things go wrong).

NeverEverAnythingEver Wed 12-Oct-16 11:20:41

Watching with interest. OP you are describing me ... grin

I've bought a couple of books on phd supervision but they are at home...

Bountybarsyuk Thu 13-Oct-16 15:37:21

This is a confidence issue and not a skills issue, you can go on a doctoral supervision course at our uni, but it's not really helpful at all. I think it helps to remember, as others have said, that doctoral supervision has changed, and is now often in supervisory teams (we have 2 supervisors and a mentor) and contact more frequent. We have a minimum number of contact points in the term/year for this reason now. Beyond that, it's likely that you have supervised undergrad or Masters dissertations, it's like a longer more intellectually challenging (for them) version of that. Ultimately you are more of an enabler than really putting your intellectual contribution into the PhD unless you have a very poor student, and they need leading step by step- this one doesn't sound like they will. Also, make sure you know the regulations in terms of upgrades and submission criteria, I've seen new supervisors tripped up by these before as they have assumed things that turn out not to be true.

superdocious Fri 14-Oct-16 12:10:48

Thanks so much everybody, this is really helpful advice and reassurance. I am going to try and enjoy the whole process, it's really a privilege to have attracted such a good student. I have made sure to read all the regulations so I think we are on top of that, and I'm going to make full use of our second supervisor, who is much more experienced. Thanks again, off to ask another question which might seem even more silly than this one. I LOVE this forum.

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