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.

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