Being a first-time supervisor

For nearly everyone doing a PhD–this is your first time. You’ve never done this before, and you’re learning the ropes as you go. The idea is that you will have more experienced supervisors, mentors and examiners, helping you to find your way. And mostly that’s true.

But, sometimes your supervisor is new to this too, or the examiner has never done this before. This can be the best thing ever: the person has done their own PhD recently, they are invested in your  success, and they are junior enough to have the time to take time over your work. This can be the worst thing ever, as inexperience or anxiety can compound your inexperience and anxiety.

Recently, I have been a supervisor for the first time, and I’m going to talk about some of my experiences. I’m an unusual case–on the one hand I’ve advised hundred of doctoral candidates, so I’m pretty experienced; but at the same time, this was the first time my candidate’s work was going out with my imprimatur. The first time I had to say, in front of my peers, ‘I think this is good enough’. That was stressful, and I thought talking about my experience might help other first timers!

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First time Supervisors are nervous too.

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I know I do good enough work to pass a PhD. I know how to judge students’ work, I’ve been grading undergraduate work for a decade and graduate coursework for nearly as long. I know how to give advice that helps students pass.

BUT: as Ballard (1996) found when she surveyed examiners reports:

If there are particular problems, then the examiners regard the department, the supervisor and the candidate as all being potentially implicated; and if there are remarkable achievements, the recognition likewise extends beyond the performance of the individual candidate.

If a student fails my undergraduate class, that’s probably their fault. If my candidate fails her PhD, that’s probably my fault.

Similarly, the examiners themselves are conscious that their own reputation is being judged through the quality of their reports.

That internationally known scholar who is examining your work? The head of your thesis committee? The Head of Department who is your first supervisor? They are all judging my work as well as yours.

It’s worth remembering that most of the time, our academic bosses doesn’t read or rate our research, that’s the role of anonymous peer reviewers and external grant committees. There are very few moments when the person who hired an academic judges their research or writing competence rather than just their outputs. Doctoral theses are therefore places for this identity work to happen by proxy. ‘But what if my Academic Hero™ reads my report and thinks I’m an idiot?’ ‘But what if my Big Boss disagrees with me on how this chapter should be structured and thinks I can’t research?’ are valid concerns for first-time supervisors and examiners.

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Some first-time supervisors and examiners are exemplary. Many candidates find that their first-time supervisor is their first, close, peer researcher relationship when they graduate. They write papers together, or they come back to teach for their supervisor’s subject. The candidate’s expertise is the perfect complement to the supervisor’s expertise and they have already worked together successfully for a number of years.

I definitely know people for whom this is true (my partner, for example). I also know people who hit a rough patch with their supervisor, but came through the other side and gained this kind of relationship long-term (including at least one person for whom I was a thesis coach).

It’s an honour and a priviledge to supervise candidates, and it’s hard work. We care, we care about doing a good job, and we’d love to get better. I aspired to be an exemplary first-time supervisor, but even if I wasn’t perfect (and I wasn’t!), I expect I’ll be better at it next time!

In the next post, though, I’ll talk about the flip-side. The candidates I work with who didn’t have such a great experience with first-time supervisors and examiners and what to do about it!

 

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References:

BALLARD, B. (1996) Contexts of judgment: an analysis of some assumptions identified in examiners’ reports on 62 successful PhD theses, paper to the Conference on Quality in Postgraduate Research, Adelaide. quoted in: Mullins and Kiley (2002), ‘It’s a PhD, not a Nobel Prize‘:

 

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