The student-supervisor relationship: 5 tips for a happy marriage

MarriagePictureforBlog#2StudentSuperRelation

I think the biggest failure lesson that I learned during my research Masters candidature is that it is absolutely vital to get the student-supervisor relationship right.  This could take some time to develop, but this blog post explains why I think fostering a healthy supervisor relationship should be our first priority as a PhD student, and gives some suggestions on how we might do this.   

For the first year of my Masters I felt I was sailing smoothly through. I felt this had a lot to do with my awesome supervisors.  I was very grateful for the enormous amount of time my primary supervisor gave me; her door was always open.  I laugh as I remember trying to show my gratitude by giving her a Christmas gift, but felt it was a lame offering in comparison to what she had given me.

Then my husband and I fell pregnant. Babies, in gestation and out in the world, have a way of changing your priorities and working style, at least in my experience.

Again, and again, I felt myself slipping further behind. My timeline had blowout after blowout.  I was miserable. I felt guilty. And, I am ashamed to say, I laid a lot of the blame at the feet of my supervisor.  Of course, I never told her this.  In fact, I did not tell her much at all. 

In hindsight, I realise there was something I could have done to improve my situation.  I could have invested more time and effort into fostering a healthy relationship with my supervisor, and in turn I would have felt more supportive and understood by her.  So now I am about to embark on my PhD, will I do things different? Yes.  Read on to find out why, and how I might do this.

Why do I feel my first priority should be establishing a good relationship with my supervisor?

  • Because the current of this metaphoric raging river, that is the PhD, is already strong enough without having to also fight against the person who is supposed to be our number one ally. 
  • Because if we can work well with our supervisor, we will work more efficiently, effectively and happily. 
  • Because if we have a good relationship with our supervisor we are more likely to view them as colleagues, or at least future colleagues, not simply as a task-master.  This is, I argue, necessary to become fully fledged independent researchers.

So what is a healthy student-supervisor relationship? I think to answer that we need to firstly decide what it is that our supervisors are to us. Are our supervisors guides, teachers, editors, champions, cheerleaders, devil’s advocates, administrative assistants, the ideas-(wo)man, or simply a pain-in-my-ass task-master?

Perhaps, with the likely exception of the last descriptive, supervisors are a combination of all of these “people”.  I suspect they are different things at different times; transforming into the superhero you need at any given moment.  I also have an inkling that the reality is our supervisors are all human.  Thus, they can only make a guess (albeit, a highly educated guess) at what it is that we need.  If we do not have a good relationship with our supervisor, we run the risk of them not being able to know what exactly it is that we need, or they may be less inclined to put the effort into finding out what it is that we need, intentional or not. 

So, how do we cultivate the perfect student-supervisor relationship? Armstrong, Allinson and Hayes (2010) suggest that students and supervisors need to be ‘matched’ according to cognitivie styles. This however, is unlikely to happen, unless policy to do so is adopted by institutions. So I won’t spend time reviewing this pilot study. PhD and ANU research advisor, the ThesisWhisper (who I highly recommend you follow) suggests that part of the solution lies in the selection of the supervisor. She says that if we have a choice in topic we need to make sure we pick something that we are interested in, remember that the research is ours and select a supervisor whose ideas about the topic are aligned with our own. Another blogger posts qualitative data about a student and supervisor’s relationship. The PhD student kept all written communication from her supervisor, all drafts of her chapters and a research journal. Her journey is shared in this blog post.

In addition to wonderful suggestions given in the ThesisWhisper post, I have come up with some others. Some are my own thoughts and some of them are thoughts shared by my fellow twitter PhD folk. I have no evidence to back me up on this hunch, but I feel that the first step is to throw out the notion of the “perfect relationship”, despite what I have said above.  I am beginning to realise that even once we have established a good rapport at the beginning of our PhD journey, we will need to continue to manage and maintain the relationship throughout our candidature.

I have been observing my daughter care tenderly for her sunflowers that my friend bought her last Christmas. Perhaps I should take a leaf from her book and apply it to my student-supervisor relationship. Effort, on our behalf, is involved; relationships are two-way streets.  Forging, developing and maintaining good working relationships with colleagues and collaborators is an important skill for a PhD to master if they wish to continue in academia.

