Relationships……with our supervisors of course!!

After reading Kimberleigh Tommy’s post last month titled: “We need a break, it’s both of us (but more you than me)”, it left me thinking about the importance of relationships as a postgraduate student. When I say relationships, I obviously mean the relationships we have within our “professional” space. While choosing a project that you like or love is the most important aspect when starting a Master’s or Doctoral degree, one must also take into consideration who their supervisor will be. Unlike with jobs where you really have no control of who your boss will be, with a postgraduate degree, you have the option of choosing who you will report to for the next two or three years of your life. I personally think it is important to have a good relationship with your supervisor, especially since this will be the person who will be guiding and mentoring you throughout your postgraduate degree. 


I read an article about the different types of PhD – supervisor relationships written by Susanna Chamberlain from Griffith University, it gives a broad idea of the different types of relationships students have with their supervisors. It worries me that my relationship with my supervisor does not fall under the ten relationships discussed in the article. I would say that my relationship with my supervisor is different from what other fellow postgrads have with their supervisors. Sometimes he disappears for some time and never responds to my emails, this stresses me out so much because that is exactly when I need something from him. Other days I see him twenty times in one day and I want nothing from him. We are always playing a hide and seek game, with him always doing most of the hiding. Luckily for us, we always manage to get things done eventually, which is where I believe I got my procrastination tendencies from.  

I always find it interesting that my supervisor has different relationships with his students. Whenever we get together and discuss life with him as a supervisor, we all have different stories to share but one thing we have in common is how difficult it is to get him to respond to our emails. I think he treats us differently in response to how we act towards him, which I personally think is great because we are all unique with different personalities and different ways of doing things. 

During the first few months of my MSc, I had extremely high expectations of how my relationship with my supervisor would be based on how other people described their relationships with their supervisors. They would have weekly meetings with their supervisors to discuss the progress made and what to do next; when this didn’t happen between me and my supervisor, I would panic thinking I’m doing something wrong. I would see him every day during tea time and he would have a small chat with me about how I am doing and other random things. It took me almost half the year to finally be comfortable with the fact that he is the type of supervisor that is relaxed. He is the “decaf” kind of supervisor as defined by another SAYAS blog post. Once I finally accepted what kind of a supervisor he is, I panicked less when we didn’t see each other for three months and I didn’t know what my research topic was about anymore because I got stuck in the “black hole” of reading papers. I would find myself again after having a quick meeting with him and it turned out that those endless papers I read were quite useful.

There were however times when I would panic all over again when I needed to submit an abstract or discuss my presentation for a conference and I couldn’t find him to discuss the abstract before the deadline. I got no comments from him about my dissertation and I panicked every day for 13 weeks during my examination. At the time I was extremely frustrated and I was convinced I would change universities and supervisors for my PhD. Little did I know that him giving me space and time to learn was his way of mentoring me to be a great researcher. I passed my MSc with distinction and this is all thanks to him. Since he wasn’t there to critique me on my writing, I pushed myself so hard to give it my best and my best is what I gave it.

Looking back now, and still working with the same supervisor, I see that my supervisor was a teacher; a mentor who supported and facilitated the emotional processes. His way of supervising is completely different from the rest of my colleagues’ supervisors. If you know that you are the kind of person who needs constant monitoring and guidance in everything that you do, then you should get yourself a supervisor that does that otherwise, you will finish your degree exhausted emotionally and physically. All supervisors have a lesson to offer. Even the most “difficult” ones are a lesson for life.  My supervisor and I still have random talks about politics and history, how I should get married one day and how bad the economy is. I love that we can balance academics and personal life. I chose to continue my PhD with him because “better the devil you know” right? Choose your supervisor wisely and you will have an enjoyable and fulfilling postgraduate career.

My PhD Sunday plate of experiences…

In the South African township where I grew up we have a special meal on Sundays. It’s called “Seven colours”, or the Sunday plate. You will have rice, butternut, beetroot salad, a coleslaw, chakalaka, chicken or meat, French beans, spinach or cabbage…a mish-mash of foods and beautiful colours on your plate. Something you don’t see for the rest of the week, where meals are simple and consist mainly of pap (maize meal) with a side of vegetables or meat.  I thought today I would give you my seven colours of my PhD experience… It is a mish-mash of experiences/revelations I have had in this journey of PhD so far. Next year I will be in fourth year, and I thought this is an opportune time to take stock of the last three years.

