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What switching supervisory teams in graduate school is like

What switching supervisory teams in graduate school is like

Well, I’m one of the few people who have been unfortunate enough to have to change my supervisory teams. Partially because one of my supervisors left the university, but also because I required a better fit for my stakeholders. What I noticed, on top of the quirks present in the new college I am part of, is the cultural and relationship differences I’m experiencing with the new team. Part of these differences is inherently due to the differences in what supervisors expect from a PhD student (Business is somewhat harsh and micromanage-y for research students whereas science and healthcare are more relaxed and autonomous provided you can prove that you know what you’re doing).

The old team was a stark contrast between two people - one was very friendly and personable; the other was quite cold and aloof. I found it much easier to talk to one over the other, and always worried about my interactions with the “cold” supervisor. Every email with the second was terse and unfriendly, which eventually escalated as they displayed an inability to compromise. It was an exercise in anxiety as I felt like I had conflicting information at all times, where one supervisor insisted that I should relax because I was doing fine, and the other insisted I needed rapid improvement. It was a toxic relationship – towards the end I did not feel safe telling my supervisors about my work for fear that it would be adulterated or stolen from me. This began to deteriorate our relationship even faster as I began hiding information from my supervisors because I simply didn’t trust them anymore.

The new team is much more balanced. One supervisor is very personable and outgoing, while the other (despite being a little more reserved) is still friendly and approachable. I know both have my back, and support my decisions, but they both do so from different perspectives and differing viewpoints (which I appreciate).

I feel like I get an honest, consistent message from both supervisors on what is required and expected of me. And while we’re still slowly building a relationship I don’t feel the apprehension with either of these supervisors that I did with my old team. The new ”dual-perspective” support is important and useful to my work, as it allows me the time to consider different situations I might have overlooked, while still giving me the impression that both unique viewpoints are offered with my best interest at heart. I feel that this was possible because I got to interview both supervisors personally before recruiting them to my team, as opposed to my earlier team where I had no say in the second (standoffish) person after I chose the first one. This personal choice of both supervisors allowed me to judge for myself whether I could trust them and how our working dynamic might play out.

I also find that I’m more implicitly invited to stay in regular contact with my new supervisors than my old ones. My new supervisors enjoy meeting face-to-face (or via Skype), with regular emails to keep in touch. I enjoy this frequency and mode of meetings due to my physical distance, and I also feel supported in my work. My old team did not encourage this – weekly phone calls were often rambly and unconstructive, while emails often went unanswered.

I acknowledge that every dynamic between supervisors and students are different, and are heavily dependent on the individuals involved in the relationship, which is why I thought I’d write this post! I’ve now experienced two entirely different teams for my PhD so far, and I can verify that it really changes how I experience the work at hand. I feel much less anxious, less hesitant to ask questions, and more confident now that I have support.

How is your dynamic? Do you have an interesting supervisory team for your project? Let me know! I’d be interested to hear.

Madeleine Kendrick (@MIKendrick94) is a PhD candidate (Scholarship Recipient, Full-time), an Academic Research Assistant, and a Business Consultant. This story was published on October 22, 2018, on Madeleine’s blog, Research & Beyond (available here), and has been republished here with her permission. 

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