I've just spent the last week at a conference, one I went to specifically to meet certain people to get feedback I needed. I've spent the last day pulling together all the information I got, and in the process have been thinking about styles of feedback, advice, supervision.
To set the scene, a bit about my situation first. I'm in an interdisciplinary field, which in many universities (including the one where I did my Masters) is considered a sub-field of computer science. In other universities (my current one) it can be its own department, or else more closely aligned with the other major (non-technical) area, which for the purposes of this blog I am going to call the Study of Cupcakes. My own background is computer science in "a land far, far away".*
I came to Europe, to an exciting well funded department to discover that the PhD system is very very different in different countries. I have gained a lot from being in Europe, but the supervision situation, at least for our group, is... sub-optimal. The general procedure here is that only full professors can supervise PhD students. There are not many of them, and in general, they have more important things to do like run research institutes and negotiate with the EU. Hence, the convention is that someone else is designated the direct supervisor. Unfortunately, the situation with my direct supervisor became unworkable by a year and a half in, and every since I have been working basically unsupervised. I meet my official supervisor when possible, but there is no one else at the university who could take on the role of direct supervisor.
Since I am about to start (hopefully) writing up my thesis, this conference was very timely, and I managed to organise a number of one-on-one meetings. The input was invaluable and all from quite different angles (luckily complementary). The different styles made me wonder what is the ideal supervision style. Perhaps the ideal is to have it all, but on the other hand, I have become very independent due to my current situation and that is not entirely a bad thing.
My official supervisor is actually in some ways very good. His insights are legendary and with him I discuss both my research and my PhD in general, but at such high levels that it might be more accurate to say the direction of our field in general, and where my career will be in 10 years time. I tend to come out of those meetings both inspired, but also confused about what I should be doing tomorrow.
Three of the meetings I had in the last week, I would have called supervisor meetings rather than just feedback meetings and these particularly suggested different roles of a supervisor.
The first focused predominately on my research: which experiments I was missing, what I had described well, what other analyses I could do of my data. He asked why I had chosen certain methods, we discussed the story I was trying to tell, and we debated which data would best illustrate my points. We planned the next set of experiments and arranged to discuss the details by email next week.
As a side note, my reaction to his positive comments on specific details surprised me. The feedback I've had through my PhD, such as it has been, has been positive, but so general that I think I didn't believe it. I was almost embarrassed(?) by what a confidence boost I got from such small things as "nice paragraph" and "that graph is exactly what you want to show". I'm pretty sure he didn't realise the effect his comments had, but it made me hark back to the issues of my previous post. Do I crave positive feedback that much?
My next 'fill-in supervisor' concentrated on how I should structure my thesis. We discussed the idea of a one sentence summary and how expanding that makes up the introduction. She also recommended a high level to low level progression through the chapters and told me what she would expect from her students in the way of a lit review and where it would best fit in. She is planted quite firmly in the Cupcake-ology side of our field, so most of our research related talk focused on giving my analyses a certain breadth to include non-technical issues.
My third would-be supervisor wasn't talking so much about the research, or the thesis, but on how to do the research. How I should be able to articulate in one sentence the claim that I was making, and that, at every point in my work, I should be asking myself how my current experiment/reading/analysis contributed directly to proving that claim. He told me I needed a list of exactly which experiments were required and I wasn't to vary from that list unless results suggested the claim needed to be re-thought in any way. We did discuss my research in terms of what that claim might be, given the work I have done, but the major contribution from this 'supervisor' was in encouraging the sort of discipline I was going to need in order to finish.
As I said, I think ideally a supervisor might be able to take on all these roles, but what do people think is the most important role of a supervisor? Someone to discuss and plan research with? Someone to teach you how to organise and conduct research? Someone to help you learn to communicate your research? It's a question I will be keeping in mind, both when looking ahead to what I want in my postdoctoral position, but also for when I start (hopefully) supervising others.
* I am quoting Professor in Training here. I suspect we actually come from the same far away land, and since I started following her blog, that phrase, which used to evoke fairy tale lands, now just means HomeCountry.
Some random bits
2 days ago