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

Photo by mentatdgt from Pexels

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!

References

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.

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Zhanna Chenenk: studying theatre at Birkbeck

Moscow native and former MA Text and Performance student, Zhanna Chenenk reflects on her year at Birkbeck.

What made you decide to study at Birkbeck?

I was looking for an MA in theatre. I was intrigued by the Text and Performance course thanks to its mix of academic and practical disciplines with the bonus of being able to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA).

Could you tell us about moving to London?

When I was sixteen I moved from my parents’ house in a small town close to Saint-Petersburg in Russia. That was a very stressful experience; a big city, a different culture, a huge distance (2000 kilometres) between myself and my family. Before coming to Birkbeck I had moved and travelled a lot and lived in many different cities, but it is still very hard to start from scratch in a new place. I arrived just before the course began and spent around a month searching for the right accommodation. I encountered many different people which was an interesting introduction to London life.

How was it coming to study at Birkbeck at first?

Before I applied for the course I met with a Birkbeck representative in Moscow to clarify some issues and later, when I was in London she took me on a tour of the campus and RADA. I liked the arts building as there is no logic to the room locations and you can easily find an empty space for a rehearsal.

Have you encountered any difficulties? How is the British system different from your country’s? Have you been to study skills sessions?

It was hard getting used to the British system, and once you’ve learned to cope with it, the year is over. Writing in a different language is a challenge in itself, but in addition this you are writing in many different ways; academic and narrative style, essays, scripts and portfolios. You even have to perform on stage in English – but I finally feel very comfortable using it. Now I feel it in my body. My program involved constant switching between practice and academic lessons and I wish I had more time to perfect everything.

What is it like living in London?

It took time getting used to London. Sometimes I loved it. I enjoyed wandering through the jungle of a city with my sketch book, but sometimes it was very oppressive. To escape these feelings, I travelled to new places like Berlin or Paris or Palestine, or even within the UK. I especially liked going to Brighton, Liverpool and Manchester! Most recently I discovered the Yorkshire Sculpture Park! The transport in London is also tricky to get used to and although I loved the poeticism of night buses, I hated using them during the day. Ultimately, opinions of cities are always built out of the opportunities that they give, and the connections you make. Not just the bricks and mortar which make it up.

Have you made friends on your course?

My course was international, so I’ve gained many connections across the world over the year. I participated in workshops and took on internships, so I’ve been able to build up my professional contacts to build a career upon.  London has been good to me. Whilst here I’ve met people who I have connected easily with. And even if some of them leave the UK soon I know that I have gained a wealth of friendships. I found my tribe here.

What has been your highlight of your time in London and at Birkbeck?

I would say that it has been good for me to review some of my personal values. Some of the things which were once important to me suddenly became very small. The same with my relationships; I revised all of them. I started to draw and take photos again. And I started writing. I found my experiences in London coming back to me in Berlin, when my friend asked me write a short story for his magazine. Thanks to the development of my language skills I was able to do this in in one morning and drew a picture to accompany it.

Can you tell us a little more about your dissertation?

I chose a practical path for my dissertation. For this I did a presentation – a 30-minute production and an 8000-word analytical portfolio. I chose to focus on women’s choices and the freedom to shape yourself as an artist. I have really enjoyed it, because I have had time to focus on one thing that I find interesting. It has also allowed me to make mistakes in the safety of an academic framework. I’m happy that I have had time to make these mistakes as they have taught me valuable lessons.

What are you doing since you completed your studies at Birkbeck?

I took on a thorough research tasks for my performance and now I have material to extend the performance into a trilogy. But, for now I am applying to take part in festivals for emerging directors with the presentation I created as a part of my dissertation. As for my other plans, details of these can be found in newspapers.

Further information:

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Spotlight on: Bio-business

Current and former students of Birkbeck’s MSc Bio-business discuss how the course, which focuses on entrepreneurship and business in the bioscience industry, has impacted their lives and careers.

