Supervising (postgraduate) research

I recently attended a workshop on supervising research students, focussing on PhD students in the sciences. Like with all such workshops, a lot of what was said was “obvious” (for some value of “obvious”), but there were also a few interesting points.

The first “obvious” point was one that is always worth re-stating, the one of selection bias: the workshop necessarily concentrates on the supervision of problematic students. Also, as tempting as it is to spend time talking with the students who are working well and producing interesting results, it’s important to “force” one’s self to spend time on the less pleasant task of working with the problematic students who ipso facto don’t have such fascinating results to report.

One topic of discussion was how to motivate basically sound students, keep them focused, and get them over the finish line. The point that I found interesting here was that, towards the end of a PhD, there can be a potential divergence of interests, as students and supervisors find themselves interested in different “next moves”.

The next question was the extent to which we as supervisors should try to push weaker students through their PhD. The main points that I took from this part of the discussion were:

  • There absolutely has to be good communication between supervisor and student, starting even before the PhD start date, so that each party understands the other’s expectations. If the mis-match is severe, then don’t proceed! (At least, not with that supervisor-student pairing: another supervisor might suit the student better.)
  • A serious hurdle at the end of the first year of study is very useful. Allowing a student to get out after a year with a Master’s degree can be a much better option for all concerned than dragging out a PhD which produces no joy for the student and no good-quality research.

There was also some discussion of co-supervision, when a student has two academic mentors. In this situation, all the usual interpersonal complexities are multiplied, and the risks of things going wrong can be increased by mixed messages, not decreased by burden-sharing. It’s important to make sure that co-supervision is academically rational, and it is much easier if one supervisor is the primary, with most of the responsibility (and most of the credit); this avoids the confusion that can arise with 50/50 splits.

The final topic of discussion was how “safe” a PhD project should be. I was reminded of the choice that my PhD supervisor offered me very early on in my PhD, essentially between a risky, innovative “leap forward”-type project that could well have fallen flat on its face versus a low-risk conventional one with a lot of hard technicalities. He didn’t phrase the choice as such at the time, and in fact just left me to select whichever project felt right for me, so this was risk management by stealth!

As it turned out, I chose the “risky” project, deriving rate-independent processes as scaling limits of viscous evolutions in random media. I didn’t attempt the other “risky” one, deriving the Navier–Stokes equations as scaling limits of particle dynamics. A year after me, Lisa Harris (now Flatley) took on the very hard technical project of establishing crystallisation in three space dimensions, which led to some interesting geometrical supporting results.


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