The PhD supervisor has an incredibly important role. Taking a student who has already demonstrated an aptitude (and hopefully a passion) for science, the PhD supervisor has three or more years to assist this student to grow into a knowledgeable, skilled and independent researcher. During the PhD there will be a focus on carrying out novel research and translating this work into publications, the ‘currency’ by which both student and supervisor will eventually be judged. However, I believe PhD supervision should be about much more than research and publications — it should be about the supervisor sharing their expertise and guiding the student in a wide range of areas.
The following is a list of behaviours I believe make a good PhD supervisor
1) Discusses the students future with them
What does the student want to do when they finish their PhD? This is a conversation that is sometimes overlooked in the rush to get as much research done as possible. However, understanding what a students’ career goals from very early on helps the supervisor to identify opportunities for the student. Indeed, many students may not know about the many different career opportunities available to a PhD graduates other than the obvious jobs in academia and industry.
2) Is upfront and honest about the students options and prospects
Different career goals may require different skills and abilities, not necessarily present in every PhD student. For example, to have a good chance at an academic position typically requires exceptional talent and a good publication record, and will often require a good postdoctoral position. In a student is considering such a career these facts need to be communicated clearly so the student knows what to focus on.
3) Provides the student with opportunities for extending themselves
If a supervisor understands a student’s career goals they can identify opportunities that will allow the student to develop skills suitable for their goals. For example, allowing students interesting in teaching to run tutorials, arranging collaborations with industry, giving students responsibility for organising a group meeting. One area that I wish had been impressed on me during my PhD was the need to overcome my shyness and network at conferences. The misapprehension that one’s work will always speak for itself needs to be replaced with the idea that in science it is often who you know and not what you know that will open doors for you.
4) Teaches the student how to communicate their research
While many students groan about having to attend and present their research at group meetings, it is vital that they learn how to present their own work clearly and confidently to a group of their peers. Group meeting also provide the opportunity to see where one’s work fits into the bigger picture, to work as a group to share and solve problems, as well as to develop interpersonal skills.
Just as important is allowing a student to develop their writing skills. I know some academics, in a rush to publish their groups’ research, may write all of the papers themselves. This deprives students of the chance to develop valuable writing skills. Also the correction of student work should not just involve correcting their writing but should be accompanied by an explanation of why the changes are necessary. Sharing the tricks of the trade around writing successful grant applications would also be desirable, although I do wonder if, in the current funding environment, whether some supervisors hold back in this area for fear of increasing their competition for funds.
5) Teaches the student to be a truly independent researcher
Some might suggest that my earlier suggestions sound like a bit too much like hand holding, however, I believe getting alongside the student early on during their PhD allows the supervisor to steadily reduce the amount of guidance they provide to the student until they are truly independent researchers (surely one of the key aims of PhD research). This also allows the more experienced PhD students to mentor new PhD students in the supervisor’s absence.
I have derived this list from my observations of supervisor/student relationships over the past 20 years, as well as from my own personal experiences. Others may feel compelled to add their own suggestions, or perhaps to disagree with one or more of my points. I look forward to reading any comments.