Minion

Sep. 4th, 2012 08:48 am
liv: ribbon diagram of a p53 monomer (p53)
[personal profile] liv
I have a PhD student! She started yesterday, and she is brill, I am so looking forward to working with her. I'm also a bit nervous, because I've never done this before, and I'm in very large part responsible for her career and quite possibly her happiness.

The PhD system is really weird in how heavily it depends on the relationship between supervisor and student. Modern academia is just starting to put safeguards in place to salvage the situation if the relationship goes wrong, but it's still essentially like a Mediaeval apprenticeship: your supervisor all but owns you and has almost unlimited power over whether you get your PhD, which is the essential and almost the only entry route into an academic career.

So I'm taking a leaf from [personal profile] rachelmanija's book: if you've ever been a PhD student, tell me stories! Tell me something your supervisor did that made things better for you. Tell me something they did that made the soul-killing struggle of getting through a PhD even worse than it should have been. (Like [personal profile] rachelmanija, I don't really need to know about obviously disastrously wrong things like sexually harassing students or completely ignoring them or stealing their work, because I already know I'm not going to do that. But hey, if it's cathartic for you to tell the internet how your supervisor was an evil crook who exploited you, go ahead!)

I have no problem if you want to give me general advice that doesn't come from direct personal experiences, or if you want to chime in with stories about a similar relationship that wasn't specifically a PhD. Also feel free to comment if I don't know you, if you found this by chance eg via Latest Things or Network. Anon comments are allowed but you may have to fill in a Captcha.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-09-04 09:22 am (UTC)
rochvelleth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] rochvelleth
Firstly, congratulations! It's just wonderful, and you must be so excited about it.

Now, my experiences:

My PhD supervisor bogged off to Germany for two of my three years on extended sabbatical/personal leave. Saying that, he was the best supervisor ever. I think part of it is that we're alike in our approaches to material (especially in how cautiously to treat linguistic/epigraphic data) - and he's a complete perfectionist and a total worrier, like me, and also is very responsible and kind and prepared to stick up for you if needed and extremely knowledgeable. Now that I have the BA fellowship, he's agreed to be my mentor, so we get another three years of a similar sort of relationship (but obviously different in various ways). And that's even though he is again off to Germany for a whole year in the middle :)

But the personality experiment is something you can't control of course - I was just very lucky to end up with someone that I ended up adoring. More practically, he was always very receptive but honest when I suggested something he just didn't buy; he kept in touch by email all the time and read through my drafts fastidiously whenever I asked him; he made sure we met up at least once a month or so, even when he was away; he was incredibly sympathetic when I was going through a rough time healthwise; he never put pressure on me or gave me deadlines (maybe in part because he knew how much pressure I was putting on myself - a different type of student would obviously require a different approach); and above all he was generous with his time and ideas, and that's something I think every PhD student needs.

I hope that helps!

(no subject)

Date: 2012-09-04 11:17 am (UTC)
kaberett: Overlaid Mars & Venus symbols, with Swiss Army knife tools at other positions around the central circle. (Default)
From: [personal profile] kaberett
Part of the reason everything went so wrong last year was that my Master's supervisor:

- was not at all interested in knowing any details of my personal life whatsoever, so she got a bunch of work emailed in at 5am but I did not feel comfortable disclosing that I was struggling or why
- did not set regular meetings, where I really benefit from once-a-week/fortnight regular checkins and clear goals to try to meet
- did not set clear expectations or goals - about four weeks before hand-in, I found out I was supposed to be getting a bunch of SEM data, and so the timetable I was anticipating was really not going to work

Whereas my current supervisor:
- is setting up regular meetings
- is actually giving positive feedback
- is setting clear short-term goals and discussing long-term (i.e. over the course of the three-month project) timetables
- was cool with me disclosing up-front that I wanted to get going early because I expected November to be a disaster zone, and to get at least one serious chest infection during the project

... etc, and astonishgly enough I am not yet having panic attacks over EVERY TIME I SEE HER. (Ditto my SURF supervisor, actually.) So. Yes. That's how I work best; might be worth talking to your supervisee about how she works best?

(no subject)

Date: 2012-09-04 04:30 pm (UTC)
mathcathy: number ball (Default)
From: [personal profile] mathcathy
My PhD supervisor (as you probably already know) set me off on a project only tenuously related to his expertise as he wanted his PhD students to further his research career and was somewhat over ambitious with me. He also refused to listen to me when I told him I wanted to work on the theory rather than the practice in the form of constant programming which I was never going to be good enough at to compete at PhD level.

