relationships, Supervisor

Your supervisory team: the most important choice in your PhD

This post is written by Sandy Astill, PhD Candidate (her thesis is currently under examination)

Greeting to all of my fellow PhD candidates. I have to come clean right from the beginning. I am not a QUT CI student, however, Associate Professor Evonne Miller (this site’s Editor) was my adjunct supervisor for my PhD, which I completed through James Cook University in Cairns. My first piece of HDR advice – have someone like Evonne on your team! Someone who is honest, direct, motivated, energetic, passionate, excited about research, committed to seeing you finish and has your best interests to complete in a timely fashion, as a priority. If you have already done that – you are half way there!

Selecting your Supervisory Panel (your team!) is the MOST IMPORTANT part of a successful PhD, so,….

CHOOSE CAREFULLY

because the next three to four years of your life depends on it!

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I do not provide this piece of advice lightly, for a major part of enduring the PhD process is managing your HDR team. If your team are supportive, enthusiastic, cohesive and engaged, your HDR journey will likely be a pleasant one. If, however, these elements are not the best adjectives to describe your Supervisory Panel, you are facing a period of time that includes unnecessary stress and emotion.

Choosing those who will guide is not as easy as it sounds. These people need to engage with your topic, your methods, your ontology (subject for another blog!), your personality, your ambitions, and very importantly, with each other. When your topic requires a cross-discipline approach, as mine did, the danger is that those on your panel view research and methods very differently, which for a student in the early stages of the PhD, can cause unnecessary confusion. In retrospect I did not need to have four people on my panel from different disciplines. I needed only two – a Primary who understood the topic and who adopted similar methods to me, with a Secondary whose expertise was also a benefit to my research. Sounds logical, but believe me, amongst all that you need to organise when you first stage with journey, it is easy to make mistakes. And to add to the list of precautions you need to look out for are egos.

Academia is full of egos. It is a prerequisite; after all, this is a career path where a person seeks life-long recognition, as an author, lecturer, key-note speaker, teacher and researcher. If early career academics do not have an ego initially, they soon learn they need to develop one if they are to survive. The meek and mild are eaten for breakfast in the corridors of universities regularly, so it is only natural that you will encounter academic egos along your PhD pathway. Do your homework. Minimise the risk of encountering the academic ego within your Supervisory Panel. I did not, and it was nasty.

CHOOSE CAREFULLY.

Ask prospective supervisors honest questions about their views, their methods, their level of expertise, their time commitment, their relationship with others who you are thinking to approach to supervise you and their ability to work with your prospective panel in a professional, productive manner. You will soon pick up on any doubtful answers. Do not be scared to ask them blunt questions because the successful composition of your team impacts on the future success of your degree. This will probably be the first time in your academic life where you have a say in what you are doing, and how you are doing it. The Panel is there to advise, but the ultimate responsibility for the research and the thesis is yours. This is the time when you have to manage yourself, your research and your Supervisors – make it easy on yourself –

CHOOSE VERY CAREFULLY.

There is one more question I need you to think about. What happens if you lose your Primary Supervisor like I did?

Universities nationwide are undergoing restructure and budgetary cuts. This process always results in the inevitable losses of staff, and if you are truly unlucky like me, this could result in the loss of your Primary Supervisor at the end of your second year! (My situation was amplified as this was also the time when my husband and I decided to sell our house and move from Cairns, Far North Queensland, to the other end of the country to Launceston, Tasmania – but that is another story).

Two years in was the stage in the PhD process where I had collected my data, and had been analysing and writing articles, while also working on the thesis structure. This is also the stage where I was facing possibly one of the most socially isolating periods of my degree, where it often felt as though my supervisor was my only link to the outside world.

Understandably the loss of that person was devastating, particularly as it was up to me to find a replacement within the same university. My first thoughts were to change universities, make Evonne my Primary and become a QUT student, but I was too far into the process to do that. So I started reading profiles of lecturers within the university, emailing those who seemed as though they would be even remotely interested in me and my research. I was lucky. I did find a replacement, but having a new Supervisor come in on a PhD panel as Primary two-thirds of the way through the process, meant all that I had already done was now under new scrutiny.

I had to be prepared to justify everything- again – again – as though I was undergoing an Introductory Seminar and a Pre-Completion Seminar in unison. It was a difficult time, and I envy anyone who has completed their PhD and boasts that their ‘Supervisors were great’! In fact, I would like to rephrase that. I don’t envy those people at all – I dislike them intensely! But I survived. There were times when it would have been easier to walk away from the degree and just get on with my life, but I felt my topic was too important. I had done too much work, and I felt my respondents deserved more respect than that.

I have survived, and am now in that period of time where my work is being assessed and I sit at my desk wondering what the future will bring. While I wait, I am happy to share my experiences, in the hope that the mistakes I made are lessons for those to come after me. It’s nearly over …….. but if I had my time again I would have

CHOSEN  VERY CAREFULLY!

Image: Traffic Signs in Brisbane CBD, saying “no entry”, “wrong way” – credit, Evonne Miller. 

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