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PhD supervisors

(26 Posts)
MamaChocoholic Tue 04-Oct-11 19:12:40

I have started back at work after maternity leave, except I've been home with vomiting babies instead of actually being there. This is particularly bad because my first two PhD students have also started this week, and I have been able to be available to them via email only. Plus the eminent professor who had promised to be secondary supervisor has decided to retire early. I am hoping it is these things that are causing me to suddenly panic and think "I can't supervise a PhD!", but what if it's not?

I am booked on a new supervisors course later this month, but I wonder how much they can cover in a lunchtime. Can anyone suggest places I can look for advice on being a good supervisor?

kritur Tue 04-Oct-11 20:44:55

What subject do you research?
When I did my PhD (chemistry) my supervisor was not particularly far into his career and he did actually spend some time working in the lab with us. By the time I finished he'd been promoted twice and we saw him about twice a day or if we popped to his office. He was a good supervisor, kept decent hours (ie, didn't just disappear for hours in the middle of the day) and knew where we were all up to. He seemed to know when to hassle us and when to leave us alone.
Is it just you and the 2 PhDs or do you have a PDRA who can help?

drcrab Tue 04-Oct-11 21:50:42

I'd written this post 2x but my useless wifi lost them. Anyways....

Check if your dept will give you another colleague to co supervise with. Check if your uni's pgche will do some course on this. I know mine does

And don't worry too much. It's the second week of term and they probably should br attending their taught courses. Tell them to do some lit review and have it ready for2 weeks time.

What ive found most useful is looking back on my own experience with my supervisors. They were brilliant and encouraging. Always had time when I was near breakingpoint and ready with a cup of tea! Ready to talk personal stuff too like boyfriends!! V good mentors. I do the same with my students as far as our relationships develop and I don't think it's been bad for them! grin

MamaChocoholic Wed 05-Oct-11 09:23:29

kritur I work in a lab too, but at a desk (writing the programs to analyse high throughput data). I'm not sure I know when to hassle them! They sit in the same office as me, my postdoc and another staff member, so I'm sure to be available! I had an office separate to my supervisor which I liked, not sure how they feel about sharing together.

drcrab I've asked the retiring prof about another second supervisor, he agreed it was "difficult". I can't really think of anyone from my background in the University who'd have time, and although our head of dept would gladly meddle help, I'm not entirely sure that would be useful as he's from a different discipline and known to be a bit of a micro-manager. I will ask him as a fall back option however.

Do you really set short assignments like that? It would be good to get them reading instead of importing their music collections. The students don't have much in the way of taught courses to keep them busy.

My own supervisors were both mavericks, in the way that outrageously bright 60 year old professors with multiple eminent publications/awards are allowed to be. So I know very well what not to do. But my then institution offered more peer support than ours for PhD students which helped me survive. I have asked our dept secretary (who knows everything about everything) what I need to know, and hopefully she will have some pointers.

notcitrus Wed 05-Oct-11 10:10:09

Lit review assignment sounds like a great idea for the first few weeks. Are there any research techniques or training they will need to do their work? (eg getting an animal licence or learning how to isolate some compound, or software they will need) If so they can do some of that too and start learning who to talk to across the institution.

I had a first-time supervisor who was a lovely guy, great in the lab every day - but had no training at all. Which meant after two years he was totally shocked to discover that my funding ran out after three years not four as he believed...

MamaChocoholic Wed 05-Oct-11 10:31:26

shock notcitrus, that's terrible! I am clear on dates: 3 years and no extensions.

Will think about setting lit review next week, be a useful start to first chapter of first year report. They need to start using bibliography software and this would be a helpful push.

I do sympathise a bit with your supervisor, although things like deadlines need triple checking. I'm finding as a new supervisor it is hard to get training. The university take the fees, but seem to expect me to provide the supervision for free (I don't mind that bit) and with minimal support. It would be useful as a new supervisor to have a mentor for advice.

Naoko Wed 05-Oct-11 21:30:20

The thing I like most about my supervisor is that I always leave his office feeling better than I did going in. I get very, very stressed, and he always manages to calm me down and help me get things sorted out. I have a friend who always leaves her supervisor's office in tears because nothing she does is ever good enough and the supervisor is really nasty about it; if I were stuck with that supervisor I would probably have dropped out.

My supervisor is a first timer too. We muddle through together, really. It helps that we both have a sense of humour, and he's not afraid to say 'I don't know' when he doesn't - and then goes and finds out, or tells me who else I could ask.