1.     On a scale of one to ten…

I was speaking recently with my sister-in-law regarding her interest in doing a PhD. And it brought me back to my inaugural blog, What brings you here? I am always interested in people’s motivations for doing a PhD so I asked her about that. Turns out she is very well invested in her area of knowledge, and seems like the type of person who would actually enjoy exploring ideas more. She asked the basic question – do you think it is a good idea if I did a PhD? It was almost like, on a scale of one to ten, would you recommend a PhD? And my first instinct was, “Absolutely!” This surprised me because it wasn’t a particularly positive day in PhD land.  I still had the perspective of how this process is making me grow made me happy. It is the nature of the beast to have good and bad days because a PhD is life.

2.     15 drafts, one paper…should I give up?

Even if you have published before, your next paper can be a nightmare. I’ve changed my mind on this paper I am currently writing a number of times. It didn’t help that a conference opportunity came along and I, again, shifted my angle on it. So, a few months later (don’t worry, I have been doing other things), I think I finally have a solid draft. On the 15th try. Well I guess it doesn’t matter, because I have something I am happy with at the end of the day, no? We will see what reviewer 2 says about that. The point is, don’t give up. Just constantly improve.

3.     Technology is nice…but use your common sense

As a PhD student, you come across a plethora of tools for project management, writing, data analysis etc. I remember one time in particular discussing an analysis tool with one of the mentors in our department. There are all these neat data analysis tools out there! But these tools don’t do the thinking for you. And on top of that, the machines sometimes just don’t have enough information to give you valuable output. It is like the GPS that sent me in circles for eight minutes, to a building that was right across the street. But it was the first time in that country, I was there for a conference, and I trusted the machine more than my common sense — to the point of not believing my eyes. So sometimes trust your instincts, and always use your brain to interpret the outcomes, no matter what the sophisticated programs say.

4.     Writing retreats are the best thing money can buy.

To every supervisor out there, if you can afford it, or have the necessary connections, take your students on writing retreats. Two words for how writing retreats work: Mental space. Even if your student comes into the office every day, a writing retreat affords mental space in a way that they haven’t experienced before. I pray that they are the norm at every university in South Africa. A writing retreat is a space where you don’t worry about anything other than your writing. Someone else makes you tea, and food, and there are no errands. A week of writing can accomplish more than a month of trying to write. It’s made more enjoyable by the presence of your peers, who you meet over meals and tea, and informally discuss your experiences. Have a laugh, go back to your books. A lot of down, quiet time – in a collegial atmosphere. I have a sneaky suspicion that scholarship was always meant to be this way.

5.     When your proposal was your best work.

As it currently stands, my proposal is my best work in this entire three-year PhD process. (It will be topped by the thesis soon hopefully). But it is clear to me now why I took almost a year developing it. I read widely…I haven’t done that much reading since. My ideas were consolidated and my plan was solid. When I flail, I always go back to the proposal to ground me. In my mind, my ideas were supposed to get better with time. The proposal was supposed to be something I did just to get into the program and just to get started. But it has become my whole blueprint and my foundation. This week I am attending a writing retreat (high five emoji) and the one thing that has unlocked all of my creativity was going back to my read a section of my proposal. Taking stock of what I have managed to implement and most importantly, the rationale for my entire thesis. I am reading old papers that I haven’t read in three years. All this to say, yes to writing retreats 😉

6.     Surround yourself with inspiring people… People who think their PhD time was the best time.

Talk often to people who have gone through the PhD,  for perspective. I realize how important it is to talk to people who see their whole PhD journey as a positive experience. Because they have faced challenges as well, and can tell you about them. But they seem to focus on the good stuff. Because even when we talk about heavy issues such as mental health in academia, they have a way of showing you that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Those people tend to be solution oriented, and they motivate you to fight hard to design a positive experience for yourself. And sometimes that means shutting out contrary voices.

7.     Friendships and the PhD

This has been an interesting one. I have successfully retained my old friendships — but only those that don’t need a lot of time and constant engagement to be sustained. I have formed new friendships within the PhD environment. And you share with these people some very personal things, at least as far as they affect your work. And yet, these friendships somehow don’t work outside of the PhD environment. I guess it is the same idea as “work friends”. And these friendships have a very useful and important place in our lives. They are in the arsenal of the little things that help you go through the PhD.

Well there you have it! My seven colours of delicious PhD-esque experiences and reflections. Hope you enjoyed and it inspired you to reflect on your own experience, especially if you have been on this journey for a while.