The twittersphere, when asked, threw out some valuable suggestions for how to foster the relationship.  One recurring suggestion, which surprised me, was to be friends with your supervisor.  Should I be a friend first, student second?  Should I, while maintaining professionalism, attempt to fraternise with my supervisor?  Will it pay dividends if I attempt to know about my supervisor’s personal life, have a drink with them after work on Fridays, arrange play-dates for our children?

I feel uncertain about this suggestion.  It doesn’t sit right with me.  I wonder if it is because I am drawing an unnecessary distinction between “friends” and “friendly”.  I think over the course of my PhD I will need to see my supervisor less as my teacher, and more as my colleague.  To do this, I think there will need to be a reciprocated friendliness.  However, I think I would be crossing some invisible line of awkwardness if I were overly familiar with my supervisor’s personal life or socialise with them for drinks, dinner, shopping, or <insert activity that friends do, I am married with kids and so I forget>. 

Perhaps, being friends work for some scholarly-couples.  It may come down to the personality of the two people.  For example, I am not a friends-with-everyone type person.  I have few friends, but extremely close and satisfying friendships.  I think closely related to this, is the fact that I am a strict non-hugger

We non-huggers seem to be in the minority, but we definitely exist.  A non-hugger dreads the fast-approaching end of catch up with friends.  Panic attacks bubble at the non-hugger’s surface, as s/he knows the inevitable token hug is awaiting them, like the devil awaits a sinner.  I tolerate hugs from my domesticated brothers, and am not completely socially-inept that I refuse to give them when they are offered. My point though, is there is no point trying to convenience me that hugs are good and expect me to change my ways. I know this, I just feel extremely happy when I save all my hugs for my husband and children, with the occasional hug for my mother and sister.  I have a pretty mean handshake, does that count? 

Okay, sorry for the detour…back to the topic

I definitely agree that being friendly is important.  It doesn’t have to be stiff, awkward or overly proper.  You can maintain respect and professionalism by being friendly and enjoying easy banter in the tea-room.  For me, the jury is still out on actually being friends with your supervisor.  I would love to hear other people’s opinions on this one.

The other main suggestion twitter-folk put out there was the need to have open and honest communication with your supervisor.  This is the lesson I learned from doing my Masters.  My primary supervisor was incredibly lovely.  However, after timeline blowouts and having to climb over several obstacles, I got a bee in my bonnet about her being hard, unreasonable, and inconsistent.  I am ashamed to realise, in hindsight, this was not the case at all.  The problem was with me.  I said “yes, I can do that” when I didn’t think I could, or knew I wouldn’t be able to meet a deadline, or felt it wasn’t what I should be doing.  In other words, I said what I thought she wanted to hear, rather than tell the truth.

Two more suggestions for building healthy and happy student-supervisor relationships that came from my twitter conversations are closely related to the idea of honest communication.  The first is, we need to do what we say we will do.  We expect our supervisors to follow through on what they say they will do, and we need to follow through on what we say we will do.  If we can’t, we need to clearly state this to our supervisor (and not in a bitch-session to our fellow PhD students #negativeworkculture).  We might think we can do something, and then find out half-way through that we cannot do it on our own or by the deadline.  We need to discuss this with our supervisor then, and not when the deadline passes. 

Next, we need to be prepared for our meetings with our supervisors.  I think how to run effective and efficient meetings with our supervisors is a topic in its own right, deserving of its own blog post.  This will come shortly.  For now, I think it is suffice to say, we need to be prepared for our meetings as this shows respect to our supervisors (and others at the meeting) and gives evidence of our capability, which may reassure them of their choice to supervise us.

 

Five   tips for establishing and maintaining a healthy and happy relationship with   our supervisor:

  1.   Keep working at it
  2.   Be friendly (and possibly friends)
  3.   Have a constant open and honest line of   communication
  4.   Fulfil your promises
  5.   Be prepared for meetings

 

What are your experiences with your supervisors?  Do you think the student-supervisor relationship is important?  Do you think these tips are a guide good on how to establish a good rapport with our supervisors? Do you have other tips and suggestions you would be willing to share?

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I planned to write my first post, but the baby woke up

#obstacle number 1.

 

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