The self-reliant part of the journey

I often hear that mentorship is a key ingredient of success, and not just in academia. I’ve certainly found that when in doubt, getting advice from someone who knows more than you is the best and fastest route to figuring out a problem. As PhD students, we have supervisors, advisors or tutors to help keep us focused and approve what we’ve been doing. However, supervisors are really busy people with a million and one responsibilities. At a recent talk on tips for successful PhD students, the top tip was to nurture your relationship with your supervisor. The speaker pointed out that you should be the driving force behind initiating meetings and interactions with your supervisor and you should not expect them to take the lead, as they are likely to be too busy. To be honest, the speaker basically said that you may need to resort to “gentle stalking” in extreme circumstances of busy/disorganised supervisors…

I haven’t ever had to resort to anything like that but then, up until now I have been supremely lucky, having weekly hour- or even 2 hour-long meetings with my main supervisor. These have really given me the chance to ask the sorts of things I might otherwise spend fruitless days trying to figure out myself without every really getting anywhere. They’ve also been a brilliant motivating force; by the time all my various Monday meetings and seminars are done, I really need to get moving if I want to get enough done to have something useful to say by the following Monday meeting.

(Image by Tim Hamilton)

Sadly, the good times have come to a halt. As of next week, my supervisor is off on maternity leave for the better part of 2013. Although I am not in any way being abandoned (I have 2 other supervisors whom I might see every now and again and there are other people I can go to for help if need be), I will not get the same level of support that I’ve been virtually spoiled with this last year.

The first year of being a PhD student is perhaps the most crucial for having nurturing guidance and support in finding your feet. Now in my second year, my analyses and ideas are in motion and I have a plan of what I will be doing next (though this is more likely to change than not). I’d like to think that I’ll be completely fine but part of me is worried that I’ll go off on a tangent or get things wrong without someone to look over my shoulder more; this is probably another form of imposter syndrome rearing its head. Hopefully, I’ll adjust to the change ok and muddle through somehow. Maybe it’ll even be good for me, by forcing me to become more independent?

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2 thoughts on “The self-reliant part of the journey

  1. baggageclaim says:

    It is really weird that I had this conversation with my supervisor on the day you posted this. Basically I explained to her that it is very important for me to have a mentor as I am a first year PhD student and I feel confused and lost most of the time even though I look like I am doing ok. And I asked for half an hour meeting every week along with the regular meetings we have for the mentoring sessions that we could talk about everything in general and she was pleased that I asked and seemed happy to do it. I know it can be a little too much to ask but why not ease things a little in the first year. I was worried that she would think I am being weak or maybe spoiled but I was just being honest and sometimes it’s good for both sides. I believe building a trustful relationship with your supervisor is very important in this journey and agree with you on getting advice from someone wiser than you is the best and fastest route to figuring out a problem. We indeed need to think efficiently and not be stubborn or feel weak whilst asking help.

  2. I think that asking for help isn’t and shouldn’t be seen as a weakness. Part of the point of a PhD is that it’s a learning process and although it is mostly self-directed, we have supervisors to help with that process! Good luck in building a positive relationship with your supervisor.
    Oh and the speaker whose talk I went to also wrote this short article, which you may find interesting:
    http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v469/n7331/full/nj7331-570a.html
    Unfortunately, it’s behind a paywall, but hopefully your university has access to it.

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