Sophie DeFries, Bio-business alumna: I obtained my BSc from St Andrews in Cell/Molecular Biology then went on to receive an MSc from London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in Medical Microbiology. My post-university work experience has been in market research and consulting in the healthcare industry. I began at a market research agency in the oncology business unit solving pharmaceutical client brand strategy needs. Currently, I work for a marketing and sales management consultancy where client projects have a wide scope of therapy areas, drugs, and business objectives.

I was drawn to Bio-business because it’s meant I’ve been able to transition between laboratory-based sciences to commercial/business world of science and healthcare. It’s been useful for figuring out what specifically in the bio-business industry is appealing to me. The number one benefit, I would say, is that the course connected a great group of like-minded, smart, and driven classmates, and London is a perfect city to study in – international and diverse, lots of jobs and networks, and a fun atmosphere.

Developing my business skills has been very useful for working in consulting and understanding business jargon. The fact that the course has a connection between business and science has allowed me to analyse the biotech and pharma market independently and with confidence.

Alba Ruzafa Martín, Bio-business student: I studied Biology back home in Madrid and after working in a lab for one year I decided that “lab-life” wasn’t for me. Then I decided that industry would be an interesting path to follow, so I started to look for a master’s and I found Bio-business at Birkbeck. For me, it was the perfect option. Not only because of the modules on offer but also because I needed (and still do need) to work full time.

For the first year and a half of the master’s I was a sales assistant, but the experience and knowledge I gained through the course has enabled me to get an internship in Imperial Innovations at Imperial College London, where I have been working for the last almost five months.

The best thing about studying in London for me is the number of different people you get to know. You learn something new every day, you can go to a new place every time you go out. I am not going to lie to you, the city is freaking expensive and sometimes it gets a bit hard. But for me, it has been totally worth it.

Igor Smyriov, Bio-business alumnus: I had been looking for a master’s degree in business with a focus on biotech and life science for more than two years before I found the MSc Bio-business at Birkbeck. It had everything I was looking for: the option to study part-time in the evening, the central London location, and a huge variety of modules to study.

I was surprised to find so many highly regarded industry professionals, as well as Birkbeck academics, involved in delivering the modules and have opportunities to network with them.

The opportunity to learn entrepreneurial business skills in the life sciences sector was essential to my choice to study Bio-business. My degree has made me much more confident in understanding the business area of the subject. I was offered a few opportunities to join start-ups as a business advisor, and now have secured a role as a manager, so I have left my lab role.

London is a hub for all-around development and all industries. All world leading companies have offices in London or around it. You have the opportunity to meet and establish good relationships with international professionals coming to London for conferences or meetings.  And because Birkbeck students study in the evenings, you can be involved in daily London life.

Romina Durigon, Bio-business student: I was drawn to Bio-business by the desire to gain a deeper knowledge of the biotech and pharma sectors while networking and connecting with some of the most important companies and not-for-profit organisations in the UK.

I also wanted to understand how innovation shapes science and technology or vice-versa, as well as to study entrepreneurship finance, entrepreneurship innovation and management. This program is enabling me to write a business plan, to learn more about venture capitalist firms, investments, and other major factors impacting the growth or the failure of a business.

Studying both life sciences and business skills has enabled me to explore with more awareness of the various market opportunities and thus thinking more carefully about my next job. Dr Renos Savva, the Director of MSc Bio-Business knows and understands entrepreneurship very well and very often advises us about entrepreneurial skills and attitude. His knowledge together with his previous entrepreneurial biotech experience and advice are among the most important assets of this master’s. I would highly recommend the master’s if you are entrepreneurial or want to be an entrepreneur.

Bio-business students have the opportunities to know about the latest innovative technologies used in academia, biotech and pharma sectors. They have the chance to apply for internships in various companies and thus learn new skills while studying for their master.  More importantly, students will have the opportunity to liaise with the speakers invited to give a seminar and attend career track events where they can connect directly with employers and entrepreneurs.

The master’s has helped me to create a larger network and build new relationships with people that otherwise I would not be able to be in contact with or meet. By liaising with them I have the opportunity to discuss jobs’ opportunities, ask for advice or connect with someone else working in the sector that I most interested in.

Find out more and apply to study MSc Bio-business at Birkbeck. 

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