Supervisors are like coffee…. See why!

By Roula Inglesi-Lotz

As a student, I thought the most important element towards completion of a PhD is… Who else? The student. Only after wearing the famous red cape at my PhD graduation, did I started realising how much a supervisor is a “make it or break it” factor. No, it is not because nowadays I play for the other side! It’s mostly due to discussions with other doctorate holders or PhD students. I found out that my progress and excitement for my PhD was highly due to my supervisor (thank you Prof James Blignaut!); others also identified mentorship as the reason for completing their PhD fast, or slow, or enjoying the process (from a 2017 postgraduate experience survey).

From the other side of the field now, we heard as academics many times the statement, “We are the lecturers or supervisors we had.” I find more inspiring, “We strive to be the lecturers or supervisors we always wanted.” For a few years now, hence, I have been wondering what type of a supervisor I am and what my style is. I compared myself with my supervisors, my experienced colleagues, and I analysed my personality to understand better. Within this introspection and analysis, I concluded that supervisors are like coffee… Let me explain myself.

They come in different varieties.

If you thought, that all supervisors are the same, you will be in for a surprise. Supervisors are human beings (surprise?!?!?!) and they come with their own experiences background and beliefs. The Ethiopian coffee blend is not the same as the Kenyan, for example. One is not superior to the other; they are all different. Do you remember the last time in your life that you became obsessed with drinking that special macchiato from a specific shop EVERY SINGLE DAY for months because you loved it and you swore that is the best for you, and then you did not want to even see it? That is sometimes the case with supervisory (and lecturing) styles too – you might swear that this one is the ultimate for you until you try another one.

They can be stronger, weaker or even decaf.

Continuing within the concept of diversity, the strength of the coffee or the choice of decaf can also be linked to supervisors. Some are definitely stronger and more disciplined. They expect the students to work autonomously and take criticism and upsets in the research process with equal strength. The “espressos” plan in advance, work on schedules and are not flexible. They can work well with students that are equally structured, but might restrict a free spirit. The “decafs” on the other side tend to be more relaxed, give more freedom both in context and in time, and do not check on progress regularly.

Same coffee, different preferences (milk or sugar)

Most academics have established through the years their own supervisor personas (variety of coffee and strength of the blend). BUT, what helps tremendously is the adaptability of the coffee to the consumer’s personal preferences: sugar or not, and how much, brown or white sugar, or milk, maybe cremora? In essence, the supervisor has some core characteristics, but they do adjust (somewhat) to the needs and particular conditions of the student. When the student is an introvert and likes to work independently, the supervisor will not assist much if he/ she checks the progress frequently; on the other side, a student might need a constant support both academically and personally (add some sugar and milk extra, please).

 They get bitter if you do not stir.

Self-explanatory characteristic of the metaphor, right? Disappearing for months and then trying to pick up where you left it might create uneasiness with your supervisor (same from the other side, of course). Frequent communication and collaboration is essential in the relationship supervisor- student. “Like a marriage”, says Darce Gillie, from the University of Sheffield, a supervisor-PhD student relationship needs “honest communication, trust, understanding, shared goals, and the ability to compromise”.

If you don’t have one, you get headaches.

From the coffee-side, the doctors might diagnose caffeine addiction, while from doctoral studies perspective; there is absolutely no way to complete a PhD without a supervisor, or with an absent one. If the student knew everything in advance or had confidence that can surpass all the uphills of research, then why do a PhD? Ready-made academic! Some will argue here that their supervisor was mostly absent from the process and hence, no particular contribution should be attributed to them. I have one thing to tell them: the days I do not drink coffee, I drink tea or water, meaning some way or another, we all had a mentor whose experience, advice, and knowledge contributed to our PhD research.

Choosing coffee is of course much easier than choosing a supervisor.

