34

This question is motivated by the fact that my last research internship was unsatisfactory in my relation with my supervisor. Partly because of me, I may have tried to be too much autonomous, rarely coming to him or sharing what I was doing or reading and never asking feedback. We didn't produce much and by the end he shared with me his disappointment, which strangely was a bit surprising to me, I was blind to the situation and our lack of exchange.

Now, I'm about to start my PhD with a totally new supervisor, and I'd like to learn from this mistake. I'm deeply convinced that the experience will be much more fulfilling for both sides if we maintain stimulating exchanges.

I was thinking about having from the beginning a long discussion about his expectation from me on short, mid and long term, his availability and the way he would like to supervise and push me.

Is this irrelevant or too much? Have you already had similar discussions? Have you tried something else?

17

Having a discussion about the PhD project specifically and expectations in general is always a good idea. If there is a clear project lined up it will be useful to discuss the details, possible directions, publications etc. In some cases (systems/programs/traditions) it is useful (in fact mandatory) to write a research plan or to write a review of the field as part of reading up on it. It is necessary that both you and the advisor has the same view of what should be achieved to the extent the specific program allows.

Apart from the science it is useful to discuss expectations so that you can agree on how work should proceed. Should you meet regularly? if so how often? How much feedback should you expect? Well the questions are many but having such a discussion is useful, particularly if you can also note what you agree upon on a piece of paper. In my country, one actually signs an individual study plan that is followed up annually showing progress in terms of course work and research. having such a plan is actually constructive in that it makes it possible to see if you are on track and also identify if and when your plan needs revisions and goals may deviate from the originally proposed. But, of course, all this is something which to some extent is dictated by the traditions in the specific program.

So do take the opportunity to have a good talk about the future collaboration. you will robably sense if the discussion is received well by the advisor and adapt accordingly.

14

To echo some of the other comments here, I strongly recommend touching on topics beyond just science - your supervisor is going to be a very important figure in your life for several years if all goes according to plan, so in addition to things like the details of the project you're working on, I'd make sure to touch on the following:

  • Any "lab policies" they have, written or unwritten. For example, some folks really prefer if their people work with a particular programming language, operating system, etc. Some people could care less if you work remotely as long as they see you now and again, and some people want geographic proximity, and seeing your face in the office.
  • Working preferences. Are they a night owl, or a 9-to-5 type? Will they read drafts the weekend before a conference deadline, or do you need to get them weeks in advance? Do they want progress reports, or will they be happy/prefer with a finished product simply manifesting itself after weeks of silence?
  • Authorship policies - how much do they want you writing your own papers, taking ownership of your projects, etc.
  • How stable is your funding?
  • Teaching expectations, if there are any. Are there courses they think you should take?

Slightly later on, once you've clarified your own goals, I'd also suggest a talk with your supervisor about where you'd like to end up when you're done. Teaching? Research? Industry?

8

Just to add to Peter's answer, another that needs to be made clear are practicalities, including any other commitments that you have (e.g. work, volunteer work, family etc). I found having this discussion in the early part of my PhD program has meant that we have been able to adapt deadlines and meetings around my (full time) work schedule. This is also important if you are required to travel or conduct experiments.

Other logistical practicalities include medical conditions, financial constraints - these kind of thing do not need to be divulged in detail, but as they may affect the research (in a practical sense) - just to make the supervisor aware.

  • As to the "financial needs" in particular, it is a common practice to let the graduate students travel to conferences and to cover 1 or 2 semesters free of teaching from their advisers' grants (provided that the adviser has a grant and that the student deserves it). However, in most other respects, it is assumed that the student knows what he is doing when entering the graduate school and won't, say, make his long evening work hours an excuse for slow or poor progress (not even mentioning the failure to do routine course assignments or to pass the required exams). – fedja Aug 21 '13 at 2:18
  • @fedja from my own example, I have just about completed a PhD while working full time - I made sure my supervisors knew this and were okay with it. – user7130 Aug 21 '13 at 2:56
  • Sure. You should let them know, but you shouldn't expect a lot of special treatment because of that. They can and will be helpful with adjusting your exam schedules and other such things accordingly, but not with lowering the expectations. That's the only point I was trying to make. Do you disagree? – fedja Aug 21 '13 at 3:26
  • @fedja of course I agree, however, all I am saying is that they should be kept 'in the loop'. – user7130 Aug 21 '13 at 3:30
  • 1
    No argument here :) – fedja Aug 21 '13 at 3:34

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