RidcullySentTheBursarMad Wed 05-Oct-11 21:49:19

Our place has a rule that all PhD students must have 2 supervisors and you can not be first supervisor on a PhD project until you have co-supervised a student to completion. This is good as it enables you to see how things are done by more experienced colleagues. I tend to run things by starting off students giving them an A4 sheet of what is expected from them in their first year (attending department meetings, various compulsary training courses etc etc) and also some broad aims for their first year. I then get them to do a literature review on their area in the first term, alongside setting up various bits of training.

I tend to meet with my students and postdocs as a group once per week, getting them to present their results or discuss problems they are having with their projects, I formally meet with them individually once per month (but usually informally much more than this). I don't actually hassle the students much, so long as I see regular progress on their work as I think a PhD is training in becoming an independent researcher, so I shouldn't be looking over their shoulder and telling them what to do all the time.

Good luck! You can do it. Don't worry that you have been somewhat unavailable in their first week, they've probably spent most of the first week settling in and finding their way around anyhow. Plus, they can't expect you to be superhuman, there will be plenty of time when you are not available (weeks of heavy teaching loads, conferences, holidays or where a grant deadline is looming for example), they will survive it!

MamaChocoholic Thu 06-Oct-11 09:43:42

Ridcully, thanks. Very useful practical advice. It would have been useful be a second supervisor first, but things don't seem to work like that here. My supervisors were so hands off that I'm not really sure how to be a "hands on" supervisor. I want to be a little more hands on, but get the balance right. Setting a lit review over the first term sounds a very good start. A few weeks doesn't seem enough, but a term sounds about right. Your meeting frequencies sound about right too.

Naoko hopefully I will manage to be like your supervisor rather than your friend's!

BikeRunSki Thu 06-Oct-11 09:52:30

My PhD supervisor had to have intensive cancer treatment in my 2 and 3rd years. He organised one of his RAs to be a unofficial secondary supervisor for me, and made an effort to see me when he could. He also set me targets ie: Lit Review by x, First year report by x, lab work by x, draft PhD structure by x, apply to x, y, z conferences, speak to this organisiation, spend time with that one by x etc. When he set these targets we also made diary dates (up to a year in advance) to meet up afterwards and talk about them. Diary dates often changed, but they always happened, and having them there was an inspiration to get on with it

kritur Thu 06-Oct-11 17:10:09

Use your PDRA as well, that's why you have them!
Get them to get the PhDs going on something (I assume they will be working in a broadly similar area). Lit review is also worthwhile, you will have the title from your funding proposal so they should be able to make a start on something relevent.

MamaChocoholic Thu 06-Oct-11 18:32:34

kritur, I've been asking my postdoc to get one of the students started - show him where some datasets are, suggest software, some papers - and been feeling guilty. but you're right. she's my postdoc, on my grant, and while I don't think that gives me a right to tell her what she should do all the time, I can ask her to do stuff, can't I? :dumb postnatal brain:

bigkidsdidit Thu 06-Oct-11 19:23:05

Mama I've never done it myself but am going to next year <gulp> and I have a bit of experience as my supervisor went on mat leave so wasn't around so much as traditionally you'd expect. It worked really well for us. We had a coffee every morning which made her a lot more approachable. She was fairly young too so we just muddled through together - they are PhD students not undergrads, they should be able to find out for themselves things like when to submit admin and forms etc.

Setting short assignments absolutely fine in the early days I think. I'd get them to write a literature report and research all the courses they'd like to go on if poss eg ours do extra stats courses.

If you are going to be off / working at home or flexibly as you might - as i will be and which my supervisor did - I would say either get a blackberry or give them your number to text in a panic. She used to ring me at work a lot so we could discuss things that seemed too minor to go in an email.

And as a postdoc now I would absolutely not mind looking after students - I see this as part of my job too. So I wouldn't worry about that aspect.

I've just realised I've blethered on about things you did not ask about. Sorry blush I won't delete just in case any is vaguely useful blush

MamaChocoholic Thu 06-Oct-11 20:18:23

Blether away bigkids, all good advice. Thanks smile

bigkidsdidit Thu 06-Oct-11 20:53:21

Your tact and kindness will make you a wonderful supervisor grin

kritur Thu 06-Oct-11 21:06:28

Course you can ask your PDRA to get your PhDs started, you're paying them! You bid for their research grant........... Most PDRAs won't mind, it's good development for them for their own academics career.

