Preserving the essence of research

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What Should You Expect From Your PhD Supervisor?

By: Rizwan Yousuf

Under pressure to train productive lab members quickly, many PhD programmes in the biomedical sciences have shortened their courses, squeezing out opportunities for putting research into its wider context. Consequently, most PhD curricula are unlikely to nurture the big thinkers and creative problem-solvers the society needs. They need to be taught to recognize how errors can occur. Trainees should evaluate case studies derived from flawed real research, or use interdisciplinary detective games to find logical fallacies in the literature. Above all, students must be shown the scientific process as it is — with its limitations and potential pitfalls as well as its fun side, such as serendipitous discoveries and hilarious blunders.

Your supervisor will have some core responsibilities towards you and your project. These will normally include meeting to discuss your work, reading drafts and being available to respond emails and other forms of contact within a reasonable time frame. Some universities may formalise these commitments in a research degree handbook and you should consult this if so. Other universities may leave more of the details to the student and supervisor themselves.

In either case, the following are some of the basic expectations a PhD supervisor should fulfil:

Expertise in your field of study:

Your supervisor will be a specialist in your field of study. They’ll have prior research experience and a track record of publishing to support this assertion. They may have even supervised other students who were working on similar threads. They should be able to tell you whether you’re proposing a topic or method that has been done before. They will be able to give recommendations and assist you in getting started if you are looking for information to review for your literature study. It’s important to be aware of this and not to rely on your supervisor to understand your project for you.

Supervisory meetings must hold on a regular basis.

These are the nuts and bolts of a supervisory relationship. Whatever your project, you can expect your supervisor to set aside regular time for one-to-one meetings and discussion of your work. How regular these meetings are will be up to you and your supervisor to decide (though your university may set some guidelines). You’ll also have the freedom to set up a schedule (and venue) that works for the two of you. This could be a corner of the lab, your supervisor’s office or even just a coffee shop on campus. Once this schedule is agreed you can expect your supervisor to be available at appointed times and to have reviewed any drafts, data or other work sent to them (with sufficient notice).

Feedback on work in progress

Unlike other degrees, a PhD doesn’t normally involve any ongoing formal assessment. There are some exceptions such as first-year upgrade exams and training modules, but, ultimately, your doctorate will be judged on the strength of a single piece of work: the thesis you submit for examination at the end. So what happens to all the chapter drafts, data reports and other work you do along the way? Your supervisor looks at it and offers you feedback. This feedback is formative rather than summative (you won’t be given a grade) but it’s still incredibly important. In the early stages of a PhD feedback will help ensure you’re on the right track (or get you onto it). Later on you’ll know more about your project than your supervisor, but they’ll still be able to tell you how effectively presented your results are and how persuasive your argument is.

Advice and encouragement

Contact with your supervisor doesn’t need to be restricted to scheduled meetings. They should also be able to offer advice on a more ad hoc basis. This won’t normally extend to immediate feedback on impromptu chapter drafts sent over at 3am on a Monday morning, but you can expect a response to questions or ideas emailed during office hours. Remember that one of the key things a supervisor offers isn’t topic expertise-You haven’t completed a PhD before, they have. That problem which seems insurmountable to you probably isn’t so and your supervisor will be able to help you see why.

Advocate and mediation

For most of your PhD, your supervisor will ‘represent’ the university to you. They’ll be your most frequent point of contact and will be responsible for ensuring you do the things your institution expects of you. Those include the obvious (researching your PhD) but can also cover other areas such as professional development, progression monitoring and compliance with any ethical policies. You probably won’t find the associated paperwork to be the most thrilling part of your PhD, but can take heart from the fact that your supervisor will probably agree with you. As well as representing the university to you, your supervisor will also represent you to the university. They’ll understand the peculiarities of your project, together with any specific needs or circumstances you have as a researcher

The writer is a Research Scholar at SKUAST JAMMU. [email protected]

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