Friday, 1 July 2011

Advice to PhD students #2: it's your problem

Having a good working relationship with your supervisor is essential to getting your PhD done. I'm hoping that any current students would have chosen their supervisor due to a number of reasons such as liking their work and respecting them as a person. However, getting the most out of this relationship can be difficult if you don't know how to manage them. Yes, manage them.

Here's my second piece of advice: it's your problem.

Out of this list, which do you think are your responsibility, and which do you think are your supervisor's responsibility?
  1. Making sure you are putting in full time or part time hours (depending on your arrangement) for your work.
  2. Arranging weekly meetings to check-in and discuss what you have been doing.
  3. Making sure you have the equipment and materials that you need to do your work.
  4. Keeping up to date on the important research in your area.
  5. Writing posters, workshop papers, conference papers and journal papers.
  6. Going to conferences and networking with other academics.
  7. Setting deadlines and getting things done.
The unfortunate truth is that all of these things are your responsibility. Now, I'm not saying that, for example, if you need a specific piece of equipment in order to do your research that you should go out and buy it yourself, but it is your responsibility to initiate the acquisition of this through your supervisor, or IT support, or likewise. But, the key message is that ultimately, you are responsible for your own fate.

Ideally, a PhD student should not only be pushing themselves in terms of the knowledge they are gaining and the results they are finding, but they should also be pushing their supervisor's understanding also. When this relationship works well, it has has mutual benefits for both parties: publications, knowledge and growth. When it doesn't work well, your supervisor still has a job and plenty of other research projects to focus on, but you'll end up not getting your PhD.

I remember when I was an undergraduate it took me a long time to realise that the first priority of (some of) my lecturers wasn't actually teaching. In fact, they had a wide variety of different priorities which I now understand. In no particular order:
  • Doing their own research
  • Teaching and grading
  • Sitting in on school and departmental meetings
  • Supervising 3rd year dissertations
  • Supervising Master's dissertations
  • Supervising PhD students
  • Answering email (never underestimate the amount of email some people get)
  • Writing grant proposals and securing funding
Supervising PhD students ranks more highly than some of the other activities, but as a PhD student, you have to realise that you're not at the top of the stack. This isn't necessarily because you're not worth anything, but it's because you're one of a number of different things that your supervisor is dealing with. However, there are techniques for remaining near the top of the stack.

The trick is to be visible, but not annoying. Some of the things that worked for me are as follows:
  1. Being there in person. I know that a PhD does technically allow you to work wherever and whenever you want, however, from experience, turning up every day to the lab does wonders for your (lack of) social life, and it lets you be around the few people who actually understand what you're going through. The other major plus point is that quick 5 minute questions that may get ignored by email can be answered by your supervisor instantly when you knock on their door.
  2. Regular meetings. At the beginning of your research, speak with your supervisor about how you like to work. Discuss whether it would be best if you should have a short weekly meeting or a long monthly meeting, and whether you'd like to do this orally or by preparing a written report every time of what you've been up to. Different people work in different ways, but it's important to keep touching base, otherwise it's surprising how quickly you can slip away from their mind.
  3. Be honest about your intentions. Talk to your supervisor about why you are doing a PhD. Is it because you want to become an academic, or do you want to do clever work in industry? Depending on your goal, your output could be different, and you should make your supervisor press you for this output. Hard. If you want to become an academic, they should regularly push you to produce posters and workshop papers (earlier on) and conference papers and journal papers (later on). However, it's up to you to find the venues and journals. If you're aiming more towards industry, then you might focus more on producing software tools that could be made open source, making a contribution to the programming community as well as completing your thesis. These may be extensions to existing compilers or simulators, or a brand new tool you can put out there. They should push you to get these done too.
  4. Share your deadlines. You should be setting yourself regular deadlines (more on that soon), but you should give these to your supervisor and make sure they know about them. That way there is someone other than yourself accountable for getting work done. And when you're potentially letting someone else down, the motivation to get things done increases.
The relationship with a supervisor is strange in the sense that they are more like a mirror than a traditional manager. The more you keep your supervisor informed, and the more targets you set yourself, the more supervision that you'll get. You're training yourself to do research. Imagine that your research is a huge boulder than you can't see over. Their job isn't to pull you and your research along. After all, it's research: they don't know the answer. Your supervisor should be standing beside you as you push it, making sure it's going in the right direction.

No comments:

Post a Comment