Missingfriendsandsad Thu 06-Oct-11 21:18:51

1. You are worried about what it means to be a good supervisor. That puts you in the top 20% of supervisors
2. You are seeking training and advice on how to be a good supervisor. That puts you in the top 50% of the 20%.
3. Read PhD Comics for some fun and to remind yourself what it can be like..
4. Communicating by e-mail is also what really top professors do (see PhD comics for examples of e-mails: Student (sweating, panicking about e-mail wording and burning midnight oil), 'Dear Sir, I wonder if looking at the interfacial interactions between x and y variants of the etc etc. Yours sincerely X PhD student. Supervisor: 'More expts? Yes.' - one-line e-mails make you sound important!

Missingfriendsandsad Thu 06-Oct-11 21:29:03

cf:this mofo

Missingfriendsandsad Thu 06-Oct-11 21:30:07

or this.. smile

EllaDee Sat 08-Oct-11 12:35:56


I've just seen this, so may be a bit late, but ... you sound fine. You care enough to be concerned about your students. I am in my third year of my PhD and it wouldn't have bothered me or my mates at all to get emails from a busy supervisor. We might email back with questions (eek!), but we do know you have other things to be busy with, and we know we're really meant to be working on our own. There are always things we should be doing without you telling us. I know you know this from your own PhD but just thought I'd repeat it in case getting it from a student helped ... maybe? smile

What I have found best about my supervisors (I've had 3 as one changed university mid way through), is they got me writing straight away (lit review is great, trying to write about methodology helped me too). They told me not to worry about getting everything perfect, but just to get something down on paper so I felt I knew where to go. But I reckon everyone has said this already! blush grin

Just bear in mind: they have never done it before. They don't have any expectations for what's 'normal' (or if they do, they know it may be totally wrong). If you set the tone by supervising via email this week, they will accept that is how it's done.

Hope it goes ok.

sqweegiebeckenheim Mon 17-Oct-11 01:08:36

I had 4 supervisors in 3 years. For my final year, one disappeared on a book tour of the US for an academic term. Took on average a month to get him to reply to emails. Bloody nightmare! not at all bitter

Don't do any of the above, you will be miles ahead of my supervisor.

Parietal Mon 17-Oct-11 02:41:36

Read the Female Science Professor blog - has lots of great advice for supervisors.

Have monthly progress meetings to review last month & plan the next. Keeps things on track.

See if you can find a 2nd supervisor for hem who Is nice & will support you. Doesn't matter if research is a bit different.

funnyperson Mon 17-Oct-11 22:03:04

three years go by quickly and as you say you have the grant sp the timeline would b good - if not already done , a gant chart could be a task , factoring in abstract submission dates for key international meetings, then you can all work backwards from there .This sharpens the team wonderfully.

Agee with a literature review agree with a two week one first for a very small subquestion so as to get the methodology for search strategies/reference manager software/conclusions right - think a term is too long to leave this as otherwise the student could be doing the review wrong for a long time and so much written nowadays on levels of evidence etc.

Good thing about a smaller review early on is also that a paper/poster/presentation could come out of it early on which perks everyone up.

Agree with weekly research in progress meetings

Suggest you meet to decide research questions early on.

Also suggest a meeting to discuss any training they need eg advanced stats/analyses and who they might develop links with eg lab staff - they will be working in a team usually not in isolation and developing that research team working will be an important research skill.

Keep them busy as possible and encourage as many posters/publications as possible on the way not wait till its all 'finished'. This raises their and your profile and the dept profile and also helps with developing the research questions, as when its presented somewhere there is usually really good feedback from other academics

ALl universities have training for supervisors these days these include managing the student in difficulty/conflict resolution/diversity training etc and though some sound boring but they come in useful for ticking your own and departmental boxes at your next appraisal

This is an interesting read

Apologies for the long post you are probably not a scientist.

funnyperson Mon 17-Oct-11 22:06:38

Sorry -also its quite good at an early point to have a chat about publications and authorship -give them the guidelines- saves a lot of confusion and possible resentment later on- particularly what will determine who is first author on a paper.

funnyperson Mon 17-Oct-11 22:12:28

This is the document - has all sorts of stuff like what is the purpose of a phd how much time a supervisor should allocate and talks about the training and supervision guidelines

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