“Insider secrets” to make your supervisor think you are great?

Are you getting the best out of your supervisor? Is he giving you enough time? Are you getting the benefit of his knowledge and experience? Will he give you are great reference when you try to get onto the career ladder?

I have been a student of an excellent but highly demanding supervisor. I almost quit twice.  I wanted to commit suicide because I thought I was not good enough to get a PhD. I was under a lot of pressure and anxiety and learnt a great deal. I remembered high pressure makes diamonds. The experience has been one of the greatest foundations for my later successes. I would not change it for anything in the world. I have also supervised several dozen students for their PhD. My advice comes from being on both sides of the fence.

“Tough times never last, but tough people do!” – Robert Schuller

Lets start with some simple powerhouse questions? What are your needs and what are you supervisors needs?

What do you want?

Write down  as many answers as you can in 30 minutes and write as fast as possible. Do this now before you read the rest of this post. Here are some of my answers

1. I want to benefit from his knowledge when I am writing research papers, preparing presentations, writing technical reports or thesis and preparing for the dreaded viva.

2. I want support and guidance when things are tough both academically and emotionally

3. I want help navigating through all the paperwork and tedious monitoring processes that all universities have in place now.

4. I want timely feedback on my work and reassurance that I am on track to finish my PhD on time.

5. I want to see him straightaway when I need him and not a few weeks later because he’s busy.

What questions did you come up with? Frame them in simple and specific language.

Next you need know the needs of your supervisors. What do you think he wants? Write as many answers as you can in 30 minutes. Do it now. Compare your answers to these two questions. What are similarities between the two set of answers? What are the differences between what you want and what he wants?

If you have done this exercise you will find that you and your supervisor want the same things. However, whilst you are solely focused on your PhD project he has other things on his mind. He will have a number other research students, teaching commitments and administration duties. He is also trying to climb the career ladder. He has a family and personal life. You are starting out and he will be some distance ahead of you. Hence, you have an incredible opportunity here to learn more than what is needed for a PhD. For him to let you into his private world you will need to build trust and rapport. This isn’t as difficult as it sounds. You have to find creative ways to meet his needs. Now write down as many as possible ways in which you can support him. Spend again about 30 minutes.

Here are two powerful areas for your to think about.

1. Always take the initiative to organise meetings.

You must:

a) Take notes

b) Have all the paperwork at hand for both of you

c) Have a clear agenda. Make sure he knows how long the meeting will be and what you want to cover.

d) Prepare thoroughly for the meeting, read all the papers, plans and journals.

e) Print out anything that need signing and have copies of anything that may come up.

f) Use you common sense and anticipate.

g) Be super organised but very pleasant, helpful, flexible and friendly. Smile :)))

f) Always be early for the meetings and never ever be late. Get there a minimum  of 15 minutes early. If he is busy then wait patiently and use the time wisely. Keep preparing for the meeting so that both of you will get maximum benefit.

2.   Create a “Dropbox” folder which you can share with him so that all the paperwork he will ever need.  He can access instantly from anywhere in the world. I suggest you put the following items in.

a) Your research proposal and plan

b) Annual monitoring and progression forms.

c) A record of all your meetings and agreed set of actions.

d) Literature review.  Make it the latest version – because it will change with time as new research becomes available.

e) Your research papers if you have published something. Well done.

f) All the presentations you have given.

g) All the background papers with suitable indexing. These should be the most relevant ones to your project.

h) Dates of all the meetings and relevant conferences.

i) Miscellaneous –  ask him if there is anything else he needs.

This will also be very useful to you throughout your PhD. It will help you a lot at writing up and viva stage.

“We are what we repeatedly do; excellence, then, is not an act but a habit” —Aristotle

You must fulfil his human needs and these are:

1. Certainty and control. This is done by being prepared, having good records, organised and detailed lab book, files of all the papers and very organised literature in folders, always being on time and meeting all deadlines. You must be reliable, hardworking and trustworthy. You must always tell the trust in any situation.

“While we may not be able to control all that happens to us, we can control what happens inside us” – Benjamin Franklin

2. Contribution. Always provide plenty of opportunities and time for your supervisor to contribute to your work. Do this with reports, papers, chapters and thesis. Do not send him a 50 page literature review and expect feedback in a few days or a week. Give him at least 2-3 weeks for major pieces of work. He has other commitments so be mindful of his time and schedule. Ask him for advice whenever you can. People like to help. It makes them feel valuable.

3. Gratitude and Appreciation. For any tiny piece of advice, time and contribution make sure you express your gratitude with honest and sincere thanks. Always be grateful and thankful and more help and achievements will flow to you almost effortlessly.

“Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it” – Arthur William Ward

4. Variety.  As scientists, engineers, writers etc we seek adventure and variety. Make sure you have something to discuss anytime you see him. It may be a new piece of research that has been published, your new results and what they mean, new conferences coming up or good news in terms of funding and achievements of people in the field. Read relevant trade journals. Read the New Scientist, Nature, Science and relevant Websites. So when you see him next he will expect to learn something new from you.

Nothing is pleasant that is not spiced with variety – Francis Bacon

5. Love and affection. Always appreciate your supervisor for what he has done for you. He may be harsh to you at times usually because he wants you to work hard and succeed. Everyone goes through this phase. Even if you feel bad say good things about him to everyone including other students, staff and externally at conferences and meetings. His one small action can be of immense and lasting benefit. You can’t afford his criticism at any time in your career. I remember getting my first job as a Research Scientist with General Electric Company when the job market was very difficult. Everyone was getting dozens of rejections. My supervisor casually told some scientists at a meeting that I was hardworking and one of his best students. I was invited to apply for the position 18 months into my PhD and was offered the post in a very friendly and informal interview.

6. Growth and expansion.  We have an innate desire to grow and improve. Make sure that you contribute to his growth. Suggest ways in which the group can expand and grow. Give him ideas for new projects. Help him with his proposal writing by giving him all the information he needs such as relevant papers and new ideas on how they can be implemented. Suggests ways in which the laboratory facilities can be improved. Challenge him gently by proposing new theories and approaches and make sure you listen for his contribution and opinions.

“We need men who can dream of things that never were.”  – John F. Kennedy


Do you have advice you ideas you can add? Do you want to write a guest post? 

Add comments below or contact me for blog posts. I would love to hear from you. 


One response

  1. Reblogged this on Computational Physics Group and commented:
    Yet another good post from Prof Waqar Ahmed

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