Saturday, July 28, 2012

How to manage your supervisor 3 - Great Expectations

So far in this short blog series we have looked at how to select a supervisor and how to manage the first supervisory meeting but there are things that you should expect from your supervisor.  Most universities and research supervisors take student demands very seriously and will try to support them in any reasonable requests. Unfortunately though they rarely tell students what is on offer and so students don't know what is available and what they can ask for. The following are just a few of the things you can expect your supervisor to help you with.

Provide guidance in planning the research project - A PhD is a research training program, no-one expects a new doctoral student to have their research project completely planned from day one. You can expect your supervisor to be able to discuss different approaches to answering your  research question. You should also be able to look to them to provide suggestions and guidance with regards to suitable places to start literature searching as well. In addition, if you have identified and area in which you feel you need further training or education, your supervisor should be able to help you find internal or external resources that will help or be able to provide access to supplementary instruction.

Help with ethics -  In the UK, if you are doing research in health and social care, you are likely to have the lovely experience of attending a Local Research Ethics Committee (LREC). Although ethics committees tend to be forgiving to applicants who are doing Masters degrees, understanding that they are relative novices in research, they will treat doctoral students projects with the same level of rigour that they apply to the studies of experienced researchers. If you are invited,your supervisor should attend the ethics meeting with you. This is partly so that they can provide support for you, partly because they should be able to field any questions that stump you and mainly because ethics committees love it when supervisors attend with their students as it reassures them that a novice researcher has the full support of an experienced one. Even if you are not facing LREC you will probably have to submit your study to the approval of the university ethics panel and you can expect your supervisors help in this too.

Integrating with the wider academic community - Part of the doctoral process is engaging  with the wider intellectual community in your discipline. For most people this usually  means attending a suitable conference. SOME universities (but no means all) have small pots of money that doctoral students can apply for to fund conference attendance. It is worth asking your supervisor if such funds exist and getting them to help you apply or seek other forms of funding if none are available at your university. Another way of engaging with the external community is via publications and you should be able to expect your supervisor to be able to provide guidance on suitable target journals and the writing styles and standards expected.

Be the map reader on your doctoral journey - Your supervisor should be familiar with all the bureaucratic university milestones you are likely to encounter. Obviously it is your responsibility to keep such milestones in mind as well but you should be able to rely on your supervisor to be able to guide you on the preparation of progress or transition reports and, at the end of the process make informed suggestions with regard to the selection of examiners.

I know some doctoral candidates will read this and roll their eyes muttering 'my supervisor didn't do this'. None of the things I have outlined in the blog should be onerous or outside of the remit of the supervisor. But remember, you have to be the proactive one in this scenario, so think carefully about what you want from your supervisor and make your expectations clear to them. You can rest assured they will be making their expectations crystal clear to you!

Thursday, July 19, 2012

How to manage your supervisor 2- Entering the lion's den

Once you have found a supervisor that you feel is right for you, you face the challenge of the first supervision meeting. The important thing to remember here is to
start as you mean to go on.  One of the biggest mistakes that many new doctoral students make to is under estimate how much power they have in the doctoral candiate/supervisor relationship. They assume that the association will continue along the pedagogical lines of their previous studies in which the supervisor is all knowing and the student is the passive recipient of their knowledge. This should not be the case. The relationship between supervisor & PhD student is very different from other supervisory relationships, it should be a partnership of equals so negotiation is key. The expectations of both parties should be made clear at the start. If you have found yourself an excitable supervisor who is easily distracted by attractive avenues of discussion (yes, I know all my students are looking at me) take an agenda with you so that you can keep them on topic.

One of the first things to discuss is how often you plan to meet, for how long (two hours is a good start), whether those meeting will be face-to-face or via Skype or e-mail and where they will be (supervision doesn't necessarily have to be on-campus). The frequency of supervision changes across the course of the PhD so you may wish to see your supervisor every month in the early stages but less regularly during data collection or writing up phases. Regardless of frequency it is always a good idea to make your next supervision appointment before you leave. It is easier to cancel an appointment you suddenly find you don't need than to make one urgently.

It is a good idea if you have a broad idea of the focus you plan to take with your thesis but it's not a good idea if you are not open to debating or amending that plan. Many new doctoral students will start their PhD absolutely confident that they know exactly what they are going to be doing over the next 3-6 years. Equally as many complete a thesis which bears no resemblance to those original plans. So, be ready at your first meeting to have a long discussion about your chosen topic and all of the different ways you could explore it. Remember at this early stage nothing is carved in stone.

