The art of supervisor wrangling

A colleague of mine was sitting beside a senior academic at a conference. A young researcher was giving a presentation on the preliminary results from their doctoral research, and the senior academic was really impressed. The topic coincided perfectly with his research interests. Meeting the young researcher over coffee, the senior academic paid his compliments, and enquired who was the young researcher’s PhD supervisor. “You are”, they replied…

The supervision of PhD students is an incredibly important responsibility, so you’d think that researchers in academia would get quite a bit of training for this cultivation of the next generation of researchers. Well, you’d be surprised. Many universities provide just enough training to ensure that they don’t get sued. Some don’t even provide that. Others, of course, do an amazing job.

Clearly, the senior supervisor in the above story needed to up their game (my colleague swears that it is a true story). Unfortunately, there is a lot of bad practice in PhD supervision, and some supervisors should simply be blacklisted from supervision duties. In general, however most supervisors are reasonably nice people, want to do their best, and generally do a great job.

With or without training, supervisors are also regular people with hopes, aspirations, successes, complicated relationships, setbacks, problems and disappointments. And that’s just outside of work. At work, they do their best to manage multiple responsibilities across administration, research and teaching. Inevitably, the amount of time that they give to an individual PhD student is limited. But what are PhD students to do in such situations? How can PhD students influence and control the direction of the supervisory relationship?

We encourage students to do some supervisor wrangling, and to take the initiative to manage the academic relationship with their supervisor. (Typically, wrangling is to round up, herd or take control of livestock.) Some people reject the idea that students should need to manage their supervisors, but I disagree. Supervisor wrangling (‘managing up’) is necessary and common in most workplaces; yes, it would be great if it wasn’t needed, but it’s in your own best interest to advocate for your needs, address some of your supervisor’s shortcomings, and make the most of their supervisor’s strengths. Of course, this advice doesn’t apply when there are very serious problems with your supervisor – this needs different solutions.

Here, I give some typical approaches to supervisor wrangling, and then look at some examples of extreme wrangling, where students have achieved Hall of Fame wrangler status.

Entry-level supervisor wrangling activities would include the following:

  1. Discuss your professional expectations of your supervisor, and your supervisor’s professional expectations of you.
  2. Take the initiative to schedule regular appointments with your supervisor.
  3. For each appointment, email an agenda and bring two copies to the meeting; agree on goals and indicate a date for the next meeting; email a record of agreed points at the meeting to your supervisor.
  4. Submit written work in good time. To get useful feedback, specify the kind of feedback that you want, and indicate a preferred return date. Send reminders close to the date – the original email can quickly disappear in the supervisor’s inbox.
  5. Make trickier-than-average requests when your supervisor is having a good day. Pick your time to ask for new equipment, approval for conference fees and travel, or an expensive spare part. Better still, be prepared to make a case for why it benefits the research, the lab and your supervisor.

Extreme supervisor wrangling is an art form and, sadly, often arises from a heady combination of inspiration and desperation. It includes the following real-life examples that make the wrangling Hall of Fame:

  • Arrange to collect your supervisor from the airport after their conference trip, and using the opportunity to clarify and agree important research decisions
  • Threaten to go the newspapers, radio and TV if they don’t live up to their supervisory commitments
  • Travel on the train with them as they go to a meeting (that you are not attending)
  • Check the teaching schedule, wait outside a lecture theatre and walk with the supervisor as they leave their lecture.
  • Make it clear that you will remove your co-supervisor’s name from research publications that they have not contributed to.

Beware the wrangling arms race! Some supervisors are themselves Hall of Famers at student wrangling. Just remember that it is part of your supervisor’s job to supervise you and give you time and support – they have committed to this by agreeing to take on the role of supervisor.

And they should provide a lot more than the ability to recognise you at a public presentation…

John Finn

John Finn

John Finn is a researcher in agricultural ecology with Teagasc (Ireland), and runs the PhDskills blog: http://phdskills.blogspot.ie. He is author of ‘Getting a PhD’ (2005), and co-author of ‘Supervising PhD students’ (2017) with Hugh Kearns of Thinkwell. Thinkwell provides a large range of free resources for research students at http://www.ithinkwell.com.au/resources. John can be found on Twitter @Johnfinn310.

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