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What can your PhD supervisor do for you?

4 ways to a more productive relationship.

31 March 2020

Gemma Conroy

Thomas Barwick/Getty

An Australian survey of PhD students and supervisors has revealed an alarming mismatch between their expectations.

While the 114 PhD students surveyed thought publishing at least four papers and winning grants or awards was the most important outcome of their candidature, the 52 supervisors said critical thinking skills, written communication, and discipline knowledge were the greatest indicators of their students’ success.

More than 20% of the students said they received little or no guidance overall, but only 3% of supervisors said they left students to their own devices. The findings were posted on bioRxiv.

Problems in the relationship between supervisor and students can cost dearly, both for individual students and for the wider research system. In North America, it is estimated that up to 50% of PhD students drop out of their candidature due to feelings of incompetence and a lack of support from supervisors and other faculty members.

A 2019 survey of 311 European universities reported that 34% of PhD students fail to complete their doctoral studies within six years, with many students likely quitting altogether.

Adam Cardilini, a teaching scholar at Deakin University where the Australian survey was conducted, says that discussing expectations and goals early on can lead to a better PhD experience for both students and their supervisors.

“We need to do our best to support candidates and improve research outcomes,” says Cardilini, who led the study.

Below are his four recommendations to help students and supervisors maintain a productive working relationship.

1. Be clear about expectations from the start

Discussing expectations at the beginning is one of the simplest ways to ensure PhD students and supervisors remain on the same page throughout the candidature, says Cardilini.

While building critical thinking skills from the outset can lead to better quality research down the line, Cardilini points out that there also needs to be more focus on “identifying where those critical thinking skills are best displayed.”

For instance, if a supervisor prizes critical thinking skills over publishing papers or winning grants, they should help candidates develop these skills from the start, such as by requiring students to spend six months reviewing papers.

“It’s about helping a candidate know how to read peer reviewed research and be critical of it instead of taking it as gospel,” says Cardilini. “I don’t think we explicitly teach this.”

2. Agree on achievable goals

Setting clear goals ensures that PhD students and supervisors work towards the same outcome, says Cardilini. These could include developing a particular skillset, publishing a certain number of papers, or winning grants.

Cardilini says that learning how to set achievable goals also teaches students how to effectively manage themselves, an essential skill for a productive research career.

“Often these skills are assumed or left up to the student to think about,” says Cardilini. “But it really takes some time for people to learn how to set a goal. I think that’s probably true for some supervisors as well.”

3. Help students be independent and collaborative

Guiding students to think for themselves and team up with other researchers can help candidates stay motivated throughout their PhD. It can also help them become more productive and collaborative down the track, notes Cardilini.

One way to facilitate this development is by creating an open, supportive culture where students can thrive and grow, says Cardilini. For instance, if a student wants to learn a certain type of analysis that the supervisor isn’t well-versed in, they can encourage the candidate to reach out to another research group that can teach them.

“If candidates are open about what they need and supervisors are open about what they can provide, they can talk about where the student needs to be independent, or collaborative,” says Cardilini.

4. Keep communication open

While everyone has different styles of communicating, it’s imperative that PhD students and supervisors agree on a style that suits both their needs, notes Cardilini.

By maintaining open dialogue throughout candidature, students and supervisors can address any issues before they turn into bigger problems. This can lead to a more productive working relationship and can prevent students from dropping out of their program, says Cardilini.

“If you can confront issues and be open to discussing them, you can move forward and have a more productive relationship,” says Cardilini. “But if the candidate dreads going to work or is afraid about how their supervisor will react to their manuscript, it slows everything down.”


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