Most universities have set milestones that you will need to achieve and so it's a good idea, if you can to find out what they are ( they are usually outlined in the Post Graduate Research Regulations and the majority of universities have these available online) and discuss them with your supervisor. 

Even at your first meeting it doesn't hurt to be thinking about papers you will be publishing from your work and to discuss issues around what support your supervisor will be able to provide to help you, especially if you are a publishing virgin. Most supervisors will expect to have their names on papers you publish from you PhD, particularly if they have contributed in a more substantial way than just editing or proof reading but it is not inappropriate for you to expect to be first author.

So, for the first meeting;
  1. Negotiate how your relationship is going to work. 
  2. Negotiate what you expect from each other. 
  3. Be ready to discuss what you want to do and to explore different ways of doing it.
  4.  Be clear what the University set milestones are and how they fit into your project plan 
  5. Be ready to discuss a publication plan and authorship.

The first supervision session is a bit like a first date - you will probably both be on your best behaviour and trying to impress but you will also get a sense early on as to whether this is a relationship that has potential. Unlike a first date it isn't necessary to buy your supervisor flowers but don't be afraid to take biscuits.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

How to manage your supervisor 1 - Finding the needle

As the new academic year looms ever closer and new doctoral students start to search Amazon for books with titles like 'How to get a PhD', it seemed to be the right time for a series of short blogs on How to manage your supervisor. This first blog explores the qualities you should look for in a good supervisor

At the risk of paraphrasing Mrs. Beeton - first find your supervisor. Many new doctoral students do not realise that they can actually have a say in who supervises them. So it's a good idea to consider the following when you are looking for the perfect supervisor;

Find a supervisor who is knowledgeable and who understands the nature of PhD work - Every supervisory team should have at least one person on it who has supervised doctoral students to completion before. This is important because it shows you that they understand the quality and standard expected from a PhD and suggests (but doesn't guarantee) that you can have some trust in their judgement. It's helpful if you can have a supervisor that has some expertise in your field or your chosen methodology but ensure that they are open enough to respect your ideas and planned approach to your thesis otherwise you will just end up replicating their PhD (which, incidentally, it might be a good idea to skim read if you can get hold of it to get a feel for their standards of writing and ideological position and also allows you to giggle at the things they got wrong).

Make sure that they have enough time for you - Talk to the doctoral students they already supervise, if they tell you that it's difficult to pin them down for appointments or, worse, if they make appointments then cancel them regularly then approach with the utmost caution! You want someone who will read your work, comment on it intelligently and help you through the process, not someone who 'collects' students to supervise because it makes them look important.

Consider some professional supervision (as well as academic) - If the focus of your doctoral study is around your professional environment you might benefit from asking some one from you work place to contribute to the supervision process. If your supervisor is methodologically sound but doesn't have a lot of insight into your clinical or work based reality then a supervisory 'buddy' at work can really help. This person doesn't necessarily need to have a PhD, they just need to be expert in their/your field and someone you respect.

Find someone with whom you can get on - Most importantly you must be able to get on with whoever ends up as your supervisor.  This should not be a surprise, this is the person that you are likely to spend the next 3-6 years with so you need to have someone with whom you can sustain a relationship. Most PhD students will spend longer choosing a sandwich than they will choosing their supervisor, which is why lunch is often more enjoyable that doctoral study.

Finding a good supervisor can feel a bit like finding a needle in a haystack, you have to know what you are looking for, rummage around a lot and... erm, if you are not careful there may be bleeding? (I possibly should have thought this simile through a bit more). Most novice doctoral students are too worried about whether they will be able to do a PhD to think about how important it is that the person who will be taking the journey with is the right one for them but this is a very important first step.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Seven things you need to know when your partner is doing a doctorate

There are many useful books and websites that outline to the embryonic PhD student how the process works and what to expect from there doctoral journey. However there is a dearth of sites aimed at telling the partners/spouses/friends/families just how it will be for them, this helpful blog post aims to remedy that.

