(This post was originally posted as part of the Insider Secrets 2012 campaign)
"A Warwick student since 2006, a postgraduate since 2010, I am completing a PhD in the Department of History on post-war English welfare and social work. Originally from Cambridge, I like cycling, squash, and playing with cats." - Thomas Bray
As you take the final faltering steps towards their office door, raising a shaking hand to quietly knock, a million images of the supervisor can race through your mind. Maybe they’re just a giant brain, alone in a room? Possibly they are like Sauron from Lord of the Rings, all-knowing, all-seeing, all-evil? Or perhaps they’re just you, an eager postgraduate…but thirty years down the line?
As long as there have been postgraduates, there have been supervisors, and as long as there have been supervisors there have been rumours. In my very first year as an undergraduate, I heard about one supervisor who set his office on fire whilst replicating a PhD student’s experiment. Whether this is true or not is immaterial, but it does go some way to illustrating the explosive reaction that can result from the meeting of a supervisor and their student.
So, it is completely understandable if nightmares about your supervisor keep you awake at night. Hopefully, all of this trepidation will disappear once you actually meet them. Because, guess what, your supervisor has almost certainly gone through the same thing. And they too will have spent time wondering what their new student will be like, whether they will work hard and be passionate about their project, whether they will produce drafts on time and take the inevitable criticism well. It is highly likely that you chose them to be your supervisor, and the fact that they accepted you means that that crucial first step is in the past.
So, with all the rumours and the apprehension behind you, how best to go about those first few meetings? Here are some tips:
1) Be honest. In the first few meetings, you will probably spend some time discussing your expectations of postgraduate work, as well as your personal strengths and weaknesses. Over the course of your work together, these will all become explicit, and there is little point in presenting yourself to your supervisor as someone you are not.
2) Listen to, consider, and take heed of their early advice. Only one of you in the room will have done a PhD or a dissertation before, and the chances are that your supervisor has seen a number of them to completion. Having said that, they will not always know what’s right for you, in which case I refer you back to the previous point: be honest about yourself.
3) Be prepared for criticism, or to make difficult decisions. It is quite possible that your supervisor will be excited about your whole project, and will think it all perfectly possible. On the other hand, they may feel that it is unfeasible, or that some of it is outdated. Since this is your PhD or dissertation, which you thought up all by yourself, it can be easy to get defensive. While you should not be afraid to defend your research and your methodology, it is important at this early stage to consider such long-term issues. Your supervisor will be heavily invested in this project as well, so it is in everyone’s interests to be realistic.
All of this should help you to get off on the right foot with your supervisor, and to lay the foundations of some pretty ground-breaking research. Over the coming years, you’ll be seeing a lot of each other. Although they may sometimes feel like your worst enemy, they should ultimately become one of your best friends. Make those first impressions count.
P.S. For further tips and insight, have a look at my later article on making the most out of your supervisor. Combine the knowledge of the two, and your supervisions will soon be SUPERvisions (although it will do nothing for your skilful use of puns).