A common topic among graduate students is how their supervisor is treating them, and their relationship with their sups or in general their relationship with one. I have found this to be one of the most important aspects if one wants to continue from their undergraduate to postgraduate education. How does one make an informed decision on finding the ‘right’ one? Unfortunately, for many people, this decision was either made for them or they were oblivious to the matter. People like me for example who did not have a clue what postgraduate studies entail or have any mentors or friends to guide them through the journey end up being miserable or the opposite because they found great people to help them through the journey.  

Choosing the right supervisor is not only beneficial for your health but the progress of your work too. Many articles have been published regarding supervisor-student relationships and the outcome that comes with them. Dr Harry Hothi’s blog post on the qualities of a good supervisor summarized them as having a strong understanding of your research field, demonstrated by consistent and significant publications, having a proven track record of PhD supervision, having the time to support you, and doing so by acting as a mentor rather than a “boss.” Another article written by the University of Otago indicated that the qualities that would constitute a good supervisor are; support, availability, interest and enthusiasm in the student’s work, knowledge and expertise in the field, interest in the student’s career, good communication, constructive feedback, a supervisor who provides direction had an experience and interested in the supervision, finally, a supervisor who is approachable.

Here are some of the tips you should take when choosing to embark on the graduate journey.

  • Do your research; Do thorough research on the supervisor’s work, the excellence of his/her work and the relevance to what you desire to do now and in the future.
  • Find out about them; one of the most important things we have to find out is your potential supervisor’s interpersonal skills, and whether their personality aligns well with yours. A supervisor can have all the academic or scientific skills in the world but how he treats people and how he treats his students is paramount. This will not only affect your mental health but your being, physically and emotionally.
  • Ask one of their past or present students about them. Asking not only helps you see the supervisor from another person’s perspective but also helps understand how people understand the supervisor’s leadership and receive them.
  • Have a meeting with them before the journey begins. I know most of the time we are desperate to go to school or just excited about the project. Please have a one-on-one meeting with your prospective supervisor before you register for your degree. Find out how they deal with conflict resolution. How do they deal with personal matters, for example, if you were to get pregnant, or find a part-time job? What kind of support do they provide for their students (mental health, writing workshops… anything)? This will in a way help you make the right decision.
  •  Collaborationsask the supervisor how it is done with other students and postdocs and the possibilities of it.
  • Independence – as an emerging researcher, how independent one can be?
  • Conferences, seminars and workshops – which conferences they prefer for students to apply to and the frequency.
  • Research publications – how many papers do they expect from you? What are the norms regarding authorship? What are the timelines?
  • Mentorship – he should advise on how he normally does it in the group.

My take is that even though I have experienced only a few months of the PhD journey, it can be hard, lonely, and daunting. Please find a supervisor who will guide you, encourage, support, and challenge you and most importantly realistically listen to you. Yes, the topic of interest, the school and funding are fundamental in graduate school but finding a good supervisor will help you even in dark times. Some people have the experience of their life during this journey, which is beautiful to watch and experience, soak in it and enjoy.

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