Do you understand your research supervisor? Extracts from a live AMA session with researchers

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Do you understand your research supervisor? Extracts from a live AMA session with researchers

If you’re planning to pursue a PhD or are already enrolled in a PhD program or a Master’s program with a research component, you would know that your research supervisor plays a very important role in your life. A supervisor is like a PhD coach, guiding you along your journey, making sure you learn and develop the best and ethical practices of conducting research, helping you perform your research efficiently, and so on. It’s not only important for you to find a good supervisor, but it is also equally important for you to develop a nurturing relationship with your supervisor where you both mutually understand each other – this will help you grow and succeed in your PhD.

However, researchers often have a difficult relationship with their supervisors because of several factors such as expectation mismatch, lack of communication, and so on. To try and address this gap in understanding, a few weeks ago, we conducted a free, open AMA (Ask Me Anything) session for researchers on the popular Chinese platform ScienceNet. We set up a panel of three researchers who were passionate about helping researchers. The idea was to get researchers to ask the panelists anything related to dealing with supervisors during their PhD. This post introduces the panelists and shares some of the issues raised by the participants during this session.

Meet the panelists

  • Elizabeth Mullheron: Elizabeth is a second-year doctoral student pursing her Psy.D. in Clinical Psychology. She completed her M.A. in Counseling Psychology in 2018 and B.A. in Psychology in 2016. She is interested in researching the university to workforce transition, and anxiety in adolescence. Her long term goal is to become a clinician specializing in working with youth. She currently runs The Young Grad Student, a blog to document her time in graduate school and encourage other students on their journey.
  • Anastasia Doronina: Anastasia is currently a PhD student in water engineering at the University of Sheffield’s Department of Civil and Structural Engineering. She is passionate about her work and describes herself as a “Biologist by background (BSc - Biology, MSc - Ecology) and at heart, but managed to find a home in engineering.” She is originally from Russia and speaks two languages. When Anastasia is not occupied with her research work, she is busy maintaining her own very interesting blog titled The diary of a PhD student where she talks about her research and experiences during her PhD journey.
  • Shivanee Shah: Following Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in India, Shivanee acquired her doctoral degree in Immunology from the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, Loyola University, Illinois, USA. She has completed two postdoctoral fellowships, one at the Department of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery, Loyola University Medical Center, Illinois, USA and one at the Department of Pathology, University of Massachusetts Medical School, Massachusetts, USA. After returning to India, she joined Cactus Communications as a Managing Editor in the Publications Support Services team. She is currently playing the role of Senior Managing Editor in the Impact Science Division of Cactus Communications, where she focuses on helping researchers boost the impact of their work through alternative ways of communicating science. She is also a BELS (Board of Editors in the Life Sciences) certified editor and trainer for Editage webinars and workshops.

Questions received during the AMA session

On choosing supervisors

When doing a PhD is western countries, do you have any suggestions for choosing schools and supervisors? Any advice on something we should be careful with when contacting supervisors for the first time? Are there any qualities and traits of candidates that supervisors may prefer?

  • Elizabeth Mullheron
    When it comes to choosing schools and supervisors, reputation is not everything. Yes, things like an institution’s affiliation with professional associations or a supervisor’s professional experience do matter, but finding the right “fit” is just as important. You need to find a place where you are going to feel supported, like you are getting good training, and that provides you with good conditions for personal and professional growth.  

There are a lot of different opinions as to the best way to reach out to a supervisor for the first time. For me, I’d say introduce yourself, be honest about your goals/interests and how they align with the supervisor’s research, and how you might be a good fit for the institution. Asking a question or two, and offering to answer questions for the potential supervisor is helpful, too. Remember, supervisors are people, too! For the most part, they want to make sure that the students they take on are qualified and will work well with them. 

Something that my supervisors really appreciate is being “teachable,” or able to take materials and constructive feedback and apply them. Additionally, things like professionalism, timeliness, responsibility, and dependability have also been characteristics my supervisors have appreciated.

  • Anastasia Doronina
    I would choose a university that specialises in your field and is ranked in the top 100 universities for that country. For me, as I do a research based PhD, it was important that my chosen university was part of a Russel Group.

It is hard to predict what a potential supervisor will be like, but it may be helpful to contact some of the students that are already supervised by that person to get an idea of what it is like to work with them. It is also helpful to read some of their published work.

