Finding the “Just Right” Supervisor

Introduction

Students applying a focused approach are utilizing an essential tool for being admitted to the program of their choice. A well-crafted letter introduces   the writer and demonstrates that she or he is familiar with the potential supervisor’s research. This familiarity goes beyond the key words  listed   on websites or articles. The writer must also demonstrate, and not simply state, that there is a clear match in research interests. They need to do their homework by searching out and reading many publications by the professor. An extensive literature search can provide information about a potential supervisor’s research topic and research methods. It is not a good idea to rely solely on a program’s websites for accurate information because faculty profiles are notoriously out of date and incomplete. Some of the busiest professors do not update their profile.

Letters should be formal and accurately address the professor by his or her title. The title of “Dr.” is preferred, if the person indeed holds a doctorate degree. “Professor” is used for those holding terminal degrees, such as MFAs. Letters must be free of typos and grammatical errors. This is especially the case concerning the professor’s name. Pay particular attention to details, such as capitalization and spelling. For example, the well-known American educator, feminist, and author bell hooks should never be addressed as Bell Hooks.

If at all possible, establish a relationship with a potential supervisor before committing to a program of research. This relationship can start with a letter of introduction from a current professor, or a request to visit the school.  For students seeking a master’s degree, professors who teach undergraduate courses can provide suggestions of leading programs and researchers in their field. Potential doctoral students who are seeking a new direction or wish to relocate may rely on their Master’s thesis supervisor for advice. Their current supervisor may be active in the field and can suggest some colleagues with whom the student might work.

Research conferences are good places to make contact with a potential supervisor. However, graduate students flock to popular researchers like groupies to a rock star. At the end of a presentation, students rush to the podium and surround the professor. It is best to contact the professor in writing before a conference, introduce yourself, and ask for a brief appointment     at the professor’s convenience during the conference. The best idea is to visit the campus and meet with several faculty members. Many programs hold annual graduate symposia, which would provide opportunities to meet students enrolled in the program, as well as many faculty members. If travel to the university is too costly, at least potential students should attempt a meeting through videoconferencing.

Students who are admitted to programs before selecting a supervisor  have many advantages over those who must have a supervisor before being admitted. The ideal situation allows students to take courses with several faculty members. Here, students can learn a great deal by noting how professors interact with all students, how long they take to give feedback and the nature of the feedback.

For  students  who  are  already  in  programs  and  seeking  supervisors,  a commonly offered recommendation is to ask other students’ advice. Collectively, students know a great deal about the supervisors in their program. Each student may know something, and together they can paint an accurate picture of a supervisor’s style. Fellow students can provide valuable information if asked the right questions. When asking another student about his or her supervisor, first ask yourself, “Am I like this person?” Students’ needs differ. A good question is not, “Do you like this professor?” but rather, “Do you like working with him or her?” This is vitally important for students who will work for extended periods in labs along side their professors and other students supervised by the professor. In particular, doctoral students who completed their Master’s degree at the same institution are valuable resources. Asking if they remained with their same supervisor is helpful. If not, ask why they changed.

It should be noted that when students seek advice in this fashion, they are usually limited to speaking to the more successful students. Students, who have quit out of discouragement and exasperation are not likely to be found on campus. It is useful to take note of which professors are busy. Students, it is said, vote with their feet, and are likely to avoid undesirable supervisors. To use another metaphor, an empty restaurant is likely to either serve bad food or offer poor service. On the other hand, high profile researchers who are in demand as supervisors may not be able to provide their students with personal attention. A GPD may be able to provide information about how many students a potential supervisor is carrying, how this compares to other supervisors in the same program, and how long it takes students to graduate under his or her tutelage.

For additional information, students can read theses of other graduate students supervised by the potential supervisor. Nearly all universities require graduating students to post their theses online. If at all possible, search   the literature to see how many of the supervisor’s master students later went on to Ph.D. programs, noting if they continued at the same university, and if so, whether or not they continued to work with the same professor.

