As a PhD student, my supervisors have become the most important people in my academic life. That said, it is unusual that I have only met with each of them once since my PhD began. I enrolled in the beginning of 2020 and shortly after our initial face to face meeting, the global pandemic had begun.
During my Honours and MSc years, I had the habit of meeting my supervisor in his office to discuss my progress. During my PhD, communication has almost exclusively taken place online. This has led to a much less hands-on role by each of my supervisors in comparison. Each of my supervisors did warn me that a PhD requires the student to take ownership of major decisions and of their own work. The role of the supervisor is to advise and not instruct. This was something that did take a while getting used to, as it requires a higher level of academia.
I have communicated with each of my supervisors’ countless times on multiple platforms such as WhatsApp, Zoom and Microsoft Teams. Each communication platform has its own pros and cons, and I have no real preference. For instance, Zoom has a 45-minute time restriction for users without a license, requiring attendees to rejoin the meeting whenever the time runs out. Microsoft Teams does not allow one of my supervisors to communicate using their microphone, and WhatsApp is often a two-way line of communication.
The most positive experiences were when each of us were present in an online meeting. I am appreciative that often, they could meet up with me together during the same meeting as their individual schedules are not always aligned. Such meetings were highly valuable to the PhD, and along the way helped me to build strong working relationships with each of them. The most crucial meeting was when we discussed the change of direction that the project was going to take, owing to the pandemic.
It has not always been smooth sailing. Waiting on feedback on work was something that made me feel as though I was lagging and wasting valuable time. Managing the desires of each supervisor is also highly challenging. It is not always the case that both supervisors will want the same thing, and so I often must make the final decision when there is a disagreement. I am grateful that I do not get dictated what to do, rather I am advised on what would be a good option, meaning that the final decision rests with me. This responsibility towards my PhD and license to try and fail has helped me take true ownership of my work, aided by having two distinctly different supervisors.
In fact, I feel a lot more confident in my personal ability prior to when I started my PhD. I owe that to the advice each supervisor has given me, the countless hours of their time at all hours of the day, and their true belief in me. Undeniably, the level of support from each supervisor has remained the same throughout, 100%.
I encourage each PhD student to share open conversations with each of their supervisors. Speak up, ask when you need help, but be firm in your decision making. Your supervisor is there to support you, but it is ultimately your responsibility to drive your PhD forward.