How to pick a great supervisor

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Prior to becoming an academic, after a series of jobs with terrible managers, I had a job interview in the office of someone who had books about management on her shelf. She really thought about how to be a good manager, and she was, as I found out. I’m sure this isn’t a foolproof way to pick a boss, but it worked for me! I don’t think you can just be a good PhD supervisor, just as it’s pretty unlikely you could just be a good teacher, without thinking deeply about how theory and practice work together.

So what books do I have on my bookshelf, or saved on my computer, about doctoral supervision? Actually, this would be a good question for students interviewing a potential supervisor: what’s your favourite book on doctoral supervision? Mine is Helping doctoral students write: Pedagogies for supervision, by Barbara Kamler and Pat Thomson (Routledge, 2014). I read this book as a PhD student, in an earlier edition, and it was like having these two very experienced and insightful supervisors added to my supervisory panel! I love how this book describes the identity work of becoming an academic, rather than taking a box-ticking approach to thesis requirements. What would your answer be, if a student asked you this question? I look forward to expanding my library!

The business card supervisor

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A student told me recently about a fantastic supervisor who, when she orders herself new business cards, orders cards for all her PhD students at the same time. This tiny anecdote sums up, for me, how a truly collegial supervisor would reinforce, for students, that they are already early career researchers themselves, already within the academy, and doing all the things academics do, like meeting people, talking, sharing ideas, following up and forwarding resources. These students are colleagues, not acolytes in quarantine prior to inoculation by thesis examination. Business cards too business-y? Networking? Ugh? I still think this senior supervisor is thinking pedagogically about growing her students’ academic confidence and welcoming them into her team. Do readers have their own similar anecdotes?

What is a ‘supervisor’?

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A supervisor is ‘a person who directs and oversees the work of a postgraduate research student’ according to the Oxford Dictionary. The Latin ‘super’ positions the supervisor above the student and the ‘visor’ is all about seeing… so is that why becoming a PhD supervisor feels like being an acrobat? You’ve got to climb out from under, as a recent student yourself, and find a place to balance on top, even if this isn’t what you feel comfortable with. The etymology of ‘supervisor’ insists. Plus the grammar of the verb ‘supervise’ has you doing the action. Your student is defined by the passive voice, ‘being supervised’ by you.

This blog is all about the acrobatics of becoming a PhD supervisor, especially for those who would rather research beside their students, not on top of them. Every new supervisor must find a unique way of negotiating the role’s positionality, as part of becoming an academic. Where do you understand yourself to be in relation to your students?