What is important when choosing a supervisor? Finding the one…

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.

The journey continues, the progress and the lessons…

Several things have changed since the last vlog I uploaded in January. For the most part, I have been released from the ‘bench’ doing desktop work and moved more into the practical side of my degree. This has come as a huge relief seeing that it has been many months since I first registered as a PhD student. Maybe let us start from the beginning. As the year commenced, I made my way to Pietermaritzburg to start my contact face-to-face, the component of my PhD instead of the online work we all did during COVID-19. I first arrived and started by re-writing a proposal that I had written and re-submitted it. As months went by I wrote a review paper for submission for publication, which I must say was interesting. This is because I have written a review paper for my master’s work, but as I mentioned in a previous blog, one of the pressures of being a PhD student is wanting to become the best and produce quality work. I struggled for the first few months of the year. One of the struggles was finding the novelty in the study, which was mentally draining since my work is a continuation of the work I did in my master’s. I read a lot of articles on how to find the novelty in your work, and one interesting blog on this topic interpreted this well.  The blog articulates how one can look at the merit of their study even before they publish it in any journal or write a proposal for their PhD. My supervisor’s strategy is to write a proposal and review it for six months, to familiarize oneself with literature to an extent that when you go to the lab, it should be just that. Being in a new place means new rules, and this made me uneasy. I was coming to the lab to see other students who registered with me or even after I start their lab work. But I had to trust my supervisor and the process. In the six months, I did submit my review paper and started going to the lab officially end of August. It has not been bliss; it has been even more difficult than I thought.

Unfortunately, in as much as I had thought I had prior experience of working with the materials (porphyrins), I am also learning a lot through my many failed experiments and giving a scientific explanation as to why they did not work. Growth is never easy, as most people would attest, but it also comes with the satisfaction of more knowledge and discipline. At this point of my PhD, I am working through the synthesis of my starting materials, porphyrins to be specific, and obtaining the purest product from NMR which is one of an organic chemist’s biggest nightmares. Am I satisfied with my pace? Not really, but I am moving and I am patient with it all.

I have also over a couple of months learned about the power of collaboration, which I also spoke about in one of my past blogs. I have come to admit and be open to help, to help, and being helped by my colleagues in terms of everything. I have come to terms with the fact that we don’t often know it all and speaking out loud may help the work to progress. Moreover, to that, it may even ease your mental health. Speaking of which, I am continuing with therapy and it has been amazing, not only do I have new perspectives to look at life but I am slowly becoming an independent thinker and a critical one too. Many people often ask the question of what I wake up to do each morning and my answer is always simple: I wake up and go to the lab. I know it requires more work than it sounds, but the video attached to the blog displays a typical day in my life, which will explain further what I mean.