5 ways to make your supervisor happy

Before I go into this week’s top five I wanted to thank http://www.collegescholarships.org for listing us at #33 in their recentΒ  ‘top 100 education blogs” . It’s an honour guys. There are a few great sites on this list for research students I might add, so it’s definitely worth a look if you are so inclined.

I also want to thank Pip at the University of Waikato for publishing an excerpt from the ‘It’s Time’ talk in their latest TDU talk magazine for supervisors. I read through all the back issues (I’m nerdy like that) and there is a ton of good stuff in there for supervisors and students.

Speaking of supervisors, this week’s top five came out of reflecting on myself as a research supervisor and asking – what makes me happy? As I said – these Top Fives will be opinionated!

1) Your answer to ‘jump’ is ‘how high Dr Mewburn?’
As soon as I email you asking for a status report you email me straight back with a gantt chart and synopsis. I like that about you. It doesn’t seem to matter if I have been maintaining radio silence for weeks on end – you are always ready to answer. I especially love the way that you don’t make me chase you down at Mr Tulk or another student hang out to get an update. That would turn me into Grumpy Old Supervisor. Nobody likes the grumpy old supervisor.

2) You don’t really dig the stuff that I dig, but you respect the fact that I dig it
I love the way that, even though you think Nigel Thrift writes incomprehensible gibberish, you remember that I love him. You actually take the time to read the Thrift papers I give you – before you tell me that his work is pointless for your project. I don’t understand why you don’t love Thrift as much as I do, but it would probably get boring if all our meetings turned into a Thrift love fest anyway. Besides, I enjoy arguing with you. And hey – if you convince me that someone has better theory than Thrift does about your topic, I learn something new – right?

3) I didn’t hear you say you were too busy – right?
You understand that I like a person who does what they say they will. I appreciate that you very quickly learned that saying “I was too busy to get that draft done when I said I would” only leads to a raised eyebrow and a rant. Usually the one which outlines the list of all the things I did (taught, changed nappies, wiped spit up, cooked, cleaned, solved world hunger…) when I was doing my PhD. You know that rant is very boring and you and I hate having to listen to it.

4) You remember to fill in forms and stuff.
I hate administrative forms. They are the enemy and I am bad at them. You, however, can do the form thing when it is asked for and I appreciate that. It means that I never get pesky emails from administrators telling me that you forgot to enrol or something.

5) You are going to finish your degree on time and not embarrass me with the result. I am now convinced you will finish and pass your degree with flying colours. At times, I’ll admit, I wasn’t sure you were ever going to finish, but I am happy it seems to be heading in the right direction now. You worked hard for that and I get to take some credit for it. Everybody wins!

What would make you happy if you were a supervisor? If you already a supervisor – what’s your top five?

16 thoughts on “5 ways to make your supervisor happy

  1. ailsa says:

    What i would prefer to see on your top 5 of how to make ur supervisor happy
    (Not being one, but having a preference as a ‘consumer’)
    1. Trust; even when it looks unlikely, you make it happen. Just like the watched pot doesnt boil, your ideas are perculating away when im looking elsewhere
    2. More trust, what i tell u today, you dont ignore, even if it currently doesnt fit, you note it down before rejecting it out of hand, and look, voila, its there when you are ready to recognise you needed it
    3. And more trust. You show me your work…even though you have had a whole education process of only handing in whats finished, and being smacked down for handing in unfinished work, you trust me with your half baked stuff. And you tell me what to read for, ideas or editing so we dont waste each others time.
    4. You dont need micromanaging, and i dont turn in to your mother. You fill in your forms, you use spell checkers…join endnote online …
    5. The country/world cannot afford to have a single phd student left behind, you will not fall over without having asked for help.

    and then there’s the social nice stuff of being human; make friends, share ideas, readings of mutual interest, phd comics, glasses of wine, coffee, learning how to bake bread alongside learning to write papers, do conferences…finish chapters…

  2. Michael C. Harris says:

    You do warn it’s opinionated, and maybe you don’t mean for some of it to be taken literally, but that reads like a one-size-fits-all supervision model. Do you expect to be happy all the time as a supervisor? Because from my experience, from those I’ve seen around me, and from most of what I’ve read (much of via you) I think you’ll spend a lot of unhappy time.

