Six Tips to Become a Better PhD Supervisor

Six tips to being a better PhD supervisor: 
1. Do the training. 
2. Know your students. 
3. Respect their time. 
4. Refer to others. 
5. Model good behaviour. 
6. Make progress visible.


There's been a lot of talk, and a lot of information lately about how to be a better student but I don't think a lot of it. I don't think there's enough information out there about how you could potentially be a better supervisor. I think we take a lot of our skills as supervisors for granted or perhaps we assume we have the skills when we don't. So here are 6 tips that I think that you can probably do right now or certainly while you're in lockdown during COVID-19 to make yourself a better supervisor. But I do think these tips are also relevant beyond that time.

So, the first thing is to make sure that you do the in-house training. Now I know, for a lot of you particularly if you supervise lots of students or if you've been supervising for a long time, you probably think you don't have anything to learn from that training and that therein lies the first problem. There's probably lots that you could learn at the very least you'll get an in-depth understanding of how the PhD system operates at the university that you're responsible for.

The next thing that you should be doing is getting to know and understand your students. So, we already know that about half of all PhD students enrolled in an Australian PhD want to go on to have a job at a non- university job when they complete. So, knowing why your student is doing a PhD will be a really useful motivating factor that you can put into play later on. When that challenging time comes for students. When they perhaps get into the middle years and they're finding progress hard. Knowing your students and why they're doing a PhD will be really useful for you, and at the very least showing interest in your students is a good way of engaging with them.

The next thing to do is to model good behavior. So, research suggests that the majority of PhD students find that their supervisor has given them the necessary skills to be a researcher but hasn't necessarily modeled the best behavior to be a researcher. That doesn't mean that they have mold poor behavior. In some cases, it means that the behaviors weren't evident to the students. That could because you know, as the supervisor perhaps you've got a senior role as an academic and you spend most of your time not doing research. But there's a lot of administration tasks that you need to do, so it's hard one of the behavior. So, you need to model the behavior in the best way that you possibly can. That could be lots of different ways. It could be being a good reviewer for them. It could be being a little good reviewer for other people. It could be the way that you talk in seminars, the way that you ask questions in seminars. It could be how you show up to work every day. It could be how you set boundaries around work hours. It could be how you set boundaries around personal time. All of those things are good behaviors that you should be modeling.

The fourth thing is to respect student time. A lot of advice for students is to respect their supervisors time, and I think that's really important, but I think that we often lose track of how important this time is for a student. Now, this might seem a bit turned on its head that quote-unquote, "The subordinate needs to have their time valued.", but I definitely feel that that's the case, and I feel like it needs to be valued on 2 levels: The first is the micro level, the day-to-day level. Making sure that you value the students’ time. So, if you set a time to meet with your student, don't cancel in the last 24 hours. That's just disrespectful. You wouldn't like it if they did it to you. So, respect their time as well at them; At the macro level at the higher level, the important thing is to respect their time around how long it takes for them to complete the journey. Increasingly, there's pressure on students completing in Australia anyway, of in 3 years or maybe 3 and 1/2 years. So, what's really important is that you as a supervisor, respect that and don't send them on tangents that are likely to be of little benefit to their PhD. Yes, the questions might be interesting. Yes, the research might be interesting, but will it value the PhD. If the answer is "No, it probably won't.", then maybe the thing that you should be doing is not sending them on that tangent. At least not until you've established that the impact that it will have on the timeframe that it will take to complete a PhD.

The fifth thing is to refer to others. As supervisors, we can potentially think that we should be the fount of all knowledge and all information but I reckon one of the best things that we can do is to encourage our students to go and seek help elsewhere. So, in a very simple way, careers is probably the best example. As academics or supervisors, a whole career has probably been in university, in academia, and for whatever reason we seem like we can give advice to students that concerns a non-academic career, when you've had little first-hand experience of that. So, in those instances, maybe refer to other students that you've already supervised who are no longer in your group, and no longer in academia. They might be the best advice that of the best places to get information for your students about careers. The same is also true about research, about experiments, and to be honest I think a lot of researchers do refer to other experts about experimental conduct. So just continue to do that.

The final thing that's important for students is to have a sense of progress. So as a PhD supervisor, your job is to help make that progress visible. To help show them where they've come from, and where they are now and that they have made progress. To show them that the little thing matters. That getting an experiment to work is progress. That getting several experiments to work is progress even though overall getting one experimental two experiments is not going to create a PhD, it is still progress towards their final outcome.

So, in summary, my 6 tips: Do the in-house training; know your students; moral good behavior; respect their time; refer to others; and make progress visible.

I hope these things help!