What Supervisors Wish PG Students Knew: Part 1

When I emailed AUT’s supervisors to ask what they wished their postgraduate students knew, I thought they’d be too busy to respond. Oh boy, I was wrong. My inbox lit up. Over 50 supervisors from a wide range of disciplines took the time to share their thoughts.

The most obvious thing about their responses was that they weren’t consistent. Supervisors are all different, and want different things from their supervision experiences. For example, some wanted to receive only polished writing, while others were willing to work with imperfect drafts. Some wanted to understand their student’s lives outside university, while others wanted a purely professional relationship. Some romanticised the postgrad journey, while others saw it as a time of distress.

Although the emails I got from supervisors showed that there’s no such thing as the ‘typical’ supervisor, they did reflect a lot of shared concerns. Lots of supervisors wanted their students to understand something about writing, or about the postgraduate journey – I’ve shared a selection of those comments below. Many also were concerned with research practice and workload – look out for those comments in part two of this post on Friday.

And if you haven’t already, read Monday’s post about what PG students wish their supervisors knew.

So here we go… what do supervisors wish their PG students knew?

(Please note that responses are completely anonymous, and any identifying information has been removed. Some responses have also been edited for clarity and length.)


On writing

Photo by Stanley Dai on Unsplash

I would like to see my research students developing their own voice in their writing. Quite often they put [another] author’s voice first, hiding their position in the background.

I wish my students could write clear introductory paragraphs!

Things don’t have to be perfect. We need to see your writing regularly, with all its faults. This helps us help you. Don’t leave it to the last-minute.

Always proofread and spellcheck your drafts before giving them to your supervisor – learning to write well is an essential postgrad skill! Your supervisor wants to focus on your ideas and arguments, not wade through bad spelling, grammar and prose.

A thesis is not a memoir, diary, description of a timeline or a place to describe the problems you encountered.

Work often gets undertaken in parallel; a written thesis however is a linear document and so needs to be written with this in mind.

Not everything you have done over the course of your research needs to/will make it into your thesis, nor should it, particularly if it does not strengthen your work.

Write, write, and write! You can read as much as you like, and think as much as you like. Even talk as much as you like. But we don’t award qualifications on oral contributions alone. In the end, you have to write.

I wish my students could understand that a thesis has a narrative. Put their minds into that of their readers i.e.: what does the reader know or not know at this point in the thesis, and what do they need to tell the reader at this point to progress the narrative?

If you get out of your pyjamas in the last month of writing your thesis you will be lucky.


On the PG journey

Photo by Warren Wong on Unsplash

The PhD thesis is one of the best times of their life… they just don’t realise it yet.

Your thesis journey will be as much emotional as it is intellectual… these are not called ‘divorce degrees’ for nothing. You can mitigate against damage by being clear with [loved ones] about what such intensive study will mean in real terms.

How you conduct yourself at uni is probably more important to your career than what you write. As a supervisor I will probably end up giving a verbal reference for you down the phone to someone who is thinking of employing you… they want balanced individuals enjoying complete lives – not inflexible geniuses.

I would want my supervision students to know I was ‘there’ for them; would hang in no matter how hard it gets.

Supervisors learn a lot from the supervision process and gain an enormous amount from the enthusiasm and creativity of their thesis students.

I like to hear about your difficulties at work or in life. The PhD is a long journey and you need to tell me when you need help. I am not going to question you for having problems; instead, I am going to make sure you overcome them.

I wish my PG students knew that pursuing a PhD programme is not a natural extension of the Masters programme. The PhD is an intellectually challenging process and can be emotionally draining. But it can be a rewarding journey that potentially leads to fruitful and meaningful research that can make a difference for others.

In the PhD, as in life, this quote from Rumi is very true: “It’s your road and yours alone. Others may walk it with you, but no one can walk it for you.” I am here to support you with all I can, but you need to own your PhD.


Thank you to all the supervisors who contributed to this article.

About Anaise Irvine

Dr Anaise Irvine is the Editor of Thesislink and leads the Researcher Education and Development team at Auckland University of Technology. Her PhD research analysed how contemporary films and novels represent genetic engineering as a social justice issue. These days she works with researchers at all levels to improve their research skills, and the most obscure of her own research skills is being able to turn novels into phylogenetic trees!

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