You’ll be on the Red List if your supervisor goes extinct

invisibleBearing in mind that a PhD candidacy will last roughly three and a half years, the planned endeavour should be achievable in the given time, according to personal capability and talent and relative to the academic environment.

But if you haven’t taken good care to select the right supervisor, you could find that your allotted time slips by too quickly.

Here are a few important aspects I have noted over the last decade, based on the experiences of many friends — both expat and Aussie — who either finished their studies or  …, well, let’s not talk about that.

The importance of the research environment has both professional and personal implications:

  • Are the lab/university facilities and the available funding where you are considering enrolling for PhD adequate?
  • Will the supervisory team be supportive?

University facilities

If your selected lab lacks most of the equipment you require, perhaps you are on the wrong side of town. Confronted with many research tasks while adapting to the new academic routine, you will not have time to source an alternative lab at another university or, worse, in another city/state to do experiments that could take months to complete, even though it is the general nature of the science that you will need to send some samples/data elsewhere for further analysis.

If, however, your PhD requires only a high-performance computer, of course where you actually do your work is somewhat irrelevant, as long as your internet access, download speed, and data quality are up to scratch. VPNs seem to slow everything down; in such cases, you will be cursing daily without sufficient technical assistance from your university/lab.

Definitely choose a university where high-performance computing is well-established and supported.

The supervisory team

As we all know, some academics make themselves harder to find than a wombat.

You should arrange to see your supervisor at least twice a month for an hour-long chat at least. Don’t be afraid to ask up front Will you be able to allocate enough time for me for two meetings per month during the next three years?

I have known students who were unable to see their supervisors for six months while they were on sabbatical leave, running their own projects, or working on projects elsewhere. With such a supervisor, you are at a greater risk of being unsuccessful.

Naturally, the reason I suggest having regular meetings with your supervisor is to ensure you remain on target. Imagine receiving a comment like your methodology is inappropriate after concluding the experiment and the manuscript. You must be informed stage by stage, not only after you’ve already churned out 40 pages.

Your supervisor should have ideally already built up a good reputation based on her or his supervisory experience. Get a diagnosis (or post-mortem) from your supervisor’s previous graduates and postdocs. Current students are often reluctant to divulge the real picture, perhaps thinking you have been appointed as the sniffer dog to track unfaithful students, especially if you’re an expat from a country with a worthless currency.

Don’t automatically assume that your supervisor will review and return your documents (manuscripts, write-up plan, …) within a few weeks. Some of my best friends are supervisors who have kept student drafts for over a year on their desks, as if it’s a bottle of wine that will improve with age.

One my closest friends was left alone in the dark by a supervisor who managed to read 4 out of 46 pages of literature review over 3 years. That student is now on extension and awaiting comments from the supervisor. When the great day dawned, the long-awaited comment was: “You have a great and well-regarded supervisory team that can guide you well if you let us”. Who’s fooling whom?

Your supervisor needs to give evidence of a complete understanding of your situation. This is about your life. Let your supervisor in on every medical condition, family issue, financial problem, or bizarre cultural practice. Insist that your supervisor understands every issue fully and shows sensitivity. If you have recently undergone surgery, demand that the supervisor devises a plan to relieve you of proposed data collection for six months.

A PhD candidate I know incurred a brain injury causing complete memory loss and major loss of balance at the start of a study extension. This entailed suspending work and spending a year visiting rehab centres. After relearning simple words like worm, snail, and Lumbricus terrestris, a marginal recovery enabled this candidate to complete the PhD and begin a new life.

Guess what? During that year of rehab the mostly-extinct well-regarded supervisor must have metamorphosed into a fossil – after a whole year he still had not reached page 5 of a 46-page literature review.

Never underestimate the importance of a thorough biopsy of your potential PhD supervisor.

Farzin Shabani