I think he is in a large part responsible for my not completing the PhD.
(He also refused to read the thesis and a fellow PhD student and I proof-read one another's because we couldn't persuade him that that was part of his job).

We're on good speaking terms now, though. I mean, although I didn't enjoy the experience, I liked him and we worked closely together albeit not very successfully,

(no subject)

Date: 2012-09-04 06:23 pm (UTC)
syllopsium: Carwash, from Willo the Wisp (Default)
From: [personal profile] syllopsium
I can't offer much other than my congratulations and just the advice to be available, which I'm sure you will be anyway!

Isn't a 'muahahahaha' obligatory when gaining a minion though? ;)

(no subject)

Date: 2012-09-04 06:57 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] sea_bright
I second what's been said above about regular meetings, or at least contact. I went through a sticky patch in the third year of my DPhil where I essentially didn't get any research done for about six months (chiefly because my funding had expired and I was suddenly having to try to earn enough money to live on), and neither of my supervisors got in touch to ask what was happening or why they hadn't heard from me. (To be fair to them, having two co-supervisors was a factor here: I think they both assumed I was working with the other one.) This resulted in a bit of a guilt spiral: because I hadn't been in touch for so long, I wanted to have something really impressive to show them when I did get in touch, but as I am the sort of person who is motivated by regular deadlines, achieving that was unlikely without having agreed a deadline with one of them... While the ultimate responsibility for getting the work done was (obviously) mine, a friendly enquiring email after a few weeks might just have provided the nudge I needed to actually start getting stuff done again, rather than perpetuating the spiral and allowing me to give in to the temptation just to keep my head down, because no one seemed to have noticed that I hadn't done any work recently.

More generally, the thing I would really have appreciated during the course of my doctorate was more advice on the things graduate students are supposed to do that aren't actually an official part of the degree. At no point during my time as a graduate student do I remember anyone ever encouraging me to go to conferences, or to think about submitting things for publication. It was at a fairly late stage in my DPhil (when it was really too late to do much about it) that I realized that a lot of other students had been doing far more on this front than I had - something which I'm certain had a substantial impact on my job prospects. It's fine to expect students to be proactive and take the initiative themselves, but even the most motivated students need some pointers in terms of what they ought to be being proactive about! It's also helpful to have some idea of what the general expectations are - what sort of publication/presentation record future employers are likely to be looking for, for example.

Finally, as someone involved in a project designed to promote good research data management, I should really put my work hat on and say something about that. Our experience suggests this is something it's really worth thinking about near the beginning of a project, as getting things right from the start often saves a lot of time and effort later on! There are some useful resources about various aspects of data management (organizing information, documenting data, secure storage and back-up, preparing data for archiving and/or sharing, etc.) here (the PrePARe Project training materials, linked to from that page, provide some of the best brief introductions to the topic that I've seen). The Digital Curation Centre also provide some helpful advice about data management planning, though as their name suggests, their focus is more on how you ensure data is preserved after the end of a project, rather than how you deal with it during it.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-09-04 07:21 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] sea_bright
One other thing that's just occurred to me: a few days before I submitted my thesis, I swang by the university offices to check what the procedure for handing in was. It turned out there was a form I had to get signed by my supervisors before I could submit, which led to some panicky emailing and hasty setting up of meetings. Neither of my supervisors seemed to know anything about the form (something which still puzzles me, as I'm sure they'd supervised doctorates before, and I didn't get the impression the form was a new requirement). If I hadn't gone in to check, I might well have missed the submission deadline. Fortunately I did check, but it would have reduced my stress levels in the final few days considerably if at least one of my supervisors had known in advance what the requirements were...

Congratulations on your minion-acquisition!

(no subject)

Date: 2012-09-05 12:37 am (UTC)
forthwritten: stained glass spiral (Default)
From: [personal profile] forthwritten
I've heard that actual praise is nice. I wouldn't know this though.

My supervisor is utterly terrifying. Even when she's trying to be nice she's utterly terrifying. I showed a friend (also doing a PhD) a draft chapter she'd written on and my friend said that if that was her chapter, she'd cry.

