Researcher Life: Of Supervisors and Supervising

As PhDs, we are in a complicated position. We are getting the highest degree possible, but still at the start of our careers. We are learning to deal with our superiors, while having (in most cases) students looking up to us for their Bachelor/ Masters projects. If you are working as a Psychology researcher in a hospital in Germany, you may also have to supervise Medical students (Germany has mandatory research projects for Medicine students).

In some cases the supervisor may be from the exact same field (psychology supervisor-psychology supervisee) and you hopefully speak the same scientific language. Its not uncommon thought, to have supervisors from other fields (neuroscience supervisor-psychology supervisee, psychology supervisor-medicine supervisee, physics supervisor-statistics supervisee) who may not have learnt concepts the way you have. Complicate it a little more: A person who studied in country A, being supervised in country B. The student would have to know what strengths he brings from country A, what he is missing from the education in country B, and needs to find a supervisor who not only sees both these sides, but also adapt to this new student.

Now imagine all of the above challenges, on a daily basis, when you are the supervisee as well as the supervisor. If you are supervised by multiple people, and are supervising multiple people, this dynamics can quickly turn into a mess. A lot of PhDs find it challenging to consistently swap roles on a daily bases.

I am attempting to answer a simple question “what makes a good supervisor?” from the dual perspective described above.

1. Knowledge:
As a supervisee – Sure, a good supervisor should know a lot, about a lot of things. But more importantly, he should know what he knows. I am typically someone who comes up with a lot of different ideas. My supervisor is someone who is open to a lot of ideas. Fortunately, he knows what his area of expertise is, and what my area of expertise will be. Thus, he can easily channel my scattered ideas with ‘I don’t think we should study the effect of spaghetti on neurodevelopmental disorders, it’s not my expertise ‘, or ‘great idea, but we should probably get a chef as a co-author now’. A knowledgeable supervisor ensures you learn a lot, and from the best.

As a supervisor – As a supervisor during your PhD, you may not have as many resources. I see a couple of simple solutions to this problem.
First, take up students whose research topic you are familiar with/are working with. This way, if you need to put in efforts to learn about different kinds of pasta, it would help your knowledge growth as well.
Second, know where your limit is. Re-directing your supervisee to a better, more-experienced person, or asking your own supervisor to step in, is better than giving wrong information, or stirring the project in undesirable directions.

2. Structure:
As a supervisee – This is a huge topic in the PhD-world. When you are on your own project, but still need to depend on people, you realize how much structure you need. By need I mean, literally, you go crazy without it. As a PhD its pretty much your responsibility to get this structure; but you will need a supervisor who is on the same page with structuring tactics. I personally use a ‘Calendar for Controlled Chaos’, which is filled with funny quotes about hectic work. This week’s page has an elephant on it, and the header says ‘for tons of work, an elephant is probably more helpful to write on’. My supervisor recently learned of my secret diary to sanity, and encouraged me to use it every time I mention how chaotic things are.

As a supervisor – While supervising bachelor/ masters students, they may not always be able to come and tell you what kind of structure they need. They are still getting to know the research processes and learning what is expected from them as researchers. This means, that you would have to sometimes act as their planner and sometimes wait for feedback from them. Sometimes you should set deadlines and milestones. Sometimes just gift them a pretty diary, and let them figure out the rest. Give it time, and give enough room for reflection. That way they don’t just learn research concepts, but managing their own research.

3. Identifying strengths:
As a supervisee – As mentioned in my previous post, research involves a ton of things. Not everyone is good at all of it. A good supervisor, should be able to identify/be open to the fact, that you are good at task A, but need help in task B. Maybe your colleague is better at B than A. Maybe, if your supervisor realizes this, he would be able to  pair you up. Each of you learns from the other, and the team benefits as a combined effort. It’s like shared household work, if you find cooking enjoyable, cook! If you find cleaning relaxing, clean! And if a good cook, and a relaxing cleaner live together, take me in, I’ll paint the house, make the place pretty and fragrant.

By the time you reach PhD level, your supervisor may expect you to be more reflective, and ask for help yourself. I think this is fine, and at this stage, being open to your strengths and weaknesses is good enough.

As a supervisor – Like with structuring, if your supervisees are in their early stages of understanding research, you may have to do the identifying bit for them, and then allocate tasks accordingly.

4. Your Career Growth:
As a supervisee – This is probably the most important aspect I see in a supervisor, but its not a general thing people look for. Hence, its number 4 on this list.
I think a good supervisor should not just give you knowledge and opportunities that he thinks is the best for any researcher, but tailor it a bit according to what you would like to do in your future. You can’t attend all possible conferences and summer schools. Which ones you attend should be in line with your future goals. Where do you want to work? What kind of contacts do you need to build for post-PhD life? Do you really need to learn about pasta and all its sauces?

As a supervisor – Lets take an example here. If you are a psychology major (like me), supervising medical students, keep in mind that they need not have an in-depth understanding of psychology or research. The goal of their research project is to be able to read and understand research, in order to make the right decisions for their patients. This is totally different from your goal as a cognitive researcher – to have findings for future research and therapy. So while you would go to talk on ‘Innovations in Gaze Movement Research’, they would probably prefer a talk on ‘What does my p-value Mean?’. And that’s ok.

5. Availability:
As a supervisee – Some labs have weekly lab meetings, other PhDs meet their supervisors once every 3 months. PhD Programs vary. It depends on research fields, kinds of research, and PhD-Supervisor relationships. Therefore, I would define this characteristic as subjective. If my supervisor met me after 3 months, I’d panic. But in a lot of other PhDs (social sciences for instance), there is probably nothing for the supervisor to talk about on a weekly basis. Progress is measured differently, and availability needs to be in line with progress.

As a supervisor – As a supervisor, availability needs to be enough, so that the project doesn’t lag behind, go the wrong way, and/or get chaotic. Bear in mind that the progress of the project has a direct relationship to motivation level of team members.

6. Tailored Characteristics
Just a special point here for everyone reflecting on the supervisor-supervisee roles. It was super important to me, that my supervisor is ‘international’, i.e., works with labs and has collaborations in more than one country. This is what I want to achieve in the future and it was important for me that my supervisor not just understands, but supports this idea. You may have such very specific traits you are looking for. Maybe you need supervisors who have a flexible schedule, because you’re doing a part-time PhD. Maybe you need a supervisor who is involved in certain organizations, that you see yourself working in. Whatever it is, find out how important this is to you, and then choose someone who gives it at least some importance to your special need.

A few of you may ask how you’d determine if your supervisor meets these characteristics or not.  Answer:

  1. Have many, many meetings with your supervisor. Be sure this is what you want, and this is the person with whom you want to have the project with.
  2. Ask questions – to your supervisor and to his existing students, about what they do, how their team is organized and so on.
  3. Don’t rely on rumors.

As for you supervising, let there be space for questions and meetings, and don’t get offended if someone doesn’t choose to work with you. πŸ™‚

To know more about my life as a researcher, check out my previous posts πŸ™‚
The Storm – a special, overwhelming period in researchers’ life
The Wait – preceding every storm
“I had Fun” – Why this line is so special to cognitive scientists.
Monday Morning Blues – A researcher’s monday morning blues come on any day! πŸ˜‰
50 Shades of Research – Everything you will have to do…and more!
I have the…Moves? – Why this blog? 

To hear me talk about random things in a researcher’s brain, check out the ‘Researcher Rambling’ series: 
Science as its Biggest Stakeholder – a fact we often forget.
Researcher Like Thinking – How this profession has changed my thinking.


One comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *