Now a postdoc, I realise that this experience played a key role in shaping me as an independent researcher. It drove me to take a wider view of my research, and to develop additional skills which have proven to be invaluable in my research career so far (e.g. project and people management). Of course, there were also many challenges along the way, but in this blog post, I hope to provide some practical suggestions for overcoming (or even better avoiding) some of these, and making the most of your many supervisors:
Make sure you have a main supervisor
As the number of supervisors increases, the division of responsibility amongst them becomes more complex. The danger is, that the lines of responsibility become blurred and, you, the student fall through the gaps. To avoid this, ensure that your project has a main supervisor appointed, a person you can touch base with on a regular basis and assess whether your project is going in the direction you want it to go. They will be particularly important at the start of your PhD when you are still finding your feet and the many voices around you will feel overwhelming. As you move through your PhD, you will need this person’s support less.
Plan your supervisory meetings carefully
This may sound mundane, but I think this is probably the most valuable piece of advice I can give you. As a PhD student with five (busy) supervisors, I learnt that the way to get the best out of them was to hold formal meetings which were scheduled well in advance, were preceded by an agenda, and followed up by brief minutes, including clear action points.
It is important to direct the discussion with an agenda and chair the meeting around this. Having many supervisors surrounding you, all with their own strong opinions, can be intimidating at first. The discussion can, quite easily, become unstructured and unhelpful. By carefully thinking about what you want from your supervisors before the meeting, you can steer the conversation in the direction you want it to go and make the best use of the time you have with them.
When you’re working with a large group of people it is also easy to lose track of what was decided. So, make sure you keep records of these discussions to avoid any confusion, and send these around after a meeting, to ensure that everyone is clear about where the responsibility lies. All you have to do is flesh out your agenda, with key points from the discussion under each section. It doesn’t take long and gives you time to go over and digest everything that was discussed during the meeting.
Finally, think carefully about who needs to be at each meeting. Don’t waste your time, and that of your supervisors, by inviting the wrong people to the meeting. Although big meetings with all your supervisors are sometimes necessary (particularly at the beginning and the end of your PhD), you can have more focussed, efficient meetings with sub-groups from within your committee. In my case, if I wanted a detailed discussion about my modelling approach, I only invited my modelling supervisors and then emailed around a brief summary of the discussion to keep the others in the loop.
If you continue your career in academia, you will see that the process of chairing committees or panels is very similar to that of managing your supervisors. So, developing these people management skills is a really good investment.
Keep everyone updated
Maintaining good communication and keeping everyone updated is important, particularly as you are likely not to see some of your supervisors for long periods of time. Send regular email updates to everyone to keep them in the loop, and don’t be phased if you don’t receive acknowledgement from everyone (your updates will still be having the desired effect). Also consider setting up a shared drive where you can put any minutes and agendas from meetings, as well as any key documents you might be preparing.
Give clear deadlines for comments
If you need comments back on something you’ve written, give strict deadlines to your supervisors to get these back to you, and resist the temptation to respond to each set of comments as they come in. Wait until you have all the comments you need, then merge them into one document (or even better, ask your supervisors to comment on the same version within your shared drive) and only then, respond to them – this will make the process a lot more efficient.
Expect disagreements & don’t expect to be able to please everyone
I can guarantee you that, at some point, there will be some disagreement within your supervisory committee, or they will give you conflicting advice. As already mentioned, your supervisors are likely to have strong, differing opinions which can make it difficult to finalise publications and chapters due to the sheer number of (often conflicting) comments.
Don’t panic! Discussing and resolving these sorts of disagreements are what science is about. If you get conflicting advice from your supervisors, just remember it’s ultimately your PhD and you make the executive decision. You won’t be able to make all of your supervisors happy. As you go through your PhD you will get better at resolving these conflicts. Having many supervisors gives you the opportunity to hone these valuable project management skills.
Talk to someone if you have any concerns, as soon as you can
Unfortunately, things can go wrong when you have many supervisors, often for reasons outside of your control. If this happens, speak to someone about your concerns as soon as possible as things can rapidly spiral out of control. Your first point of contact are your supervisors, but if you don’t feel comfortable talking to them, approach your academic advisor (or equivalent), or your PGR office. Independent progress assessments or reviews are a good opportunity to flag up these issues – remember they are not only meant to assess your academic progress, but to offer oversight and support to ensure that you have the best chance possible of finishing your PhD. Doing a PhD with many supervisors is not easy, so don’t be ashamed to ask for help, or blame yourself.
Make the most of it
Finally, remember how luck you are. If you have many supervisors, that means that they are all likely interested in your project. And that means you potentially have (in my case) five times the amount of expertise available to you than someone with only one supervisor. This also means that you have multiple people who can act as your mentors, introducing you to their networks, and giving you access to different resources e.g. field sites, or computing equipment. I was able to work with and learn from some incredible researchers and mentors, each with their own individual expertise, and their own perspectives. Each of them taught me something different, and my PhD experience was richer for it. Take advantage of this and enjoy it!
Klara Wanelik is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of Liverpool
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