The mantra to being a good supervisor — R Voice

The mantra to being a good supervisor

Kakoli Majumder
Kakoli Majumder Member, Administrator, Moderator Posts: 203 admin

One common issue that comes out in most discussions on PhD life is difficulty in dealing with supervisors. This is a cause of distress to many researchers and makes their PhD journey extremely stressful. However, despite this being a known problem, only a handful of universities provide professional training for research supervision. I came across this brilliant article which discusses this issue in depth and focuses on how one can be a good research supervisor. One sentence in the piece that really stood out for me was: "Being a decent supervisor means being a decent human being."

Just curious: Does your university have some form of training for research supervisors? Would love to know more about it.


  • Omololu FAGBADEBO
    Omololu FAGBADEBO Member Posts: 59 ✭✭✭

    "Being a decent supervisor means being a decent human being", is the summary of the matra of a good supervisor. Training workshop for supevisor is good, but human factor is more important. If you are nt a decent hman being, you cant be a decent suervisor because postdraduate supervision requires the ability to manage volatile relationship in the quest for knowledge. I have had the oportunity of attending a training course for postgraduate supervision, and the central factor ephasised by the facilitator was the need for supervsors to develop good human realtion, apart form the requisite academic attainment and dedication to reserach activities. A good supervisor should be a good researcher.

    One thing at a time

  • chris leonard
    chris leonard Member, Administrator, Moderator Posts: 145 admin

    I think the quality of supervision in PhDs varies wildly. I had a very hands-off supervisor, but that suited me well. For others, they may have wanted more guidance and face time, in which case this would not have been a good match. The problem with supervision is nothing new, and is replicated in industry in the Peter Principle, which states that: "employees are promoted based on their success in previous jobs until they reach a level at which they are no longer competent".

    The same is likely happening in academia where great postdocs are suddenly handed a completely different role - one of managing, inspiring, and nurturing an individual. This may be a completely different skillset that made them stand out as a postdoc, lecturer, or professor.

    So, what skills are required in a good supervisor - and how can we make sure all supervisors have access to this necessary training?

  • Amrendra Sharma
    Amrendra Sharma Member Posts: 0

    I admit that a good supervisor should be a fine human being, as if s/he is nor a good human material with some highly desirable qualities, like kindness, sympathy compassion and a reasonable amount of empathy, the person is decidedly not a good supervisor.

    Next, a supervisor must be endowed with a deep insight into research/ research issues.

  • Asli Telli
    Asli Telli Member Posts: 36 ✭✭✭

    I think the specific wording of “supervisor” by Kakoli is to tell the difference between that and a mentor. The role of supervisor is crucial at the time of PhD in academia, at least in the contexts I’ve seen. Hands on or hands off, the contact you have with him/her/them also depends on how you shape it together. Being a decent human is essential, but one should also keep in mind that it is not a one-way relation and that the needs/expectations must be in clear terms for both sides at the beginning of the relationship. I’ve seen most of the problems arising due to mismatch, lack of time and commitment. As a principle, making sure that the hierarchy between the two parties does not create an unhealthy relationship is crucial. This would be harder to handle in some academic cultures, but it should not be impossible.

  • Kakoli Majumder
    Kakoli Majumder Member, Administrator, Moderator Posts: 203 admin

    True @Asli Telli...while being a good human being is definitely important, I feel that setting clear expectations and goals at the outset and following these through is also crucial to successful PhD supervision. This is where I feel training of supervisors can give a clear structure and direction. As @chris leonard has correctly pointed out, this is replicated in industry as well, and managing other individuals and helping them blossom to their highest potential requires a different set of skills altogether. However, while organizations usually acknowledge this and often provide training to their managers to hone these skills, research supervisor training is not as commonly practiced in academia. I believe that the right approach to research supervision can definitely be developed if institutions are more proactive in inculcating a culture of support and positivity.

  • Raj sundaram
    Raj sundaram Member Posts: 322 ✭✭✭✭

    Joining a bit late into the conversation...

    As far as I know..."Training of supervisors" is a thing that hasnt really happened much. And is too slow to be embraced at an institutional level

    Also, I dont think most supervisors are going to be very happy with being taught how to be good humans (although some ought be really taught :D).

    Some are probably going to be unhappy with it because it is going to add to all the extra beauracracy and pressures PIs are handling (bring money, bring more papers, take more classes, graduate more students, file more patents - or you will lose your job! kind of pressure....).

    Which brings us to the core issue.

    The core issue - is lack of accountability, too much power and responsibility vested in too few hands, lack of oversight, and lack places to seek guidance for supervisors themselves.

    Most supervisors I have talked to (through various stages in my career) dont even understand or realize they have the power to make or break student's career and life. This seems to be either because of lack of time or lack of will/perspective. The latter in some cases, is because of too much "success" leading to a God Complex. In some cases, the lack of will is because the PIs themselves are exhausted!!

    Depending on their own career trajectory and present status (tenured/not-tenured, those who were lucky to flourish in circumstances when funding was plentiful vs. others who have had to expose themselves to crazy amounts of competition...) - supervisor attitude to science and students may vary...but the common theme seems to be that many supervisors are stuck in their own worlds.

    These worlds are either of too much stability leading to complacency/unrealistic standards from students unmindful of what is necessary to improve changes for the protege's future in current times and the student's individual situation/goals....

    OR it is cut throat competition - where students are little more than screws and nails to be used and kill or be killed environment that encourages predatory practices (salami tactics with publications/research work...), lack of even basic standards with regard to science and human relationships, etc.

    I would like to think that many supervisors are good humans, but are put under environments that lead to less than ideal consequences. Many even have good intentions at heart for science and even students.

    I think in addition to one-time training or even annual trainings - what is perhaps, necessary is

    (1) Formally having multiple mentors for students

    (2) Establishing mentors/oversight for supervisors that works on the principle of routine feedback. For instance...establishing a three point feedback mechanism between students-supervisors-and their mentors

    (3) Establishing a support system - to seek guidance and help for supervisors about managerial duties

    (4) Less stressful/competitive workplaces - especially for early-career supervisors who are under immense pressure. This can be easily done by formally pairing up early-career supervisors with more established PIs - fostering collaborations and networking, which usually also leads to better outcomes in terms of funding/publications/better science....

    Basically - I feel broadening the support net and opportunity allocation system for everyone in academia ranging from students to PIs may be beneficial to all....