I’ve written before about how I perceive my role as a PhD supervisor. I wrote about being given the honour to guide another person on their travels through a foreign, academic country. I wrote that as a guide who have travelled this way before, you are aware of the culture and the rules applied, and you can help the new traveller to find their way – but the experience is uniquely personal and each PhD student has their own journey to go through:
I think supervising PhD students is very much about guiding them through a new world, and a new culture. In order to feel safe when you enter this world, you have to be able to trust your guide, both when it comes to the knowledge they have but also that they will tell you about unspoken rules and regulations in this new setting. Being this guide requires structure (meeting places, deadlines), but also allowing freedom to explore (everyone needs some time to enjoy the grand palace on their own, right?). I may not always be able to answer all questions asked, but I’ve been down this road before and I can help you find the answers on your own. I hope to make the experience a pleasant and inspiring one, even when the weather is really a little too hot, and the 9-monthold baby have lost interest a long time ago… but I am also aware that the experience is ultimately yours and all tourists/PhD students have their own preferences, personalities and background knowledge.
Finally, when we rush to the tour bus to get back to the hotel, and I’m pushing you along although you don’t really feel ready to leave yet – I hope you will not only be annoyed with me, but think back on the time we spent together with joy!
When the PhD journey is over there’s a great celebration and joy of course, but there’s also a sense of melancholy, even sadness. Almost like a post-partum depression (yes, I have sometimes compared writing a PhD thesis to giving birth too, but without the epidural), what happens now? Am I ready to take on this responsibility? During 4 (or 5? or 6?) years you have worked so hard to reach this goal – and now it’s done. Ok. It takes some time to find your balance and focus again, but this is absolutely natural.
Anyway, what I did not write much about before, was the special relationship that exists between the PhD student and the supervisor. Whether good or bad, it is unique. As a supervisor you have both power and responsibility and it is not a role to enter lightly. As a PhD student, you are dependent on your supervisors, but also growing to take on more and more responsibility for your own work and acting as an independent researcher. It’s not uncommon that the relationship between supervisor and student can become strained during this process, and sometimes become even conflicted. And during those last 6 months of finalizing papers, writing the kappa (thesis framework), and planning all the practicalities around the dissertation you may well loose your temper with that guide who is rushing you along.
Not always though. On the 21st of October my first PhD student defended her thesis and I couldn’t be prouder. Having worked with her for 5 years, we have been through rejected papers and applications, celebrating publications and enjoying conference travels all over the world. And I’m amazed that she didn’t once yell at me 🙂 Rather, she took the time to, while completing her thesis, also paint this amazing gift for me. Needless to say, I was at a loss for words when she presented it to me, and the speach I had prepared was completely lost.
But it’s never too late, right? So, here goes: Nadia, I’m extremely proud of you, and honoured to have been your guide. Thank you!