I do kind of adore her because she's tough but fair - she won't let me present bad work or submit a bad thesis. I'd rather it was her saying that I'd written a load of rubbish than my examiners at my viva! She also does care in her own inimitable way and will send me emails if she's worried - she's got a lot better at being supportive over the course of my PhD. I'm her first PhD student so no doubt she's had a lot to learn as well.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-09-06 03:59 pm (UTC)
ptc24: (Default)
From: [personal profile] ptc24
Meetings: during my PhD, a lot of supervision was done by talking informally over my desk. There were a couple of phases where there was a slump into despair, and it seemed that the way out of that was regular, formal meetings (in my supervisor's office, rather than the lab), sending in a page of A4 as a progress report the day before. That sort of arrangement persisted for two or three months until we felt that things were back on track.

The other thing that often happens is that supervision duties often get shared out; during my PhD we had a junior fellow who did most of my day-to-day supervision - I tended to think of him as my de facto supervisor, but it seems that my de jure supervisor was more dutiful in supervising me than many people's. It does seem to be useful to have an informal second supervisor; during my postdoc there was I time I seemed to be an informal third supervisor some of the time - it was one of the better parts of the job. OTOH, there was a formal mentoring scheme in the department where we each got a mentor; we ended up meeting once a term and it was a bit of a waste of time.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-09-06 04:56 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I really struggled with motivation and getting work done during my phd.

I used to fail to work all week, then stay up all night before my supervisor meeting trying to doing a tiny bit of work that could be talked up at the meeting, scramble awkwardly through the meeting, and then relax when I'd survived it.

At some point my relationship with my supervisor was transformed when I stopped being terrified of him, realised that I actually wanted to complete the thing and solve the demotivation problem and was quite as annoyed at myself for the endless faffing as my supervisor ever could be if he knew about it.

So firstly, I'd go into the meeting and greet nick and ask how he was without this social connection feeling horribly twined with whether or not I'd succeeded in work, and secondly I admitted to faffing and tried to enlist his help to finding a solution.

He didn't really have one either. I suggested putting all my work into CVS so that he could read the commit statements (+dates) which would make it quite clear how much I had or had not done on each day, but although he agreed to that he never asked to see them if I didn't volunteer them so I didn't feel pressured by the system and didn't use it. Even so just not being scared of him any more was a big transformation.

I don't have the same kind of mind as my supervisor. Any way he framed a project just didn't work for me, and partly because of the motivation thing, I wasn't very good at framing my own, so I didn't really end up finding a project that inspired me. But that's not really his fault. He was quite good at matching his students/researchers up together, so that when I came up with this or that idea he'd direct me off to work with Raj or Georgios or whoever.

I sent him the penultimate draft of my thesis late on a saturday night, in the small hours of a sunday morning. He had the whole shebang read and back on my desk on the monday morning.

I failed to get any papers written during my phd, which is a big problem for thesis submission. He was invited to submit a book chapter and got me to do it, so I'd have a publication. We ended up doing two book chapters by mistake in the end, which was enough publications to scrape by.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-09-06 04:58 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
for the first six months or so, I would report on my work during the weekly meetings my group held, which made it easier to hide the fact I hadn't done any. once nick realised that, he decided he and I should have weekly meetings!

(no subject)

Date: 2012-09-06 04:59 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
most people in my departement had two supervisors, one 'main' one but then another for extra support. I only had the one for some reason.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-09-09 08:56 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
oh yes. all the time I was doing the thing I would be complaining I'd done no work, and other people would agree/say the same, and I'd be quite convinced that they didn't understand that I *really had* done no work and meant something quite different to them, and i was totally special 'done no work' cookie. but in the end - we all finished. and nearly everyone goes through a depression of some kind at some point, beaten down by the weight of the thesis.

I'm a better writer than coder and I actually recovered from mine once the end was in sight - the last four months or so of hammering the thesis together went fairly well for me. Other people (a larger proportion, I think), are more likely okay while they're experimenting and gathering results, and then get suckered by the writing up.

One useful piece of advice which I mostly failed to take but was glad where I had was to keep my bibliography file as I went along. So each paper I read I'd make an entry for and also - importantly - a quick summary of the content. Made it a lot easier to find things again! I guess that's obvious to a seasoned academic though :) In fact this whole comment may be!

