PhD Student- Supervisor Relationship

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.

Jack/Jill of all trades, master of none. The modern-day dilemma.

I have been reading a book called Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, written by Yuval Noah Harari. As the title suggests, the author paints a picture of typical human behaviour, skill, and intelligence through time. During the period in which humans were both predator and prey, an individual would have had to possess an incredible amount of knowledge and skill to survive. For example, they would have needed to know when and where the predators would hunt, what food was safe to eat, which medicines could be used to treat different ailments, and have a strong understanding of climate, this was a period in which humans were highly intelligent, a requirement for survival.

By comparison, the modern-day man or woman is very different. We do not need to have a strong all-round understanding of every aspect of life. Rather, our survival depends more on being an expert in the area of specialisation that we choose. In modern times, we could equate our occupation as a form of survival. Almost every high paying job advertisement requires a level of specialisation and field-related experience.

A ‘Jack/Jill of all trades, master of none’ is somewhat of a dilemma in modern day life. This person is a generalist rather than a specialist, a competent individual but no expert. But how does an individual become a specialist?

Traditional high school education systems are tailored for the mass population and provide a broad understanding of wide-ranging subjects. Little specialisation takes place in a group of 30 people who are spoon fed the repetitive content. For those who are successful, this may provide the opportunity to enter university or technical institutions where skills and true expertise come later and are hard earned. In essence, the educational systems are gearing up individuals with the skills necessary for specialisation, foremost – the ability to learn how to learn.

Those who eventually specialise find in themselves the tools to facilitate their own specialisation. Hard work, determination, patience, and genuine curiosity are some of the many tools and qualities needed. In modern day life, careers and job opportunities are also extremely dynamic, changing rapidly, those who succeed can adapt and grow accordingly.

The shortened version, put simply ‘a Jack/Jill of all trades’ without the ‘master of none’ part is often seen as a compliment for a person who is good at problem solving and has a strong foundation of knowledge. You may be thinking, I am probably a Jack/Jill, perhaps that makes you a master in your own right. A master of integration, as those in the past needed to be in order to survive.

In a world in which an individual with one strong skill can create an unimaginable amount of success and wealth, the understanding of your own true ability and skill become more important. All fingers point towards yourself, you need to look inward to become a true master.