When contacting supervisors for the first time make sure that you have very good grammar and keep your email/letter short as they are very busy people and are unlikely to read long pieces of text.

A supervisor needs to know that you can handle yourself in difficult situations, are reliable, punctual, hardworking, and in some way unique. You also have to show how passionate you are about the research you want to do and why.

  • Shivanee Shah
    I would recommend that you make sure you enjoy the research, the lab/mentor has enough funding to support you and the project for the next 5 years, and that you discuss work ethics and expectations with the mentor to ensure that you have a good work-life balance.

If my goal is to publish papers in top journals and get real world experience, do you have any tips for me on choosing supervisors?

  • Elizabeth Mullheron
    In terms of getting real world experience, I would encourage you to be really persistent in your own training and making professional development a priority. This can include becoming a part of professional associations, attending networking events in the community, or being intentional about meeting new people at conferences. Many schools don’t focus on this inherently, so it’s important that you advocate for real world experience. 

It can be hard to predict how many publications you will have and where you will be published during your doctorate. If getting into a top journal is important to you, I would encourage you to look for a supervisor who might be a journal editor, or who is at an institution that houses a top journal. Make sure you don’t do this at the expense of your experience and how well you will fit with your supervisor and the academic culture at that school, however. This will help you to have a more positive lab experience. 

  • Anastasia Doronina
    At the end of the day, you will be the one writing your research paper, so I do not think your choice of supervisor is too important here. It helps if your supervisor has published plenty of papers in respected journals, but it is more important that your supervisor can find the time to review your work and advise you on how to improve, rather than being super famous.
  • Shivanee Shah
    Pick a reputable, known lab with good funding, preferably a larger lab where you will have more opportunities to collaborate and experience different projects.


On the supervisor-researcher relationship

What if my research topic diverges from my supervisor?

  • Elizabeth Mullheron
    I think this varies greatly depending on your program. For example, at my program, i was admitted before I set up my committee. Nobody was researching my area of interest, but I was able to adjust my project to keep my interests and incorporate some of the interests of those I asked to be my supervisors. 

Other programs look different, and you apply to work with a supervisor who will incorporate you into what they are already studying. In this case, it’s important to work with a supervisor who you share research interests with on some level (nothing will ever be a perfect match). If you can’t find a program that has what you want to research, try reaching out to someone doing related work and be honest about your interests. This is something you could be studying for 4+ years, so it’s important that you have some amount of investment in it!

  • Anastasia Doronina
    This shouldn’t happen as your supervisor is on that project because the topic of your PhD is what they specialise in. However, differences can arise in how research questions are approached e.g., your supervisor may feel you should do one type of experiment and you may disagree. To overcome this, talk to your supervisor about your concerns and provide evidence to back up your points.

How should one deal with the relationship with one’s supervisors? Do PhD students in your country have a specific way of managing this relationship?

  • Elizabeth Mullheron
    This is something that is unique between each supervisor and supervisee. Each supervisor has their own personality and expectations from their students, and different personalities work differently together. For me, I try to be honest, have open and respectful communication, and to develop a relationship where the supervisor takes on a more mentor like role.
  • Anastasia Doronina
    Supervisors are only human, just like you, and so they can be very different people. Some prefer a stricter, professional relationship, but from my experience, most are happy to go out for coffee with you and have a less formal rapport. 

Your supervisor will be your no.1 support system throughout your PhD, so learn what they are like, find common ground, and do not be afraid to have a professional friendship with them. Your supervisor is there to help carry you through the tough phases, make sure they like you.

However, remember, if they make you feel inferior, uncomfortable, stupid, or make themselves unavailable to you, contact your student support office/r, because a supervisor should NEVER do that.

  • Shivanee Shah
    Each supervisor is different. I have had three over my PhD and postdoctoral years in the US. One was extremely hands-free. I had full control over what I did and how I did it. The other 2 were more involved with the research and were always there to guide me, but at the same time gave me full control of how I wanted to carry out the experiments. All of them had different working hours and different ways of interacting with me. Stay professional, make sure you work hard and respect each other, communicate well. Everything else will fall into place.

If there is an academic dispute with the supervisor or if the supervisor is not happy with the student’s working progress, does the supervisor have the right to suspend the student’s living expenses or send him/her home?

