From PhD Supervision to PhD Mentorship

Imagine your ideal PhD supervisor. Probably, you want someone who is interested in your work and is proactive in keeping up with what you do. You want someone who will not only guide you, but also shape the way you think about research. And finally, you probably want someone who will help you to see beyond your PhD and share experience and wisdom that will shape your career.

There are people who naturally do this. I was lucky enough to have an amazing PhD supervisor and another great boss when I did my first postdoctoral research project. However, the boss is only one half of the equation and what you get out of the relationship also depends on your approach and attitude.

If you go into your supervision just looking for approval and guidance, maybe you’ll get it. But to get the most out of your PhD supervision, you can’t just think about your own work; you also have to be interested in theirs.

Read what they’ve published. Read their PhD thesis. Be interested. Ask them a few questions. Not only does this help you understand they way they approach research and how they think, it’s also one of the best ways to get them interested in you and your work.

You can take this idea a step further, being interested not only in their research, but in them and their career path. You can ask them why they did a PhD, how they made career choices, why they moved from one kind of research to another… This takes the relationship beyond supervision or guidance and into mentorship.

From their point of view, instead of seeing someone who just wants to know what to do to next in order to get the certificate, they see someone who is interested in the path they’ve taken; someone who wants to follow in their footsteps and learn from their experience. If this is the kind of student you would want as a supervisor, this is the kind of student you should strive to become.

See Also

Talk to people
I can’t contact my PhD supervisor until I have something to show
Who you work with is just as important as what you do
Read your supervisor’s writing


3 thoughts on “From PhD Supervision to PhD Mentorship”

  1. Hi

    Really like your latest blog post. Agree with it.

    I can relate to many parts you said. Even though it is too late now to fix anything, I only have a month and a half of funding left before I leave this place. Looking forward to it, after all, I have been through.

    I agree with you, however, your comments and insights apply to a normal-thinking supervisor/academic. Some professors out there think it is alright to completely ignore students, basically, I was not only interested in the research but also had to do admin stuff like ‘being an alarm clock’ for my supervisor, reminding him of every single essential task unless the research is stalled. After they completely ignore me, they start blaming me for all the progress issues even the ones that are out of my hand. I (privately/in my own head) get defensive, agitated and end up seeking therapy/counseling, at least it is more safer than picking a fight with the supervisor.

    I felt broken-hearted when I saw my 1st supervisor meeting with lots of collaborators for all the other phd students, and I am sitting on my own minding my own business, trying to learn things on my own and put in a lot of SWEAT and HARD WORK to build my own experimental system. It is about the SWEAT and the HARD WORK, not sitting cross-legged doing nothing. I only trust my 2nd supervisor these days. After all this SWEAT and HARD WORK, he just bluntly says I dont recommend you to stay in 4th year and I supported you (because of some simple order forms he forwarded for me), well there is more to it than simple order forms. I am trying to do complicated things and he absolutelty and utterly refused to give any detailed feedback or insights on anything, other than talking about a small simple side project nothing to do my main project. A supervisor should provide (as a minimum) basic insights on how to make the work viva material and should recommend the candidate to the panel. I have no guarantee anyone will do that with my project, FACT!

    • Sadly, it’s true.. some supervisors treat their students like crap.

      It’s a symptom of the power imbalance; you need them to get your PhD and by the time you figure out what they are like, it’s incredibly difficult to change supervisor.

      • To be absolutely frank, it is a love-hate relationship, on one side, I will do my best at the moment to finish what I need to do. I am grateful for the patience and support (‘loving’ him, just a metaphor). On the other side, there are these issues. But regardless, your earlier blog post said something about being professional. So I learnt to deal with both sides and move ahead for my own interest.

        Sorry for the long post, but I agree with you I am doing my best at the moment to be interested in what other people are doing and asking them specific questions. Getting out of the ‘bubble’ is key.

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