A Supervisor’s Role After You Graduate

As we come to the end of Supervision September here on Thesislink, let’s think ahead.

When you’re conducting your research and writing your thesis, the general role of your supervisors is clear. Heck, it’s spelled out in university policy. The supervisors are there to guide you, provide advice, review drafts, make suggestions, introduce you to helpful resources and new colleagues, and generally support you in your academic work.

And if that all goes well, you finish and graduate. Yay! Congratulations! Well done! (This is a massive oversimplification of completing a thesis. I wish it was that easy.)

Photo by litlnemo under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

But then what?

What happens to that carefully curated supervisory relationship? Your supervisors are no longer getting paid or recognised for helping you, so… are they done?

When I graduated with my PhD a few months ago, I asked my supervisor to write me a reference. I figured I’d get him to sing my praises while my work habits were fresh in his memory. I’d get a (hopefully complimentary) multi-purpose document to keep on file, ready to whip out every time I applied for some kind of professional opportunity. That way, I wouldn’t have to bug him for a reference later, once he’d forgotten who I was.

To my total shock, my supervisor said no.

He didn’t want to write one multi-purpose reference. He preferred – in fact, he insisted on – writing custom references whenever I should need them.

This struck me as odd. He is incredibly busy. Plus, he has supervised so many students over his career. Is he crafting customised references for all of them, constantly, in perpetuity? How many hours a day does he work?

This was no empty promise – he has already made good on it several times, spending hours laboring over detailed purpose-written references on several different occasions.

Maybe he’s extra-dedicated because he was my sole supervisor. Maybe he’ll put less effort into future references, once I’m a little more established in my field. Maybe I’m just lucky. Whatever the case, it seems that (at least some) supervisors remain supportive of their former students well after the end of their official obligations. In fact, seasoned supervisor Pat Thompson has written about a kind of ’empty nest’ feeling when her students graduate and move on.

So it’s clear that some kind of enduring relationship between graduates and supervisors is often welcome. But what form should that take?

In a best case scenario, you may be able to continue as colleagues and friends; staying in regular contact, perhaps co-publishing, drawing on each other’s experience and connections in a mutually beneficial relationship.

Even if your supervisors seem somewhat uninterested in that level of contact, you can always follow them on academic social media (Academia.edu; ResearchGate, etc) and maybe exchange an occasional email or two.

Either way, it’s good to know that the doors to that relationship don’t necessary slam shut the moment you throw your cap in the air.

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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