1. There will be emotional instability; this may come early on in the doctoral journey when your partner convinces themselves that they are totally unable to do a PhD. They may be angry with you for encouraging them in thinking that they could do one in the first place or for not being encouraging enough. Or both. Often at the same time.  It may come mid-way through when the three thousand questionnaires that were sent out,  at great expense and envelope stuffing inconvenience  to family and friends, show a response rate of 1% or it may come toward the end of the PhD when coming home to tempestuous tears, incoherent sobbing and a three hour temper tantrum that appears indicative, at the very least, of massive family bereavement/trauma or loss of the family pet or the cancellation of ‘The Simpsons’ is eventually discovered to have been caused by the printer cartridge running out. You can’t predict when it will come; the only thing you can be certain of is that it will.

2. Sooner or later they will need their own space; I don’t mean this in a ‘I need my own space so I’m leaving you’ kind of way, I mean it literally. One day you’ll realise that there are so many text books and journal off prints in a specific order that ON NO ACCOUNT must be disturbed scattered across your bed that your only option is to sleep in the cat basket. This may be a time to think about finding space for your partner that belongs exclusively to them, it doesn’t matter if it’s a proper study, the cupboard under the stairs or a corner of the dining table. They need to know they have a work area of their own and you need to know you can turn over in bed without dislodging 3 months worth of important data.

3. Re-think what constitutes ‘romantic’; no matter how  much you have used fine wine, back rubs, chocolates and flowers to express your devotion in the past, nothing says ‘I love you’ like Tabachnik and Fiddell’s classic text ‘Using Multivariate Statistics’ or Heidegger’s ‘Being and Time’. Knowing which expensive text book to buy and when will get you massive amounts of supportive partner points and fulsome praise in the acknowledgement section of the finished thesis. In extreme cases, it may even save your life

4. At some point your name and who you are will escape their memory; If this happens in the first six months of your partners PhD then you have a big any time after that, relax it’s quite normal. It just means that your partner is analysing focus group data in their head or trying to remember if a ‘p’ value of .001 is good (hint - it is, be impressed). This will happen more and more as your partner becomes more immersed in their studies so it’s probably a good idea to introduce yourself to them and remind them of your place in their life at the start of each interaction that you initiate (NB – especially important during sex). Take solace with the thought that this memory loss is quickly reversed once the thesis is submitted

5. Some one new (and possibly dead) will join your relationship; As your partner becomes increasingly obsessed with their PhD you will often find then with the sort of dreamy/concussed expression on their face that you recognise from the early stages of your relationship when you were both falling in love with each other. You may fear your partner is falling for someone else and your instincts would be right. It may be Heidegger, it may be Strauss, Spearman or  Cohen , but get used to it – someone else has joined your relationship and there is nothing you can do about it. When your partner talks incessantly about Martin, Anselm, Charles or Jacob don’t be threatened, yes they are important to your partner but take comfort in the thought that this infatuation will not survive completion of the thesis. Plus they are all dead which gives you a massive overall advantage.

6. You will learn new things; not just because your partners sole topic of conversation will be about their thesis – my beloved knows more about post-menopausal osteoporosis than any man in a non-healthcare related profession needs or wants to - but also because sooner or later many of the things they do as their part of an equal relationship will become your responsibility. Doesn’t matter if its topping up the oil in the car, filling and/or emptying the dishwasher, mowing the lawn, cooking, shopping, feeding the cat,  once they are in ‘the zone’ and furiously writing it’s easier just to pick up the slack yourself than risk the inevitable physical and psychological trauma (did I mention emotional instability?)

7. Nothing that happens will be because of you but everything that goes wrong WILL be your fault; sometimes you will feel that you are little more than a supportive spectator as your partner careers down the doctoral route but be warned – on no account allow yourself to believe that your non-participatory observer status means that you are exempt from blame for anything and everything that can go wrong throughout the 3-6 year doctoral journey. This will be hard but do not waste your time and effort in defending yourself or trying to point out that your partners PhD is grounded in field about which you know little and care less. In the long run it’s easier just to apologise.

I realize that this sounds as if the PhD process is a complete nightmare for the partners, family and friends of the doctoral candidate and this is because it is, but hold onto the fact that this is really, really important to them, you will be SO proud of them when you see them in their gown and bonnet at graduation, their career prospects will be enhanced giving you the option of becoming a kept man/woman and most importantly when it is all over they will love you more than they ever did before, even if it’s only to make up for the hell they just have put you through.