I had (alongside motivation failure, etc), an inability to get out of bed in the mornings. I used to try and arrange my supervisor meetings, and also tea-n-chat with friends, for 10am or so, to force me to drag myself into the lab.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-09-06 05:28 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I’m just finishing up my PhD and whilst my scientific relationship with my director was great his social skills were just terrible causing a lot of not needed emotional stress on my part.

Things he did brilliantly:

1. Met with me and his other PhD students once a week for a tutorial. We presented articles we had read in turn or parts of our analyses and this was a great space for learning from each other and talking things out to make sure we understood them ourselves.
2. Consulted me in setting deadlines and always asked if I wanted to break down one big deadline into a series of smaller deadlines.
3. Pushed me to send papers to conferences and therefore to network helping me to break into our academic field and meet my colleagues.
4. Always talked about the national research scene in terms of politics, upcoming research themes, new policies etc. I feel he prepared me for a career not just to finish the thesis. For example, in France, data publication and open-access corpora are buzz words at the moment so my data is structured into a corpus to accompany my thesis and help me during my future recruitment process respond to criteria the labs will put in post profiles because that is where the funding is. He always shared his global vision of the research world and that was enriching.

Things he really needed to work on:

1.I taught full time before my PhD and went part-time in order to take on this project. Despite this, my director demanded that I was in the research lab from 9-5h30 on the four days a week I did not teach. I really appreciated the research-home divide but even if I was five minutes late he asked why or asked my colleagues where I was. At the end I even felt that I could not schedule medical appointments during those times. As a mature student who always met his deadlines I felt he needed to trust me a LOT more.
2. Going over papers I had written he would often tell me ‘no, that’s not right’ or ‘you can’t put that’. I think it would have been more positive to make me tell him first of all the problem areas I had in writing the paper, second to ask me my opinion about the sections he did not deem up to scratch and then to give me his opinion in a constructive way, before planning together the steps needed to make it better. Instead I felt like I had returned to Middle School and would find out where the problems were but never how I should go about solving them.
3. He talked about other colleagues behind their back and what he thought of their research. Not great when you have to work in collaboration with them.
He was very linear with one path from A to B. If you made it to B but by taking a different path he couldn’t cope.
4. And finally, my desk, because of his micro-management issues, became his space too. He had me rename all of the folders one day on my computer so I could find things (according to his logic which meant I couldn’t find anything) and one day screamed at me because my handbag was on my desk. He never asked why -my phone was on silent and I was expecting a call from an estate agent and didn’t want to disturb colleagues. I think the essential is for an advisor to be there to micro manage if needed but to ask the student how they want to work and if they show you that there are doing the work to trust them.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-09-06 07:20 pm (UTC)
ceb: (Default)
From: [personal profile] ceb
I had an awesome supervisor. I seriously wouldn't have made it without her. Here follows an assortment of good stuff she did and other good things:

* get your PhD student to write things up as she goes along, ideally for publication. This makes thesis writing less of a giant burden as quite often you can repurpose half-written papers as chapters. Also if any of it does get published that will be extra confidence and CV points for her.
* be enthusiastic. I don't just mean provide praise and encouragement, but every so often have a big joyous chat about how exciting and inspiring your field is and all the places your/her research could go. When bogged down in details of research it's easy to fail to see the wood for the trees.
* encourage her to have a life. PhDs are hard work and if she can find some fun and a support network that will help endlessly.
* she will probably take longer than she has funding for, most people seem to. Find out now about what options are there, then in two years' time you can say useful things like "you should sign up with this society now, and then if you need money next year they'll give you a grant".
* keep tabs on how she's progressing; make meetings frequent and low-stress and let her ask you questions as often as she likes. Don't be afraid to call her out if she's being crap - but be adult, constructive and supportive about it.
* keep her in the loop, and especially let her know when you're e.g. off on holiday/to a conference. There's nothing worse than feeling like your boss has forgotten you!
* encourage her not to get a job until she's written up; when you're supposed to be writing up, pretty much anything looks more attractive, and a job will probably mean it never happens...

(no subject)

Date: 2012-09-06 07:27 pm (UTC)
ceb: (Default)
From: [personal profile] ceb
Oh and I forgot to add, always do things when you say you will; set realistic deadlines for yourself as well as for them. One of the fastest ways to put distance between yourself and your minion is to make them feel like they have to pester you for everything (or even worse, to have them not pester you and sit there idle and annoyed).

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