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Supervisors: Friend or Freakin’ Scary?

Those of you who have completed a thesis of any kind will know that the relationship with your supervisor is often imperative to successful completion. Disagreements with supervisors (especially principal supervisors) can cause great difficulties, the same with supervisors who can’t always give you the attention you need.

Over the course of my two post graduate degrees I have had the same principal supervisor and despite the fact he has always been busy, and is even busier now, he has always made a huge effort to make sure that he can meet with me. Throughout the course I have also had several other supervisors who have come and gone but David has always been there. He has also imparted wonderful pearls of wisdom. My personal favourite is ‘you can’t edit a blank page’. That one definitely stuck with me! No matter how well you get along with your supervisor there will be times when you get a bit nervous about meetings. Have I done enough work? What if they don’t like my work?…or in my case, what do you do when you have done absolutely nothing? These are the sort of topics that Liss and I plan to cover in this post – how to tackle the supervisor meeting.

Even though I have been meeting with my supervisor for well over 3 years I still get that twinge of anxiety when we meet. While that is much less when I feel I have done a good job with my work, it’s always there. That probably has more to do with my perfectionist attitude than anything else! While meeting is always that little bit scary, especially if you’re a bit awestruck by your supervisor, in my experience it is best to completely honest. If you’re struggling let them know, if you can’t find sources, let them know. It’s in their best interest as well as your own for you to successfully complete your degree. That was something I was not aware of until recently, and as a result my thesis has suffered. For students like myself who have had personal dramas impact substantially on their progress; along with the difficulties, in my case of locating archival sources; it was nice to know even the uni is there to help. It’s in their best interest for you to finish. Everyone is in your corner, encouraging you. That’s something helpful to remember and something I wish I had know a lot earlier than two and a half years into my PhD. Uni staff are also very supportive if you are having issues with supervison. While I work well with my supervisor, not everybody does. It is at that point that changing supervisors may be an option. If you don’t like the direction they are sending you or the type of thesis they want you to write, and they are not open for discussion, or you feel you can’t discuss it with them, it is time to talk to someone. Even if a change in supervisor isn’t in order, perhaps an additional supervisor might be required. Changes in supervisor, or supervisory panel in my case, occur often. Students move, supervisors move…in my case I had two associate supervisors leave in the space of a couple of months and another associate supervisor had to be found. It has worked out well, I get on famously with my new associate supervisor and my thesis has now found a new direction and momentum and even though I still get that twinge of anxiety, I believe that no one will quite understand what you are going through except for your supervisor. They had to write theses at some point and every battle you face is one they most likely came up against themselves.

I thought I would finish up my waffling by sharing some blog and Twitter accounts of relevance. There are plenty of Twitter accounts and blogs by PhD students and their experiences (I’m one of them!) and they are definitely worth readin, but these are aimed at postgraduate students to help them with their thesis and life after graduating:

Literature Review HQ: Blog and Twitter
Thesis Whisperer: Twitter and Blog The section You and Your Supervisor is particularly relevant
Professor Is In: Twitter and Blog

A nice account to end on, not quite the same as the ones above but it is a nice site to check out – Gradness Madness: Blog and Twitter – Sarah

Unlike Sarah I am extremely new to working with a supervisor, I’ve had my supervisor since the end of 2009 but have only just begun my thesis. That first meeting can be nerve-racking, luckily for me I had worked out my area of interest when I was first put on to my supervisor, I then proceeded to sit on that topic for almost a year, not thinking overly much on any actual plans or ideas. Sarah is right when she writes that supervisors can be a source of great help – mine helped me in deciding on where to undertake my internship and we weren’t even meeting or working on my thesis yet! My supervisor, Andrea, helped me to use my internship as a source for my future thesis and I ended up interning at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

I’m in my final semester (yay!) of my Master of Cultural Heritage (Honours) and as an Honours course that means my final semester is a minor thesis. That ‘minor’ is a source of great relief, it means – unlike Sarah – I do not have a mammoth dissertation to write, Only 15 000 words. It may sound like a lot but believe me it isn’t. My first meeting was three weeks ago and even though I knew my topic I was nervous as all hell, wondering if I was going to be able to manage to explain what I am interested in or even why. If you have a good supervisor they will put you at ease, luckily mine is wonderful. As Sarah said, if you have issues or problems, tell them – they’re not there to make it difficult for you, they are there to help. Of course this is true with anything really, if you’re having difficulties or issues whether it’s at work or home it is usually best to lay it out. Nobody wants to be continually worried or feel like they are in it alone. Prior to my second meeting I was probably worse than the previous. I had been given tasks to do, I had been fine with my efforts until I got to uni, then all I could think of was “Oh shit, it was crap. Why did I send that? I’m so stupid why am I doing this”, as she was reading through it the first “good” was like a breath of relief. The great thing I’ve realised is that they don’t expect you to get it perfect, at least not right away :-). I have another meeting coming up in a week, so far I’m feeling good – probably because I have a better understanding of what I’m doing. I think the important thing is to try not to become overwhelmed – it isn’t easy – but if you focus on the task at hand (always keeping the big picture in mind) it’s easier to work through than “oh shit I have to write 15000 words by October”.

I think the main things to remember for a supervisor’s meeting or the tasks set during one are:

  1. Breathe
  2. Don’t focus on the end game – worrying about how big the thesis or topic is and what happens after simply don’t help
  3. Break it down into manageable tasks and set dates to be done by
  4. Tell your supervisor if you’re having difficulties and let them know if you don’t understand what they mean or what they are asking you to do
  5. Don’t try to be perfect, just do your best (on that note Liss, I remember being told that your thesis doesn’t have to be perfect. You’re only writing a thesis not a Nobel Prize winning piece. – Sarah)

I guess as long as you have a supervisor who is working with you, to get the best out of you, then they are a friend but that doesn’t stop them from being freaking scary!

About Cultural Caboodle

Cultural Caboodle is actually two students from the Melbourne and Geelong suburbs. We are Sarah and Liss, hello and it is a pleasure to meet you. I (Liss) - for the most part - do the writing, whilst my good friend Sarah largely takes care of the photographs you see. Though it is a shared task. Why, might you ask, are we doing this in the first place? A random afternoon in Melbourne prompted us to use a blog as an excuse to partake in the cultural delights of various locations not limited to Melbourne and Geelong. This includes (mostly) food and beverage related stores but also books, music, movies, television and numerous other entertainments on offer and of interest. So who are we? We are both seventh year students (gulp!) at Deakin University, I am in my final semester of my Masters degree whilst Sarah has a while longer on her PhD. Both history enthusiasts (Sarah's PhD is in history, it was my undergrad major), we both love food, coffee and tea. We also both love to read. We met on the first day of 'O Week' in our first year at uni, 2005. We found we were both majoring in history and taking anthropology. Though Sarah double majored in philosophy (she is a smartypants in the best way). Since then we went through three years together in our undergrads and then off following our owns paths but remain steadfast friends. Can you hear the music swelling? Ha, we often talk for hours about various topics ranging from religion to politics to history to music to movies to books to family. Often our opinions are the same but that does not stop us from discussing them for hours, usually over coffee or tea. Though we have much in common, we each have our own taste when it comes to food, books, music, movies, television and various other pursuits. All this and more we will discuss in our posts. There is only one thing we ask, though various books, movies, television shows or music may be politically or religiously inclined we will not be discussing our own personal political or religious views, this blog in meant for lighthearted fun, and to share our interests, any comments deemed inflammatory or inappropriate Cultural Caboodle will be removed.

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