Supervisors are a nightmare…

I have often heard people talking about supervisors being a nightmare. Most often it’s supervisoralluded that supervisors are looking out for their own interests rather than those of the student. Furthermore, they may be the sole reason why the students would quit their graduate programs and look for alternative opportunities. I am still with my initial supervisor, so I guess this relationship is working out…maybe?

This year I met one of the finest minds of our generations — at least that is what he appears to be! He’s trained in ornithology but his research interests have spread farther than that. He has allowed himself to explore any field and opportunity that may be connected or share a boundary with his field of interest. To my eyes he is one of the researchers that we need to make academic life fashionable (so to speak). But he’s the kind of person who develops new-world problem solvers rather than research and academic robots. Of course, I may be biased, because I think I think the way he thinks 😉

HelpingBut, he isn’t my supervisor – I am an ecotoxicologist at heart. And this meant I’ve had to adjust to a supervisor I didn’t choose for myself. There was a new lecturer in the department, and since his research interests aligned perfectly with mine, he was assigned as my supervisor.

At first I was okay with this but once I got to sit down with this new person and got down to work, it became my worst nightmare. I could not, for the life of me, understand what the student-supervisor relationship meant to him. For example, when deciding on the title of my research project, we sat and discussed what I wanted to do and streamlined my objectives. When it came to the title I sent him my suggested titles, as my former supervisor had trained me to, and requested his input. He just sent me a totally new title and said, “Use that one.” Sitting alone I thought to myself, “Am I a messenger now?” Well, I did go to ask him about it but that’s the story for another day. It was many other things that just put me off. The whole situation became extremely tense, but just recently I came to a few realizations that are helping me to learn from my new position.

Firstly, I am a student. I have a responsibility and a duty to learn, grow my network and develop myself. I cannot learn all of these from one person. More so, exposure to different work ethics and understanding why people do certain things and how they do them is an integral part of academic growth.

Secondly, nobody is the same. You can have two people coming from the same training and are doing the exact same research but you will find that they will still behave differently and will approach their research differently. This is about my academic growth and development. It is not about who is on the other end and what they do. They may not be the best of supervisors in the whole world because maybe they too are still learning, but they have something to offer too.

Communication is just as important as doing research. So much of what I’ve learned about research, overcoming mistakes, and working with somebody new came from the fact that I could summon my courage and talk to my supervisor. No matter the supervisor, s/he can’t always instigate conversation or know what’s troubling you if you don’t speak up.

It is also important to have people around to talk to about your challenges as a student. I have academic mentors, friends in academia who are integral part of my journey. They not only help me get through the rough academic progress but also call me to order whenever I lose my professionalism.


That leads to the final bit of truth: even students are professionals. An undergraduate student recently said, “We are professional students”. It was quite funny at the time but now I realize that being a postgraduate student also means being a professional student. This means respect to fellow students and supervisors, time management skill and communication skill. Moreover, it also highlights mannerism and the importance of good self-conduct.

This is how I keep winning. This is how I keep going back to the lab and working to develop myself as an academic.

Reckoning with the “Ph” in the PhD.

Lately, I have been captured by the idea of putting the philosophy back into the PhD. Not a bad kind of capture 😉 (South Africans will understand). I was doing data exploration for my work and just hit a wall. I could not move forward for the life of me. I couldn’t ask interesting questions. And I thought I was having another dip in inspiration.

Needless to say, I was frustrated. Because with a funded PhD things are time-bound. You want to do as much as you can before your funding runs out. And three years is not a long time to get a whole lot done. I’m in my third year! So you can understand that I am in a slow brewing panic mode. I won’t force myself to rush and finish everything this year… but I want to at least glimpse the peak of the PhD mountain by December. I must keep moving upwards. BUT.

Source: Caffeinated Confidence

I decided to work on something else, to come back to the analysis later. Dololo.

I started dabbling in some light reading to distract myself from my woes. By “light reading” I mean stuff related to my field, but not tied immediately to my research. And as I read I started thinking more and more about what I was really doing. And the more I thought, the more inspired I became for my analysis work. Yes, one can brainstorm with supervisors and peers but most of the time these people deal with output you’ve already produced, with thoughts you’ve already had. And where do these thoughts come from if you don’t find inspiration on your own? The quiet, BROAD reading is what inspires creativity and reignites that curiosity.

I realize now that since my proposal/protocol was accepted, my reading has been tied to a goal – a methodology to fulfil a specific objective, and the literature (mainly research articles) associated with that. In structured programs it might be easier to achieve a mix of practice and philosophy.  But, with a PhD-by-research only it is easy to get away with this sort of thing: Doing only the focused, practical readings needed to get the research done. And we convince ourselves we don’t have the time to spend on “frivolous” thoughts and reading. But I am glad I got stuck, because I was forced to go back and relearn some basics, and do some inspirational, foundational reading. The time I am spending just reading may not have a concrete output tied to it, but it is well spent. The output will be much better analysis I hope; and more interesting and useful interpretation of data.  I am doing the reading and the data exploration concurrently, but this time not charging at full speed towards analysis and writing. I spare a little time each day for some reading that has nothing to do with what I am doing but is philosophical enough to make me think deeper about the meaning of my work. It is a constant reminder that I am part of a bigger picture and that there is more than one way of looking at things.

So, if you are a PhD student like me and analysis/any stage is a drag, I recommend it. It really helps you become unstuck. I will take longer in this phase but at least I no longer wake up dreading the work ahead. I have regained my sense of what I am doing. It is like opening a window to let the fresh air in. Up until then, I didn’t realize how stale the room was.

The pure intellectual pursuit of things is an important part of being a scientist. The other half is the daily grind of applying experimentation and making observations. Besides the experimentation and observations, we must learn how to think about those things. But it is not easy to put a timeline on the thinking part. How do you decide how long to think about something before you can create meaning out of it? It is much easier to slot in time for seminars, workshops, paper writing and submission, data collection and analysis etc. Once you do this you realize the 3 years of a PhD goes quickly. And that’s how long most of us have anyway, given that scholarships don’t go on forever. There a few blogs/articles out there about what putting philosophy back in PhD means, including this blog.

If we keep asking the questions, we will forever stay connected to the core of being a scientist. Running experiments is the doing part. We need both.


Let me end this with this stolen quote: “The key part of science isn’t in finding good answers, but in asking good questions”.