I have observed a few cases where PhD candidates either not completing or failing at viva stage. A common theme was a major breakdown in the relationship between the candidate and their supervisor(s). In this article, I share four ideas, from my experiences as a former PhD candidate who’s now learning the ropes of PhD supervision that I hope can help prospective and current PhD candidates manage this very important relationship.
Choose wisely – In the PhD survival guide, I shared why it is important to spend quality time while making this decision. You’ll have a smoother journey if you have a good working relationship with your supervisor. I decided to join my PhD supervisor’s group after I had spent a year working on my undergraduate project with him. Some people call this luck but I call it choice. I decided to work with him and he decided to work with me.
If your PhD is funded, your PI is usually your de-facto Director of Studies and you may not have much choice in the matter. However just like when you attend an interview, the choice to work with an organisation is still yours. Two or three member supervisory teams are now more common so it is worth asking if there will be some leeway in choosing your other supervisor(s). For self-funded PhD candidates, you have a choice in where you spend your tuition fees, so do not be scared to ask for who you need. A PhD is an apprenticeship not indentured slavery (at least it should be). Invest time in getting information about your supervisor, research group etc. Speak to postdocs. You can find them at conferences and early career researcher networking events. Ask questions;
How many PhD candidates have you supervised?
Who will be on the supervisory team?
How many successful completions?
How many didn’t complete and why?
Do your students publish during their PhD?
Do not be so ‘hungry’ for a PhD position that you dismiss the information your research pulls up. I know a PhD candidate who left after six months because she could not get on with her supervisor. Successful completion is Win/Win for all parties involved so choose wisely.
Be proactive – After a skill training session I recently conducted, a 2nd year PhD candidate walked up to me and spent about 15 minutes sharing all the issues he was having with his supervisor. Poor communication, poor supervision, dismissive attitude…the works. I let him speak because I could tell he was very distressed and then I told him ‘Be proactive.’ I could tell he was puzzled by my response but I told him that the only part of the equation required for his successful completion that could be modified was his attitude and how he responded to the issues he was having with his supervisor.