Firstly, it is the start of a long-term relationship and secondly, you do not know someone until you get to work with them. If you need to choose your supervisor, the first step is to have an idea of the research topic that interests you, even broadly. Next, look for the experts in this field that are willing to supervise PhD students. If the topic interests the supervisor as well, mission accomplished. Supervisors tend to work more with students when they are also interested to answer these questions AND the extra bonus, the students learn more from informal discussions.  If you find one or two that have what you want, go see them all. You will get a better feeling of them as people, and personal chemistry plays a role. (Find your supervisor Table)

Finally, just remind yourself, a PhD journey is difficult. It has ups and downs, that is a given. As a PhD student, make sure you choose the right coffee to give you energy, excitement, inspiration, and keep you awake and focus. However, the coffee is not really, what makes you accomplish anything that day – it’s your own drive and persistence.

Dear fellow supervisors, my suggestion is not to be stiff “coffees” that leave their drinkers with the jitters. Try to be warm and boosting ones.

Let’s serve coffee with a little – or even better, over cake – to make the journey enjoyable.


Ecotoxicology: What are they talking about?

Postgraduate studies, in essence, involves an important choice regarding the field of study you want to follow. Unlike undergraduate studies, you might find yourself Postgraduate studiesfollowing your postgraduate research field for the rest of your life!  It thus becomes important to follow your passion or to find love in what you do. This month I just felt it was worth highlighting the field of study that I am in and why I find joy in what I do.

I work in ecotoxicology. And like MANY people before me, I had no idea that such a field existed, let alone that I can make a difference in the world, in such an interesting way. I think a lot of researchers don’t start out knowing what they’ll do one day. Many of us start our undergraduate years with some vague (and wrong) ideas about our future, until we meet someone or learn something that suddenly changes our world. It was somewhere in a third-year ecotoxicology course, during the practical, when I saw the theory come alive that I decided that this is something I could do. In that practical, we had to expose earthworms to Cadmium and assess endpoints such as mortality, fecundity as well as any changes in their metabolic activity. The “aha” moment for me was when I started analysing the data and interpreting the results to conclude on the effects of this chemical.

An ecotoxicologist's job is to move our world from right to left, as depicted.
An ecotoxicologist’s job is to move our world from right to left, as depicted.

Ecotoxicology focuses on the effects of contaminants, mostly of anthropogenic sources, on the different ecosystems. These range from terrestrial systems to aquatic and marine systems. The main goal however, in any of these systems, is to figure out how we negatively impact these systems and how we can be able to reverse, in part or completely, these effects for the benefit of the environment and all that benefit from it. Having had a dream to work in spaces that directly benefit humanity, I couldn’t have asked for a better field of study. My passion in particular is aquatic toxicology which focuses on how these contaminants or environmental pollutants affect the water quality, aquatic systems and those who benefit from these systems. You could say, how we are affected by our own doings; be it deliberate or not.

One of the closest related fields that I am currently also working with is chemistry. There is no way that one can assess for pollution and various contaminants in the environment without knowing what those contaminants are and how they break down in the environment and what their specific effects are. On the other hand, the pharmaceutical companies discharge a lot of pharmaceutical waste into the environment and the assessment of such contamination directly links the pharmacy field and the ecotoxicology work. Needless to say, the work of an ecotoxicologist expands beyond just the research labs and university classrooms. It comprises many risk assessment arm of many chemical, biochemistry and environmental consulting industries to name but a few.

Ecotoxicology crosses disciplines
Ecotoxicology crosses many disciplines

With the forever increasing population and changing environment, I think the work of an ecotoxicologist not only ends with the current generation but opens doors to new research that is focused on ensuring that we have clean water, living aquatic systems and a safe environment for more than just our generation.

As I have often highlighted in my previous blogs, there are different stresses that come with research. At times it becomes very stressful to a point of breaking down. Supervisors and deadlines can often be daunting too. However, doing what you love and what makes you want to do more makes the challenges bearable. Most scientists would agree that passion is what drives us through the hard times. When you go out there and can already see what needs to be done in your field to address a particular problem, that is what I call doing the science that matters!