A guide to mentoring PhD students

What constitutes a good PhD mentor and mentee? In this blog, Professor Jean-Marc Dewaele from the Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication shares his thoughts on how to navigate PhD supervision for both students and supervisors.

Two women chatting

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I was recently invited to contribute a chapter on the supervision of doctoral students and one the delicate management of the supervisor–supervisee relationship from the first contact to the post-graduation goodbye (Dewaele, 2020).  Having led 26 Birkbeck students to their PhD as first supervisor allowed me to reflect on the uniqueness of each relationship and on the commonalities.  I realise that my perceptions might help current PhD students in handling their relationship with their supervisor(s) and their fellow students.

The most crucial aspect is the establishment of a relationship of trust and mutual respect, where constructive criticism is appreciated, where the scientific creativity and independence of the student is encouraged and where the student’s expectations are handled appropriately.

As in any relationship, there may be moments of strain and crisis and it is the supervisor’s responsibility to deal with this in a professional manner. Good supervisors are close to their students but not too close and the distance can change over time. In their book about the supervision of MA students, Harwood and Petrić (2017) explain that “different supervisees need supervisors to occupy different roles at different times” (p. 9).

I realise that as a PhD supervisor I am typically more directive at the beginning of the research project and allow more freedom and flexibility later on.  It is not unlike relationships parents have with their children, allowing them gradually more independence until they reach adulthood.

Metaphors are particularly useful in grasping abstract concepts. In the satire, Candide, ou l’Optimisme (1759), Voltaire famously wrote in the conclusion “il faut cultiver son jardin”, meaning “that we must take care of our garden”, away from the hustle and bustle. It is good to visualise a PhD research project as a private garden, to which the student can retreat to tend it, to plant flowers, to prune the trees lovingly, and to wonder where to install that water feature or statue. Spending some time in the garden is good for the garden and for the gardener’s soul, though digging can cause blisters to appear.  Conversations with fellow students allows a useful comparison of gardens. It helps understand that bigger is not necessarily better and that gardens can come in all colors, shapes and sizes.

I have had some interesting exchanges with students about the PhD being a transformative experience because it forces one to do a lot of thinking.  And because it is so long and so intense it can -and should- trigger cognitive and emotional restructuring. Students come out of this as more resilient, independent and confident (and sometimes also humbler) people.

It is also crucial to understand that comparisons with other (former or current) students can only be superficial and that having more or less of this can only refer to a very small part of a much bigger hidden picture.  My colleagues and myself love all our PhD students who work hard.  They are all bright and the fact that one can jump higher, or run faster, or cook better should be of no concern to the others.  Being unique individuals means they all have unique strengths and weaknesses.  They all face unique challenges that may sometimes stop them from reaching their full potential (like long-standing family or work issues, or a momentary problem like a numbing migraine at the viva).  And that is OK too, because each student gives it their all – professional, family and health situation permitting.

This reminds me of karate where it is also crucial not to compare oneself too much with fellow karate-ka.  Some are great at kumite (fighting), others are great at kata (choreographed patterns of 20 to 70 moves, with stepping and turning, that have to be executed while attempting to maintain perfect form), others might not excel at either but have great resilience, attitude and humility.  The standard for the black belt varies slightly according to age and health.  Being 18 or 70 makes a difference, and yet both are able to get the black belt if they can show that they have mastered the techniques and the spirit of karate, and that they are as fit as they can be and can take a solid kick in the stomach.

It is the same for getting a PhD. Supervisors make sure that students reach the threshold but how far they go above it is not really crucial. If they can, of course, they should.  That’s also why I’m so happy that no grade is awarded for a British PhD.  It either Pass or not Pass, like a driving test. If former students later end up winning prizes for their work, everybody will be proud of them, but if they don’t, they won’t be loved any less!


Dewaele, J.-M. (2020). Supervising doctoral students and managing the supervisor-supervisee relationship. In L. Plonsky (Ed.), Professional development in applied linguistics: A guide to success for graduate students and early-career faculty. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, pp. 153-163.  https://doi.org/10.1075/z.229.11dew

Harwood, N., & Petrić, B. (2017). Experiencing Master’s supervision. Perspectives of international students and their supervisors. London: Routledge.


2 thoughts on “A guide to mentoring PhD students

  1. It has been a pleasure to cultivate my garden with you! It must be very rewarding for you to see how these gardens flourish in so many different ways, years after you helped planting the seeds 🙂

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