  • Elizabeth Mullheron
    There’s a big difference between sending someone home for the day and dismissing them from the program, which would impact the student’s funding. That being said, dismissals do happen (not too often from what I hear) and students typically have a chance to find a new supervisor to work with. The university handbook should have more information on these processes, as well as appeal processes. 
  • Anastasia Doronina
    Absolutely not. If your supervisor makes you feel inferior, uncomfortable, stupid, or makes themselves unavailable to you, contact your student support office/r, because a supervisor should NEVER do that.

The only time you can be suspended from your PhD is if you fail to meet certain requirements set by the University itself, NOT the supervisor.

  • Shivanee Shah
    Suspending the student’s living expenses or deporting the student home is extremely serious. There will need to be a very valid reason for such an action. Remember that it is not just the supervisor whose lab you are in, but also the department and the university who will need to be involved in such a decision.

Is it true that PhD students must follow the supervisor’s instruction exactly? If the process does not work out well, the supervisor can suspend the student’s scholarship?

  • Elizabeth Mullheron
    It is important to listen to your supervisor’s guidance, but it is okay to ask for explanations to help your learning process. That being said, sometimes mistakes happen or hypotheses are inaccurate. Usually a supervisor should have some understanding for that. If there are severe issues between a supervisor and student, I’d imagine they can be dismissed from the lab and the student can apply to another lab/supervisor to work with. However, since my school is clinically focused instead of research focused I am speaking generally here. I’d refer to the university handbook for clarification about how dismissal from a program works. 
  • Anastasia Doronina
    Absolutely not. If your supervisor makes you feel inferior, uncomfortable, stupid, or makes themselves unavailable to you, contact your student support office/r, because a supervisor should NEVER do that. Furthermore, don’t be afraid to voice your opinions and stand your ground with your superiors, they are only human, just like you, and if you feel like they are misguiding or misunderstanding you, tell them. This is your PhD, not anybody else’s. 

The only time a student can be suspended from their PhD is if they fail to meet certain requirements set by the University itself, NOT the supervisor.

  • Shivanee Shah
    Following the supervisor’s instructions is good practice. You should discuss with them if you disagree with them, but going behind their backs is likely to land you in trouble. Suspending scholarship is very extreme and will involve the department as well as the university and is unlikely unless the offense is serious.


On understanding the supervisor’s instructions

Why do so many postgraduate students’ superiors want them to go onto do a PhD?

  • Elizabeth Mullheron
    This has not always been the case from my personal experience, but my guess would be that they feel their students could be successful and want them to know that doctoral studies are a viable option for the future. There may be a sense of pride in their students accomplishments as well. This wound depend on the person I’d imagine. 
  • Anastasia Doronina
    I do not know if this is necessarily true in the UK. A student is only advised to do a PhD if their lecturers/supervisors/senior researchers believe that they have great potential to complete a PhD, especially if they supervised them during a Masters research project. However, in the UK students are not pushed to do something they are not interested in doing.
  • Shivanee Shah
    When I completed my master’s degree, I did not want to do a PhD. However, within a span of a few months, I realized the importance of getting a PhD. A PhD degree is important should you want to remain in the field and hope to progress ahead. I would recommend it only if you are passionate about the subject. Otherwise, staying motivated through the course of 4-6 years can be very challenging.

I don't know why my supervisor keeps persuading me to study for a PhD degree. I personally prefer to start working after finishing my Master's degree. Should I refuse my supervisor even though he is insisting?

  • Elizabeth Mullheron
    Ultimately you will have to decide if getting a doctorate is right for you, for some people it’s not. For others still, it may be best to work a few years and return to school later. Going back to school later has its own unique set of challenges, but many people do it. I’d encourage you to do what you think is best for yourself and to research whether or not a doctorate would be helpful in the field of work you want to pursue. 
  • Anastasia doronina
    You should definitely refuse to do a PhD if it is not something that you want to do.
  • Shivanee Shah
    This is a very personal decision. When I completed my master’s degree, I also did not want to do a PhD and wanted to start working. However, within a span of a few months, I realized the importance of getting a PhD. A PhD degree is important should you want to remain in the field and hope to progress ahead. I would recommend it only if you are passionate about the subject. Don’t do it for the sake of doing it.

We hope you could relate to these questions and found the answers useful. How is your relationship with your supervisor? Do you have any questions for us on this topic? Feel free to post your question on our use our Q&A forum for researchers. We’re sure our community members would love to help you out.

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Published on: Dec 19, 2019


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