Monday, 15 January 2018

Supervising your First PhD

A version of this article also appeared in the Times Higher Education which you can find here.  

Many cultures have rites of passage whether it involves being sent into the wilderness for a fortnight armed only with a stick and some string or sitting opposite an internal and external examiner for your PhD viva.  Such events mark the transition to full membership of a particular group or community. Passing your PhD grants you permission to operate as an independent researcher without the need for further supervision.  PhD students can draw on many survival guides that offer advice on everything from where to begin to  how to manage your PhD supervisor.  Transitioning from the position of PhD student to that of PhD supervisor tends to garner less attention, but not everyone manages the transition gracefully.  Here are five things that can help you become an effective supervisor.

Begin at the beginning
As an experienced researcher, PhD supervision gives you a chance to share the accumulated wisdom of your own PhD journey and anything else that has followed.  However, you need to start at ground zero with each new student to help build a shared sense of what good practice looks like.  Take a small batch of seminal papers and agree to read them before swapping notes.  This simple step will allow you the chance to demonstrate how to scrutinise the key ideas, assumptions, limitations and contributions that each author or authoring team make in their paper.  Doing so in the style of a collaborative, worked example will help set a particular tone that will pay rich rewards in the months and years ahead.  Being clear about the level of depth and the practicalities of note taking is as important as showing how you approach the basic task of getting to grips with the literature.  This shouldn’t be entirely selfless.  Bear in mind that you might learn something yourself.  Your new PhD student might be a digital native who has some new-fangled means of using Faceweb on the Intertube that you haven’t yet seen.

Give the feedback you wish you’d received
Bemoaning the failings of your supervisor represents one of the most common ways of establishing rapport amongst a group of doctoral students.  They’re never there, they don’t give detailed comments, they’re always in a rush, they’ve forgotten about me, and so forth.  Whilst there is some evidence that dogs become more like their owners over time, each new supervisory relationship represents your opportunity to break the cycle.  Remember back to your own anxieties and needs as a PhD student and try to offer your new student the kind of supervision that you wish you had received.  Draw on your own supervision experiences, whether these were of being micromanaged or involved Zen-like levels of disinterest.  These formative experiences probably mean that you know what you should offer to your new student.  Be bold and strive to provide the right balance between nurturing and challenging.  Yet, whilst you’re trying to be the best supervisor you can be, you’ll also need to balance the other demands that arise in modern academic life. Maybe you’ll find yourself reflecting on the reasons they were always in a rush, never there, etc.

Don’t meddle with the space-time continuum
Even a passing familiarity with the Whovian universe, the plot of Back to the Future or anything Trekkie-related generates the firm conviction that the past should remain another country.  As a new supervisor, one of the worst mistakes you could make would be to overlook quite how inexperienced you were as a new PhD student.  Unfortunately we tend to airbrush out your early, bumbling incompetence and concentrate on the latter-day, polished professionalism that you now exhibit.  Don’t set supervisory expectations around the version of you that completed your own PhD some time ago. Rather, set them at the more modest level of the version of you that started your PhD journey even longer ago.  Visiting unrealistic expectations on your new student is a recipe for unhappiness.  You’ll be disappointed. They’ll be confused. Worse, you might meet your earlier self in a plot twist where parallel universes collide and which is unlikely to end well. 

Be patient, supportive yet demanding
Newly qualified supervisors can be amongst the most demanding because they remember the intensity of writing up and preparing for a viva.  Having recently watched their own work be subjected to unforgiving scrutiny in the context of a viva, new doctoral graduates can, in turn, impose demands when they come to supervise and/or examine.  However, a PhD is more expedition than sprint.  Try to remember this, particularly in the early months because your new student will no doubt experience plenty of false dawns and blind alleys as they grapple with the literature, realise that accessing data might be tricky and worry about their methodological preferences.  Simply being there and empathising isn’t enough either. You face the particular challenge of finding the right times and the right issues over which to demand higher quality work than your student feels that they can produce. Done well this will later be recounted as providing inspiration. Handled badly, you’ll be constructed as the uncaring task master that made the whole thing unnecessarily tense. 

Notice your own foibles

It is natural for us to develop particular quirks and irks in our reading, reviewing and supervising.  Mine are research questions and contribution statements. I can’t help myself poking and prodding at these in search of either weaknesses and inconsistencies, or in a more benign sense, eloquence and guile.  As you offer feedback on written work, draft presentations, posters and the like, see if you can spot common themes. What piques your interest? What drives you to distraction? Ask your students to share your feedback on their written work with each other.  It is likely that they will spot the common themes for you.  In part, this reflection might help you think about your own development.  Once you know the common themes, it is incumbent on you to offer some exemplars when students ask the not unreasonable question “so what would good look like”? Cultivate a little stock pile of excellent literature reviews, contribution statements, analyses of data, etc. Have these to hand and offer them as a complement to the red ink offered in your feedback.  These examples don’t have to be in exactly the same subject area, methodological tradition or empirical context. Indeed, it may be helpful if they aren’t. They don’t even have to be particularly contemporary. But you should be able to act in the Graham Norton role whilst fronting the imaginary Channel 5 show called “top 10 research papers ever”.  


  1. Thanks Emma ... glad you liked it.

  2. I think you should explore the more articles on your website regarding PhD Proposal, You should also cover different different categories for articles as you writes awesome. Thanks for sharing this great article with us.

  3. Dear Luciano

    I'm glad you found it useful ... I'll work on something relating to PhD proposals