What I Wish I Knew About SUPERVISORS

Supervision can be one of the most challenging parts of a postgraduate student’s journey. Specifically if the supervisor is unresponsive, abusive, or overbearing. During my time as a student, I had my fair share of ‘supervisor drama.’
Having a functional relationship with your supervisor is one of the most important ingredients for ensuring that you make it to the graduation stage. A quick stroll through some #academictwitter posts will give you an idea of the extent to which postgraduate students struggle with their supervisors.
These are the ones we know of, many people suffer in silence!
In this post, I share some of the lessons I have learnt personally about supervision and supervisors, as well as what I have heard others talk about. Although much of what is written about here is based on bad experiences, it is important to remember that there are many good supervisors out there too, so do not despair!

Notes on co-supervision

Co-supervision can be a minefield. Many students opt for co-supervision because they fear that their supervisor may not have the technical or subject expertise needed to adequately support them on their journey.
This type of arrangement can, however, cause a lot of stress for students especially when the supervisors don’t get along personally, when they fundamentally disagree on theories, methodologies, or ideologies, or when they have conflicting supervision styles. If you also did not clarify who the primary and secondary supervisors will be upfront, this can present an additional challenge.
There are many ways that you can get assistance on parts of your research without explicitly asking someone to become a co-supervisor on your project. This includes reading extensively on the subject (remember to go back to first-year textbooks for concepts you know very little about), consulting with the individual who has the expertise you need (remember to go prepared with questions), or simply working closely with other students who are doing research in the same area or using the same methods.
If you are regularly consulting with the ‘expert’ to the point where they are doing the amount of work that would normally be expected of a supervisor, then you would probably need to discuss the possibility of co-opting them as a supervisor, so they can get some credit for their hard work.

The superstar academic won’t always be the best supervisor

Many students approach prominent academics because their work is more visible and they come across as knowledgeable about their subject matter. However, everyone only has 24-hours in a day. The time an academic spends on radio, television, and writing pieces for newspaper publications is time they don’t have to read your work.
This can be frustrating for students when they need to get feedback on their drafts. Furthermore, if you found their public image appealing, chances are many other prospective students felt the same. Thus, many ‘superstar’ academics often more students than they have time to supervise or they limit the number of students that can take on, and consequently hardly ever have an available slot to take on a new student.
This will not always be the case though, but it is possible. When such an academic has agreed to supervise you, have an honest conversation about their time and how they envision their engagement with you throughout your project. If you are going to need a lot of hand-holding, it’s probably best to avoid this type of supervisor.

It is in the interest of your supervisor to see you succeed

To get promoted up the academic ranks, academics need to tick a lot of boxes. One of them is showing that they can successfully supervise postgraduate students, i.e. get them to the graduation stage. The more students they have graduated, the faster they can move up those ranks.
Many students find rounds of back and forth corrections frustrating. Their (obviously reasonable) goal is to finish their degree as fast as they can. A large number of revisions can naturally put a spoke in the wheels of that goal.
However, when you submit for examination, that’s it! Your supervisor cannot do anything to help you anymore. This is very different to the scenario of writing an exam in an undergraduate course, failing and re-registering for it next semester. A lot of work goes into writing a dissertation or thesis and when it is submitted for examination, the quality of the work is often a reflection of the quality of supervision the student has received as well. In other words, it also reflects the supervisor’s competency.
Having an examiner’s report recommending major revisions or even worse, outright failure, is thus a major gut punch for a student, but also means that the supervisor will now have to spend additional time working with the student to get the report revised and ready for re-submission (in the case of major revisions).
If you are asked to do revisions to your document, remember that you and your supervisor are working towards the same goal, so just do them!

Sometimes your supervisor won’t know as much about your topic as you think

This may especially be the case in a multi-disciplinary school, where you may be paired with a supervisor who does not necessarily have in-depth knowledge on the subject that you are investigating. In more traditional single-discipline departments, you may be paired with someone whose research specialisation does not match the topic you are undertaking; despite the fact that it may be in the same discipline.
What is important to remember in such a case is that you take ultimate responsibility for what is written in your dissertation or thesis, and once you have your degree bagged, you can confidently say that you know a bit more than the average citizen on the topic you studied. You thus need to make sure that you keep abreast of the latest research available in your area of study. You can do this by setting up Google Scholar alerts on certain keywords or authors who write in your area prolifically.

Different supervisors have different styles

Some supervisors take a very active role in their supervision while others prefer a more hands-off approach. Having a conversation with your supervisor about their supervision style is useful at the beginning of your journey. This will also give you an opportunity to discuss your preferences as a student.
During my master’s, for instance, I needed a lot of hand-holding, as a felt like I had no idea what I was doing. However, before I even applied for my PhD I had decided that I wanted to take more ownership of my project. This was not something I discussed with my supervisor though, and I consequently found that my supervisor’s style and what I was trying to do as a student clashed. This created conflict which could have been avoided if we just had this conversation upfront.
Having an active supervisor, of course, does not mean that they do the work for you. Similarly, having a more passive supervisor does not mean that you do not take feedback on your work. It simply means that you find a balance between the two, but also that both of you know to what extent your supervisor needs you to keep them up-to-date on your various research activities and progress.