Supervisors to Avoid

When I asked my colleagues what kind of supervisor students should avoid, they consistently mentioned  the  unavailable  faculty  member. According to them, these professors are interested only in their own careers and their projects. They do not take the time or see it as their responsibility to mentor students. One colleague noted that these supervisors make students “data slaves” and “jerk students from project to project.” However, no one I interviewed could tell me how a student would know who to avoid. Program politics are well known among faculty, but not publicly discussed. Mumby (2012) suggests asking advice from graduate program directors, but they are members of the program and may not be willing to speak badly of their colleagues.

In order to know if the faculty member is available to help the students he or she supervises, one needs to consider what “available” means to all concerned. Do students work well on their own, or do they need to see   their supervisor 15 times a day? Does the supervisor see it as his or her responsibility to ensure that students work consistently and meet deadlines? Or,  does the supervisor expect graduate students to work independently?   Is timely feedback provided on drafts? Will the supervisor read drafts of presentations and papers for publication? Are opportunities provided for their students to co-publish or co-present? Partnerships between students and their supervisors work best when there is a match between the student’s expectations and the professor’s supervisory style.

Co-Supervision

Students who choose an assistant professor as their supervisor are advised to ask a more established professor to co-supervise. Some programs require compulsory co-supervision for inexperienced supervisors to ensure a common supervision culture is maintained. Some require students to name a secondary supervisor for continuity should the primary supervisor not be able to see the student to completion. Not all programs recognize co-supervision and require that only one faculty member serves as the primary supervisor. At the very least, having two professors supervise research ensures the student will have someone familiar with his or her work in place in the event the assistant professor be denied tenure or takes a maternity or paternity leave.

It is important to establish a working relationship with both supervisors and a clear agreement on how to proceed. Otherwise, one has two supervisors to satisfy. Both may read and offer feedback of drafts, but the feedback may not be consistent between the advisors. Progress may be delayed because    it may take twice as long to get feedback because each reads the thesis independently, and then must find time to meet to compare notes. It is possible neither will provide feedback, thinking the other has done so. They may have competing ideas about research methods or topics, and the student is placed in an unfortunate position of having to choose the direction. Co-supervision works best when supervisors have a track record of working together. Before committing to co-supervision, note how many times the two professors have supervised together. If professors in the program frequently co-supervise, this usually means the above issues most likely have been resolved.

The Thesis Committee

In addition to having a primary supervisor, many programs also require students to have an advisory committee. This usually consists of the supervisor and two or three other members. The other members can be from the same program or from other related programs. In some cases, faculty members from other universities may be invited to sit on thesis committees. Forming a committee should be done in consultation with one’s supervisor. Supervisors will suggest people with whom they have worked in the past and who hold similar ideas about thesis research. Supervisory groups can remedy certain problems inherent in the close student and supervisor relationship, but that they can also create problems. Committee members do not always agree on the direction research should take or provide consistent assessment of the thesis. It is important that supervisors be able to advocate for their students. Untenured faculty members may be hesitant to disagree with a senior member who is in a position to vote against their tenure.

It is important to learn program protocol concerning how committees function. In some cases, all research is carried out with the supervisor and the committee serves as the examining committee. In other cases, students can consult committee members throughout the research process. When asking faculty members to serve on the committee, consider what expertise or role will be expected from them. What do they bring to the topic or research methodology? It is important to meet with and discuss research interests with potential committee members. Time is a professor’s most valuable commodity so ensure that it is not wasted. One professor I interviewed spoke of meeting with a student, but not receiving any follow up correspondence. This professor was surprised to find herself summoned to a committee meeting, and as a result, declined to serve. Another was under the impression he was serving on committee only to discover some time later that another colleague had replaced him. If after meeting, it is determined this professor is not a good fit for the committee, be polite, and send a thank you letter. In some cases, committee members must excuse themselves, and students may need to find replacements. In other words, avoid burning bridges. The first thing the committee will review is your thesis proposal. The next chapter focuses on this essential piece of your thesis plan.

NOTE

1 This is a quote from the twitter site, Shit Academics Say. The quote is “Academic life is  less like a box of chocolate and more like a pie eating contest where the prize is more pie.” <a href=”https://twitter.com/academicssay/status/542416581561573378″>Via Twitter</a>


Reference:

Blair, L. (2016). Writing a Graduate Thesis Or Dissertation. Springer.

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