Traits of a good academic supervisor!

Upon completion of my Honours studies, my supervisor invited me to co-supervise to a new Honours student with him, as I had gained some level of knowledge within the project that the new student was to work on. Although this was an interesting pursuit, I was a bit anxious as I did not have any experience with supervising students, and I had not received any prior training on how to be an effective supervisor. I questioned myself on: what a ‘good’ supervisor really is… what traits should they have? Is there ever one? To answer these questions, I looked towards my own supervisors and fellow colleagues who supervise students. From observing these individuals, I came up with 3 traits that I consider vital in a good supervisor.

i. Available
There is nothing more frustrating than sending emails and not getting a response for along time, especially when you need urgent response. Conversely, it is satisfying to get an quick response and solution to the query you are emailing about. This holds true within the academic space, where a student might need urgent assistance, in line with the expected time frames for response to emails for the specific university that the student is registered in. Additionally, students value an available supervisor who can avail themselves for regular meetings, is contactable over various communication platforms, and can put in extra hours assisting students when needed.

ii. Knowledgeable
Students value a supervisor who is knowledgeable in the project that they are working on. As a student, having a supervisor with a considerable level of expertise in your field builds confidence in the work that you are doing. The supervisor does not specifically have to be an expert in all the specific technicalities of your project, but their knowledge in the general field of research really does go a long way.

iii. Compassionate
A student’s life goes beyond just academia, there are various facets that make up a student’s life that should be taken into consideration. These include family relationships, financial matters, mental health issues amongst others. A supervisor who can understand these aspects of a student can easily fit themselves into the shoes of the students and figure a way to relate with them and optimally assist them.

Having learnt these traits. I tried my best to apply them to students that I co-supervised. I immediately learnt that efficient supervision is not dependent on only the supervisor, but the commitment, communication and dedication of the supervised students also plays a role. A committed student who communicates well and can work independently is easy to supervise, and the opposite is true. Since then I have co-supervised, and acted as a main supervisor for many other students and it has, honestly, been a very interesting journey. I currently supervise both honors and masters students, each with their own unique attributes .

The list of traits in a good supervisor is probably longer than I have stated here. There are various studies that investigate the qualities that make a good supervisor, for a example a 2011 study identified the attributes of supervisors and examined elements of effective supervision from the graduate research students‟ perspective. However, form experience and observation, I have learnt that the three above-stated traits play a vital role in optimal supervision of students. Personally, I am privileged to have supervisors with these traits, and I try my best to adopt them in the supervision of my own students.

On academic detachment and relational research

A few months ago, I started a postdoctoral position at the University of Cape Town. Becoming part of an environment of active and supportive(!) scholarly exchange made me realise how much I had conditioned myself to work independently so far in my still rather pubescent academic life. While that is not a bad thing per se, I firmly believe that research is inherently relational. It is a form of knowledge production that requires a stimulus beyond stoically practicing data collection and writing in the ways we have learnt to be academically sound.

I have technically been working ‘from home’ for quite some years now. Doing my Masters by dissertation meant that I was only on campus for departmental seminars and irregular meetings with my thesis supervisor. This was after I had done a six-week qualitative research project on refugees in Cape Town and practices of dreaming for my Honours degree, which had given me an appetite for more in-depth research. I missed being part of academic life during my Masters but was really excited to conduct my first long-term ethnographic fieldwork. It allowed me the time and space to immerse myself in a topic for much longer – this time doing research on suburban neighbourhood surveillance groups. I would get a degree for spending my time observing, interviewing and writing – I was thrilled! And it really was a great experience at the time, even if not without ups and downs. I established my routines and enjoyed being able to do so without being impeded by class schedules and other academic obligations.

After embracing my degree certificate for my work, which, thankfully, had not felt torturously laborious for the most part, I worked for a health research organisation for three years remotely. Even though the topics I got to research interested me, my junior status and the fact that the project I was hired to work on did not materialise had me working on bits and pieces of other peoples’ projects. There was therefore no substantial, stimulating exchange with colleagues beyond brief Skype updates. When the situation did not change and funding became even more limited, I pursued my PhD on Tinder dating – another opportunity to spend A LOT of time talking to people about a topic that fascinates me.

I have always embraced a sense of independence. As a younger girl, I envisioned myself growing into a journalist when older, travelling around the world, covering all kinds of exciting topics. The anthropologist I grew to embody instead has roamed the world much less than I would have liked – mostly for funding reasons. I have, however, still managed to go out and explore the very themes I felt strongly about. It has taken a moment, but I feel like I’m getting closer to positioning myself in academia and thinking of myself as a ‘digital anthropologist’ – whatever that may actually mean. Especially through writing many an application in search for a postdoc, summarising my interests concisely over and over helped with that.

Having my first ‘proper’ (as in, fully paid) position pursuing my own research interests and now being part of a lively even if still remotely operating academic environment makes me feel the last years of academic detachment. Particularly so after the past 1.5 years of COVID-19-enforced remoteness. I am hungry for fieldwork and even more hungry for exchanging ideas with other scholars. Scholars, that is, who harbour a collaborative rather than a competitive sentiment – something that is not to be taken for granted.

I got a strong sense of what a collaborative spirit can do when attending my first hybrid workshop on UCT campus the other day. The big screen was not working and the five of us who were present in person were all still looking at our respective computer screens with our facial expressions hidden behind masks. And still, it was a very different feeling from following the same meeting from my kitchen table. The workshop went on for more than three hours, but I felt enlivened by the mere physical proximity of colleagues with whom I could exchange thoughts on our projects located within the same research cluster. It may have been the combination of the ability to share our progress and insecurities within this space, working on a similar research topic and having been deprived of unmediated support for a long time that made for this animating effect.

For me, the takeaway from these experiences is to, yes, embrace the autonomy research allows me when it comes to going to a certain field and approaching a topic in an exploratory manner – even though this autonomy in always also impeded by funding, institutional expectations and the pressures to fit moulds in academia. And the way things have panned out for me also cautions me to value not just my relations to the people I work with when conducting research but also academic environments that offer me space to develop frameworks to think with. Even if it is sometimes hard to admit, at the end of the day, none of it can be done alone.