    How about instead of emailing you a gantt chart, your student emails you to say, I’m having a lot of trouble motivating myself? How many students go through (very) low points and find things a struggle? 99%? I’d replace number one with “You answer me honestly when I ask for an update, so we can get things back on track if they’re not going well.”

    How about your student just skips the word “busy” and simply says, I didn’t get that done? You managed to get through your PhD with a full life, that’s great, but everyone is different, and some things just take longer than anyone could expect. Something you linked to recently (I can’t find it right now) talked about the continual disappointment of missing deadlines, something I can definitely relate to. Necessary yak shaving and unexpected hiccoughs have a way of derailing progress. So I’d replace number 3 with “When you don’t get something done when you said you would, you pay me the respect of honestly telling me why, and what’s going to change to make sure it does get done.”

    I’m a bit stumped at number 5. I’m in possession of no data, and I know you have lots, but a lot of students finish over time, right? So, while it might make you happy when your students finish on time, the reality is that many of them won’t. And as for embarrassed, of course the final responsibility for the finished work belongs to the student (and learning that is often part of the journey), but isn’t it the supervisor’s job to apprentice students in the world of research? So if the final work is an embarrassment, then perhaps the supervisor has at least partly let the student down. One dimension of that is something that’s on my list of topics to ask you to write about; if a supervisor decides a student is up to the task, the what, how, and when of the discussion about quitting.

    Of course, I’m not a supervisor, and quite likely never will be, and you’re in a much better position to see across a range of PhDs than me, so take all I say with a giant pinch of salt.

    • ingermewburn says:

      It was written to be tongue in cheek and flippant Michael, but I take your point.

      Not to say that I don’t feel some of these feelings and wish for these things to happen … I just hyped them up a bit to be provocative. I am surprised at myself really – it’s a mundane and selfish kind of list isn’t it? But if we looked into our dark hearts… Perhaps this reflects the fact that supervision has to happen in the spaces between everything else?

      And the last point – you wouldn’t believe how much you worry that your student will fail or drop out – I worry more than I did when I was studying actually because ultimately, unlike my own PhD, I have NO CONTROL over the outcome… I can only try my best!

  3. M-H says:

    Interesting, Ailsa. If my supervisor wanted to drink wine or bake bread with me I would be running away very fast. (Well, let’s be honest, hobbling. I am knocking on 60). These are not things I want or need; it’s the life of the mind we share. I think. Horses for courses…

    And there is a theory that there are too many PhD students, and some are bound to fail not complete. Not that we’d subscribe to that, of course. πŸ™‚

  4. lynneguist says:

    The number one thing on my list (as a supervisor) would be:

    Trust me when I say you should/shouldn’t do XYZ.

    I’ve written one of these things myself. I’ve supervised several doctoral students before you. I’ve been in the examiner’s seat too. If I say that your literature review needs more focus, or your exposition isn’t clear enough, it’s not really a point for debate. It’s me thinking about what a thesis is supposed to be and what the examiners will make of yours.

  5. Gary Hillali says:

    I am currently doing a prerequisite subject (research method) before I start my PhD research work in industrial relations.
    I still have not have formal contact with my supervisor since my candidature was approved. It is a good idea to start communications with him now or should I wait till I pass the prerequisite then I could initiate contact.?

    I am feeling kind of lost now and I am afraid that I could be overwhelmed by the whole thing considering that I am doing the PhD off-campus, since I reside overseas (outside Australia) and I agreed to meet my supervisor in person once a year.

  6. Shannon says:

    Michael, I also think you missed the style and tongue-in-cheekness. It’s one person’s musings. I found it somewhat humorous.

    And on another note, two ideas of mine to add
    1. be in charge of your learning – it’s not my job to think for you, or do it for you. Yes, this is the big kids world of university work – it’s your PhD, take charge of it.
    2. be open to new possibilities
    3. remember it’s just words on a piece of paper – I’m not responding to you as a worthy person, I’m working with you on those words on that piece of paper to help you sharpen and shape the expression of your ideas
    4. when you ask me for help to progress forward, and I give a distinct 3- step strategy with timeline, don’t then say when strategy 1 is due: “Oh I decided not to do that, but to do more of the same ineffective stuff”.
    5. communicate – I can’t understand, support or help if I don’e know.

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