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I am currently applying for a position similar to an assistant prof where I will have the responsibility to supervise two PhD students. For this application I am required to provide a "supervision concept", which got me to thinking what kind of a supervisor I myself would like to be - but also, what structures, institutions, reguations, etc. are already out there, that help smooth the PhD process both for the candidates and the supervisor, that I myself don't know about.

Just for background, I did my PhD in Sociology, not in any kind of structured program (which is quite common around here), which means I had teaching responsibilities and worked on research together with my Prof/Supervisor and my Post-Doc, and whenever I had the time worked on my PhD research. My supervisor did a great job in answering all questions I had, told me about the importance of conferences and international peer reviewed publications, but otherwise sort of left me to my own devices. I had, for example, no fixed meetings with either my supervisor or a mentor or any other institution or personal, to see how things were going or whether I was on the right track, as they exist in some universities or programs. Over the years I've heard quite a bit about structured PhD programs (the good and the bad) from other scholars, and there is quite a few things that I thought were very useful, like having a fixed date on which a Prof from your program would check in with you on your progress and lay out the next steps with you.

What are things that you have/had implemented in your PhD program (or wished you had) that you wished supervisors would do or recommend the PhD candidates to do (like finding a mentor)?

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    Were supportive of me when those in positions of power had animus towards me.
    – jdods
    Commented Sep 30, 2023 at 1:18

5 Answers 5

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Mentoring is a complicated thing, so YMMV obviously.

Here’s a few:

  1. Presenting/writing your research is research. Ideas, good as they may be, are worthless if not written down well or presented well.
  2. Setting expectations: what do you want your student to do? What should they expect from you? Set short/mid/long term goals together. Some PIs have written “compacts” with their students, which can be helpful. This compact is a live document that gets updated every once in a while.
  3. Support: having your back when dealing with university administrators, introducing you to community members, ensuring you are productive and happy, resolving lab conflicts etc.
  4. Funding: funding your work, your travel, pointing you towards fellowships and summer internship opportunities…
  5. And of course: directing you towards good ideas, help you develop them as well as a broad research vision. Is this idea important? Why?

This is a very partial list, but these are my top items.

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    Regarding expectations: my university has a nice list of responsibilities, to be filled out independently by supervisor and student, and then discussed. This allows you to spot differences in opinion or misconceptions, such as who is responsible for idea generation and selection, who decides when research is ready to be written up in a paper, etc.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Sep 28, 2023 at 13:56
  • Do I assume correctly that "compact" in 2. should be "contract"? Commented Sep 29, 2023 at 8:35
  • Nope, it should be compact. "The term compact is most often applied to agreements among states or between nations on matters in which they have a common concern.". A contract has a more transactional context, whereas compact is more about reaching a mutual understanding
    – Spark
    Commented Sep 29, 2023 at 14:11
  • @xLeitix Can you post a link to that list? Commented Oct 2, 2023 at 21:25
  • @EthanBolker Unfortunately it's not public.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Oct 3, 2023 at 9:15
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When I started my PhD, we had a common research idea with my supervisor. After some time, the research evolved into a very novel area where he could not really help me anymore. Since I was very independent and happy to be on my own this was not a problem.

But he helped me enormously during my PhD by helping me to navigate the murky waters of Academia. He was a very kind person and was fixing things behind the scenes when I was moving fast and hard in the non-research areas (my teaching style was unconventional but students loved it and it showed during exams, I was in constant battles with the bureaucracy and medieval state-of-mind of many staff members, etc.).

I cannot emphasize how valuable that was. He saw me as an opportunity to inject some changes in the department, he knew that I would not stay after my PhD but wanted everything to just work out.

He was a very well established scientist, and yet he had enough stamina and genuine interest in the organization to help with changes and made tremendous efforts to ease the pain (for me) - which I was aware of and I told him a few times I was grateful for that.

So depending on your student, it may not always be pure research support that may be needed.

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I agree with all of the other answers. Here are some other things that my advisor (Bernd Sturmfels) did very well. I'm in math, so I'm not sure how much of this transfers to sociology:

(1) Networking. Bernd frequently invited me to meetings with visiting academics whom I thought I had common interests with, and promoted me as a possible speaker to conferences and seminars where he thought people would be interested in me.

(2) Helped expand my breadth of knowledge. I would frequently find copies of papers I head never heard of in my mailbox with an underlined paragraph and a post it note saying "is this like what you are doing"? Meetings would often conclude with e-mails with long lists of references to check for related ideas.

(3) Pushed me to do basic sanity checks early. Bernd is very good at figuring at figuring out what the first test of something should be, and challenging me to check it.

(4) Bernd always believed in his students' worth. It was obvious he cared about all of us and that he valued our ideas.

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The invaluable learning experience I had from my supervisor is simple: bringing in the money for the 3 years project my PhD was based. And bringing in money for the months I needed to close the PhD after project money finished.

24 additional months, to be precise. Finding money from a variety of sources with minimal distraction for me (kind of free money, once in my life).

All the rest is unnecessary cosmetical stuff, because a supervisor so committed to bring in money for you will do anything useful for your career (even finding money to send you to contribute to a workshop of their arch-academic enemy).

So, later when I was on the "took in PhD students" side of academia, I evaluated if I were ready to fight and spend some time (in addition to all the not-accounted research time, from conference travelling to paper editing and reviewing to doing admimnistrative crap) to also cover whatever delay they may have had in their "supposed enough" time to finish their PhD.

Happy ending (for my health): I quit the academia after 10 years of being so kind and spending on avg. 60 hours per week on what I liked, but that was unsustainable.

Good luck in finding a better approach ;) (My PhD advisor had very strong link to the industry, that is the way he did "the trick", if it may apply to your specific case).

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I'll share one important thing, in my opinion, that my supervisor did that helped me the most, as well as being the least helpful.

I had a very rough start of my PhD (middle of Covid and lockdown, as well as very impacting family situation), and my first year was basically hell for me. My supervisor had been very understanding on that, and it helped a lot, when I had to say "sorry, I was not able to do that" or "sorry, I won't be doing anything today because something happened again in my family and I can't even focus".

Not being pressured when you are not mentally able to support it is great. I was personally feeling very guilty of not being able to work or of losing time, and I don't know if I would have been able to cope if my supervisor was not understanding and was setting expectation for me to complete that I wouldn't be able to.

On the other hand, because there was little pressure, when things got better, it took me a long time to go over it and really swing back into doing research full time as I had little deadline not a lot of pressure.

In summary, I would say that having expectation (from the supervisor) on the work the student do is important, to avoid stagnation/lack of progress. However, those expectations should vary with the student performance/mental state. A PhD is not a job, and it has been observed that mental health in graduate study is not great1.

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