My PI & I: What Makes A Good Student-Supervisor Relationship?
By Karolina Farrell
Once you’ve found a supervisor that you want to work with, it’s important to make sure that you can communicate well with them. Whatever your research area is, your supervisor should be able to support you and your learning while also challenging you to ask questions you haven’t thought of before.
While in the first years of your PhD you will rely on your supervisor to train you, as you near the end of your PhD you will be the expert in that particular field – and then they may need you to teach them! Throughout that time, you need to have a good working relationship with your supervisor.
Off to a good start
Communication is key. At the beginning of your PhD, take time to learn how your supervisor interacts with their lab members. Do they prefer you to drop into their office whenever you need to? Do they prefer to schedule weekly meetings? Perhaps they prefer using email or a messaging app like Slack?
Learn to toe the line of communicating often, without over-burdening your supervisor. They will expect you to become more independent as time goes on, but they will also understand that you will need training before you can run your own experiments.
When things go right
Tell your supervisor when you have done something well! They will want to know that you are progressing, and will want to support you if you have questions that they can answer. Your supervisor should praise you and have confidence in you and your skills. Celebrating successes boosts morale, and it shows that your supervisor genuinely cares about your research and appreciates the challenges it entails.
When things go wrong
Things always go wrong. Experiments fail, and it might be your fault, or someone else’s fault, or no one’s fault. What matters is how you move on from it, and how your supervisor supports you when it happens.
Discuss it with your supervisor – yes, they want to hear the failures as well as the achievements. If a mistake was made, they can help you to correct it. If the experiment keeps failing, perhaps a different approach will work better. It’s easy to blame yourself when things fail and to want to keep it from your supervisor – but that can lead to an unhealthy relationship later down the line. Your supervisor can help you troubleshoot and make a plan of action, and a good supervisor will not judge you for your failures, but will help to ensure that you succeed next time.
Pressures and balance
The ways in which you and your supervisor react to success and failure will have a huge impact on your PhD experience. While they are your mentor, your manager and your boss, they also have their limitations. They can get frustrated as well, but they should not take out their frustrations on you.
If you are unhappy with the way they handle a situation, you can try discussing with them what works better for you. If they prefer to have meetings late in the evening but that doesn’t work for you, perhaps discuss arranging a set time earlier in the day that you could meet. If you made a mistake and they are disappointed, perhaps discuss how you could prevent that mistake from happening again, whether that’s through changing a system already in place or through your supervisor spending more time training you. We perform best when we are confident in what we are doing.
In academia, mental well-being and work-life balance are often neglected subjects. One recent study reported the rates of depression and anxiety amongst PhD students as being six times higher than that of the general public (Evans et al., 2018, Nature Biotechnology). The authors also highlighted how an unhealthy student-supervisor relationship and lack of support could underscore the student’s poor mental well-being.
Your relationship with your supervisor can have a huge impact on your emotional health, and that is where clarity and honesty, right from the start, can help you to make sure you are comfortable and happy to work with your supervisor. If you are unhappy, or end up trying to avoid your supervisor, not only will your work life suffer, but you are also more likely to end up quitting academia.
If you feel continual pressure to work late or on weekends, remember that you are more efficient, and your work will likely be of higher quality when you are well-rested and happy with your routine. When we are tired, we’re much more likely to make mistakes or waste time doing something incorrectly or unnecessary. While research moves quickly and there seems to be a constant pressure to work harder and faster, keep in mind that your PhD is not a sprint. To keep working well over many years, we need to find a balance and keep ourselves happy and rested.
In this article, I’ve tried to emphasise the importance of a good working relationship with your supervisor. Communication is absolutely vital, as is knowing what support you need and how your supervisor can provide that. Celebrate your successes and learn from your failures. Use your supervisor as a resource but understand their limitations. Your PhD is about you becoming the expert, and your supervisor should train, aid, and support you throughout.
Evans TM, Bira L, Gastelum JB, Weiss LT & Vanderford NL (2018) Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education, Nature Biotechnology 36: 282—284
Karolina Farrell is a PhD student in Dr Aman Saleem’s lab at the Institute of Behavioural Neuroscience, University College London. She is part of the Neuroscience & Mental Health stream of the MRC Doctoral Training Programme at UCL. Her research focuses on studying the role of midbrain dopaminergic neurons in goal-directed navigation using genetically-encoded calcium indicators and virtual reality.You can follow Karolina on Twitter at @KarolinaFarrell.
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