27

I am a PhD student in biosciences the U.K. and I am almost about to finish. I have a great relationship with my supervisor and overall they have supported me very well.

However, there are some things I think that he could have done which would have improved the experience; for example, going to a conference with them and introducing me to other experts in the field. Most of them are small points, but I think they would help any future students they have.

Given I am only a PhD student, I am hesitant to go to them with a checklist of improvements they need to make as a supervisor. Therefore, my question is, what is the best way to approach an advisor to offer advice on how they could improve their supervision without making myself sound too arrogant, or without giving unasked advice? Is there a way that would come off as being helpful rather than critical?

6
  • 10
    I agree that going to a conference with your advisor is a great thing - as far as you know, did they go with other students in the past? The whole Covid thing pretty much guaranteed that it could not happen for you in a timely fashion to introduce you to potential post-doc places, but that might not be their fault or desire in the first place.
    – Jon Custer
    Jul 14 at 22:09
  • 2
    You can openly talk about your experience, but dont expect that your advisor would care.
    – looktook
    Jul 15 at 8:54
  • @looktook or they may care, but while being willing to do these things, and already knowing, somehow it always slips and nothing happens. Or of course they may disagree
    – Chris H
    Jul 16 at 8:34
  • Try to avoid criticism, be polite... Jul 16 at 14:22
  • @Chris H in my opinion, PhD students are regarded only as a cheap labor.
    – looktook
    Jul 16 at 19:14
55

I think most of how to approach this depends far too much on your individual relationship, which no one here can know as well as you.

However, one general rule to keep in mind would be to stick to talking about things that would/could have helped you rather than things they did wrong/"need" to change.

You can even keep quite distant from their actions by simply talking about things you wish you had without mentioning their role at all.

For example, you could express that you wish you had been able to interact with more experts at other institutions through conferences earlier in your PhD career. You could ask them for advice now, or for retrospective advice ("what should I have done to have these opportunities?"). This makes it less of an accusative conversation and more of a collaborative one. Maybe your advisor will on their own offer suggestions of ways they could have helped with this, and it'll keep it in their mind for future students. Depending on your relationship, you may be able to state more directly how they could have helped, but I'd start the conversation first so it is about you and your goals rather than about them.

In general, and I've said this on other Q&As here as well, people in general don't like being told what to do, but they do like helping other people with their goals. "I need help meeting potential future post doc advisors" is a very similar ask to "introduce me to other professors", but they come off completely differently. Sometimes people may surprise you by not helping you the way you thought they might, but getting you to your goal in a different way. If that's your true goal, rather than getting them to behave a certain way, you still get what you wanted.

2
  • 18
    Another reason for taking this perspective: every student will have different needs. It is great (maybe even essential) to communicate your needs with your advisor. On the other hand, you don't want to prescribe your needs for all students. Your advisor will decide if those needs are relevant for their other students. Jul 14 at 17:58
  • +1 for the last paragraph. Maybe your advisor really doesn't like socializing at conferences but can find another way to help you.
    – Nathan S.
    Jul 16 at 22:20
12

Since you are (I guess) not an expert on supervision you may not offer advice on supervision. However, you are an expert on getting supervised by your advisor, so you are the best qualified person to give feedback about how the supervision went.

So my advice about this would be: Ask your advisor if they would appreciate some feedback about the process of supervision. Moreover, I totally agree with what Bryan Krause wrote: Focus on your experience.

3
  • 1
    I'm not disagreeing with any part of this answer, but would like to note: with their first PhD students/postdocs, most advisors are also not experts on supervision, and only have the experience on getting supervised by their past advisor(s). And the "supervision training" provided is often not very extensive.
    – penelope
    Jul 15 at 10:56
  • 1
    Fully agree! That's a good point and shows that feedback from "advisees" is important!
    – Dirk
    Jul 15 at 12:13
  • Yes, and the key part is "Ask your advisor if they would appreciate some feedback". Letting them decide if (and when) they want it makes all the difference in the world.
    – Jeffrey
    Jul 16 at 15:22
3

Some departments do exit interviews with graduating students. This is another venue where you can give feedback about your experience (with your advisor and elsewhere) via a 3rd party (sometimes it's the chair, or another professor doing the exit interview). Going to conferences with your advisor is a great point, and something that all the students in your department might benefit from not just those under the same advisor.

1
  • 1
    For that exit interview, or if you don't get one, there's also likely to be someone in the department with the role of improving supervision - a director of graduate studies or similar. They can help you - they'll have a good idea of expectations in your field/department, but you'll also be helping them
    – Chris H
    Jul 16 at 8:37
3

This a tough situation to be in. During my Ph.D studies I was lucky with my supervisor who actively engaged with me in my research. A friend of mine was unfortunate with his supervisor. About half way through the supervisor became heavily involved in a new discovery in his field and all but forgot his student. He was very difficult to engage with and my friend struggled for a while.

Personally, trying to give them 'advice' is not the way to approach this; you are of course the underling. First off I would try and work out why you don't get the support you require? Are you prepared when you meet him/her, is the research going well, are you approachable. You need to definitely make the right approach here and appeal to their vanity and ego. The most important thing to realise is that you don't know everything, you are keen to learn from their experience and any time you can get you should be grateful, take on board what they have to say and make sure that the supervisor knows this. Going to them saying, 'ahh can I give you some advice, you need to pay more attention to me....' can only make things worse.

2

Other answers focus on giving feedback on what would have helped you, and this is great advice. Additionally, you could frame the feedback to help junior members of the group. This is gives actionable advice that can be put to use now, which is more likely to have an impact.

Student X would benefit from attending conference Y with you. I would have benefited from meeting scholar Z earlier in my studies, and I bet they would too.

Often junior researchers have better relationships with each other than their senior collaborators. Through talking to other students you might know of things that would have helped you, and will help others. Or you might notice a junior student who has different needs than you, and you could offer advice on how to help them succeed.

I was very independent, but I don't think the other students work as well in isolation. They could make better progress, if you met with them once or twice per week.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.