Relationships with supervisors

By Shazia Abbas (University of Newcastle),
Member of the AAG SECG Communications Team

A novel area of interest, understanding of research methods, securing research funds and resources, and unlimited time to work on your PhD, sounds like the best combination for a successful PhD and a research career! However, in reality, these may be essential components but far from comprehensive components for success. There are many other small but imperative elements that contribute to a successful PhD journey.

Relationship with your PhD supervisors is an important component of your PhD. Developing good connections with supervisors and maintaining and nurturing a trusting relationship goes a long way even after the PhD journey is completed.

I can understand, not everyone has the freedom to select their supervisors and we will come to that later, but for people about to start PhD, make sure you not only look at the accomplishments of a potential supervisor in their field and their list of publications but also talk to their current students and team members. Do you get a general sense of satisfaction among your potential supervisor's team? Are the current students content with the advice and support provided? Can you feel an element of compassion and empathy when talking to them? Even if every box on your list of a good supervisor is ticked, ask questions and clarify all your doubts. You will be entering into an enduring commitment.

For most of us who are starting PhD after going through the life phase of “teenager”, the relationship between you and your supervisor is very similar to a parent-teenager relationship where both are testing the level of trust and confidence one can have with the other. There is a large diversity in this relationship reflecting previous life experiences, choices and preferences of both. To create a good and lasting bond, both need to give time and work with honesty. Other than sharing the PhD related tasks, make sure that you talk to the supervisor if you prefer any particular method of meeting or record-keeping or working together. Most supervisors are receptive to student’s perspective and open to discussions to find a mutually acceptable way.

One more thing that has helped me through the journey is sharing the ups and downs of my work and personal life. PhD students mostly wear many hats. Embarking on a journey to PhD does not mean your life comes to a still outside of the PhD aura. You will have friends and family commitments and responsibilities requiring your time and efforts. Don’t park your essential responsibilities to do it later- it will make you feel guilty. Rather develop a balance that allows you to continue to enjoy your life choices while working hard on your research. But life is uncertain, unexpected illness in family, travel that you may need to do for any reason or home-schooling in a pandemic situation or anything else that was not accounted for when you were planning your work needs to be acknowledged and addressed by you and your supervisors. From my personal experience, I found my supervisors very supportive during such times when I share what's going on in my life outside PhD.

The reality is not all supervisors are supportive or well equipped to understand the issues and help you when needed most. Hopefully, you would have screened them out during the initial selection process. In case, you did not have much choice in selecting the supervisors for any reason, put in your efforts to develop a working relationship that will help you go through this journey. Be organised, punctual, take notes and do the record-keeping well. In case there is a personality clash that you think you cannot compromise on, remember to seek help. Seek help from coordinators, Student well-being advisors or graduate office. Various universities have different procedures but all universities have such arrangements in place which can be approached if this relationship is not mutually acceptable or beneficial. Don’t suffer in silence, ask for help but from the right door.

The interesting part is that this relationship does not end when you submit or pass your PhD. It rather remains with you for rather foreseeable future. The reality is that depending on your relationship, your supervisors may play an important role in either introducing you to the industry, providing exposures and opportunities or creating hindrance in your career. Though these setbacks are momentarily and you overcome them soon enough with your competency but may leave harsh and bitter memories. In any case, you will remember your PhD supervisor, it is inevitable, why not make some good memories while you are working hard.

29 April 2021

Shazia Abbas
University of Newcastle

Shazia is a PhD Candidate (Clinical Epidemiology & Medical Statistics) with the University of Newcastle and an Associate Lecturer at the University of Sydney. Dr Abbas has diverse research interests including maternal and child health, HIV prevention, and cardiovascular diseases. Her PhD thesis investigates the prevalence and treatment of atrial fibrillation among older women using data from the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health.