PhD supervisors

I haven’t written on here for forever – life has moved on quite a bit since I shared my PhD viva experience but I’m still passionate about making sure PhD students have a good experience.

I won’t name names on this blog, but I do want to highlight how important it is that you get on with your PhD supervisors. I don’t mean go-down-the-pub-together-be-best-friends-with get on, I mean in a professional sense of the word. When I signed up to do my PhD, I didn’t get a chance to meet my supervisor before I actually started the thing. This was a big mistake that had big repercussions for me later on (see my PhD viva story). So here are my top tips for selecting PhD supervisors:

  1. Research the University staff before you apply – look at their bios, Google them, see if they’ve got any social media profiles, do as much snooping as you can. Find out as much as you can about the potential staff in your Faculty. Of course, you need to read their research as well, but academic writing and presentation is very different from the way people present themselves day to day.
  2. Email the contact name on the advert and ask to have a phone call/face to face meeting before you apply. There is absolutely no substitute for actually talking to someone. Yes, I know it’s awkward and embarrassing etc. etc., but you will have to do far more daunting things during the course of your PhD so really, it’s not a big deal.
  3. Go to the open day. Even if you know the University/City/Town really well, go to the open day and talk to staff there. I was unlucky that none of my supervisors to be were at the open day, but I did get to meet some of the other staff that I would be working with/alongside.  This is especially important if you didn’t get to talk to the person in question as per point 2 above.
  4. Read the person’s research and see if you agree/disagree with the way they think. This is INCREDIBLY important and will again have huge repercussions if you are vastly different in the way you think.
  5. Remember that you do have a choice – and if the relationship isn’t working, you can ask to change to someone different. You aren’t stuck with this person. One of the key mistakes we make as PhD students is not realising that we do have a certain amount of agency and power – at the end of the day, this is your research and you will have to live with whatever the outcome of your PhD studies becomes, therefore don’t put up with a bad situation that may have a bad outcome for you. Approach your pastoral lead/Head of School/Postgrad office and ask for advice if you and your supervisor aren’t clicking.

I left it way too late in the process to change and really suffered as a result. I actually had quite a reasonable relationship with my Director of Studies to start with, but various life events happened (I fell out with my housemate and had to move back home which was about an hour away from Uni, met the man who is now my husband and then moved elsewhere with him) which meant that suddenly she and I didn’t quite see eye to eye. This was then exacerbated by my extremely poor relationship with my second supervisor who appeared to have a rather misogynistic viewpoint. He actually asked me how I was going to manage to write my PhD thesis whilst looking after a small child when he found out my partner had a son from a previous relationship. A child incidentally who didn’t even live with us! My third supervisor was the most reasonable, and most objective of the three, and in the end he became my main supervisor with the other 2 taking more of a back seat.

I ended up submitting my thesis without my supervisor’s consent (which you should never do!) and ended up with major corrections (basically revise and re-submit, although luckily I didn’t have to do my viva again). I believe this was all down to having a supervisor that I couldn’t relate to, and couldn’t get on with. So please, if you’re having doubts about your relationship with your supervisor, talk to someone. It is so difficult to have these conversations, but it will be worth it in the end. You only really get one go at a PhD, so why make it harder than it needs to be?



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