I have often heard people talking about supervisors being a nightmare. Most often it’s alluded that supervisors are looking out for their own interests rather than those of the student. Furthermore, they may be the sole reason why the students would quit their graduate programs and look for alternative opportunities. I am still with my initial supervisor, so I guess this relationship is working out…maybe?
This year I met one of the finest minds of our generations — at least that is what he appears to be! He’s trained in ornithology but his research interests have spread farther than that. He has allowed himself to explore any field and opportunity that may be connected or share a boundary with his field of interest. To my eyes he is one of the researchers that we need to make academic life fashionable (so to speak). But he’s the kind of person who develops new-world problem solvers rather than research and academic robots. Of course, I may be biased, because I think I think the way he thinks 😉
But, he isn’t my supervisor – I am an ecotoxicologist at heart. And this meant I’ve had to adjust to a supervisor I didn’t choose for myself. There was a new lecturer in the department, and since his research interests aligned perfectly with mine, he was assigned as my supervisor.
At first I was okay with this but once I got to sit down with this new person and got down to work, it became my worst nightmare. I could not, for the life of me, understand what the student-supervisor relationship meant to him. For example, when deciding on the title of my research project, we sat and discussed what I wanted to do and streamlined my objectives. When it came to the title I sent him my suggested titles, as my former supervisor had trained me to, and requested his input. He just sent me a totally new title and said, “Use that one.” Sitting alone I thought to myself, “Am I a messenger now?” Well, I did go to ask him about it but that’s the story for another day. It was many other things that just put me off. The whole situation became extremely tense, but just recently I came to a few realizations that are helping me to learn from my new position.
Firstly, I am a student. I have a responsibility and a duty to learn, grow my network and develop myself. I cannot learn all of these from one person. More so, exposure to different work ethics and understanding why people do certain things and how they do them is an integral part of academic growth.
Secondly, nobody is the same. You can have two people coming from the same training and are doing the exact same research but you will find that they will still behave differently and will approach their research differently. This is about my academic growth and development. It is not about who is on the other end and what they do. They may not be the best of supervisors in the whole world because maybe they too are still learning, but they have something to offer too.
Communication is just as important as doing research. So much of what I’ve learned about research, overcoming mistakes, and working with somebody new came from the fact that I could summon my courage and talk to my supervisor. No matter the supervisor, s/he can’t always instigate conversation or know what’s troubling you if you don’t speak up.
It is also important to have people around to talk to about your challenges as a student. I have academic mentors, friends in academia who are integral part of my journey. They not only help me get through the rough academic progress but also call me to order whenever I lose my professionalism.
That leads to the final bit of truth: even students are professionals. An undergraduate student recently said, “We are professional students”. It was quite funny at the time but now I realize that being a postgraduate student also means being a professional student. This means respect to fellow students and supervisors, time management skill and communication skill. Moreover, it also highlights mannerism and the importance of good self-conduct.
This is how I keep winning. This is how I keep going back to the lab and working to develop myself as an academic.