How to work with a first-time supervisor

In my last post on this stuff, I talked about how it feels to be a first time supervisor. I talked about the exemplary supervisor-candidate relationships that can develop when you are doing a PhD for the first time with someone supervising a PhD for the first time.

But, rough patches do happen–and pretty frequently (as you would expect with any intense, 3-7 year relationship!). I also know people who have faced really stressful and difficult experiences with first-time supervisors.

So in this post, I will talk about some of the typical difficulties that arise–you are not alone! And then I’ll talk about some strategies that often work for candidates–even if it’s not great right now, it doesn’t have to be a disaster for your whole candidature. 

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In my work with doctoral candidates, there are two distinct types of issues that are distinctly more likely to occur if the supervisor or examiner is new to all of this.

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Firstly, there is the first-time supervisor or examiner who micro-manages. 
Because the supervisor or examiner wants to do a good job, feels responsible and is afraid of failing, they get excessively involved in the details, perhaps giving overwhelmingly detailed feedback, perhaps requiring too frequent checking in, perhaps being suffocatingly prescriptive about working practices or methodologies.

This person often can’t give the candidate enough room to make the project their own, to make the normal mistakes and detours of research, to become an independent scholar.

Or they examine the thesis as if it were a peer-reviewed monograph, rather than a doctoral dissertation, requiring extensive revisions that are not needed yet. (Almost everyone needs to extensively rewrite their passable thesis to turn it into a publishable book.)

Ballard explains that:

[Experienced] examiners assume PhD candidates are still apprentices in the profession of research in their discipline; and so their theses are judged in terms of current competence and future promise as academic colleagues.

Inexperienced examiners find that nuanced judgement harder to get right.

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The other side of this coin is the examiner or supervisor who defers too much to more experienced colleagues. 

Most candidates have two or more supervisors. In some fields, the senior supervisor is the one who really works with the candidate, in other fields, the junior supervisor is the one who will actually read your drafts, while the senior colleague is responsible for running the lab, getting grants etc.

If your primary working relationship is with the less-experienced supervisor, you can run into a difficult situation where they are nervous about making suggestions that the primary supervisor might not approve of. Similarly, if your second examiner is new to this, they may be too deferential to the views (or imagined views) of the other examiner.

Sometimes you need your supervisor to stand up for your methodology, argument, findings or voice. A first-time supervisor may have worked with you for months as you researched approaches, tried out different things, found what worked for your research. You may need them to be your advocate to the more experienced supervisor who wasn’t there while you did all that work, to assure them that your approach is actually valid. A less experienced supervisor may feel uncomfortable disagreeing with an eminent colleague.

And depending on the people involved, it may be difficult or unwise for your first-time supervisor to disagree. A first-time supervisor is unlikely to have tenure yet. They may have spent the last ten years bouncing around the world in a series of tenuous post-docs, and now be on a fixed-term contract. They may not have many publications of their own, and may need to maintain good relationships with people who might review their work. Their salary might be paid from the grant money brought in by the head of the lab or department.

This may lead the first-time supervisor or examiner to stand too far back, and not get involved enough, to help you progress.

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So what can you do about it? 

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If you hit problems with your first-time supervisor, this doesn’t mean it’s all over. There are definitely things you can do to help make the relationship functional again. Most supervisors are trying their best to do a good job, and so are you. You will both make mistakes, that’s fine as long as you learn from them!

Here are five things that often help candidates improve their relationship with their first-time supervisor (and they often work well for other supervisors too!)

  1. Empathy.
    Put yourself in your supervisor’s shoes, and you can start to see where they are coming from. This will help you to understand that not all the issues with your supervisory relationship are to do with failings on your part (or on theirs!). This is the one piece of advice that is equally useful for a first time examiner.
  2. Expect it to be great sometimes, and not so great at others.
    They read all your work and give lots of feedback and have lots of time to meet up–this is wonderful! Until it’s too much. This doesn’t mean your supervisor is no longer a nice person, it means that it takes a village to write a thesis and your supervisor is probably not going to be perfect for all the tasks you need.
  3. Expect to need your supervisor less as you go on.
    Doctoral candidature is radically different at the beginning, the middle and the end, and needs different supervision strategies. Your supervisor will need to learn to supervise you through all those stages. Each stage will be new for both of you and will need renegotiation of your relationship, as you move towards being an independent peer scholar.
  4. Explain, don’t complain, about where you are at.
    Most first-time supervisors only know about their own doctoral journey. You are unlikely to be exactly like them, so keep giving them information about what you find useful, what you find unhelpful, where you are up to.
    But always keep it positive and constructive–if your supervisor is nervous, they are likely to do better if they think they are doing a good job. And they are less likely to panic if you look confident and happy.
  5. Make use of other support structures.
    Go to the Library, go see Academic Skills, go talk to your academic mentors, to your writing buddy. Go to Thesis Boot Camp, or set up a Meeting with your Writing. Get on Twitter for #phdchat, #phdforum, or get involved in the conversations around various writing blogs. Get a thesis coach. This will give you and your supervisor some support, so neither of you has to be perfect!

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I hope this is helpful to candidates with first-time supervisors, but also to other first-timers *waves*. Getting inside each other’s heads can help us to work better together and get on with the thing this is all really about–getting a great, original piece of research done, submitted and approved, and setting the foundations for a life-time of further independent research. 

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