By Anup Chowdhury
Before, I start running my blog with beautiful scientific discoveries, the topic for today is about supervisor and supervision,something which has always stuck my heart, because as a master and doctoral student I have had the experiences. The experiences are continuing as my PhD progresses at its end. I have always thought to write about it and here it goes. I have penned down my experiences and I have raised questions about it in many places which you will find while you read it.
I am presenting my experience about, what important role does a supervisor play in graduate studies (especially,during PhD research work).
This post is meant to be an eye-opener, rather than negativing anybody or organisation.
If you come across the article, I would be more than happy to receive your comments.
How important is supervision in PhD studies ?
To start with,there are many students these days, who have a great urge to pursue research after their successful masters studies (here, I am mainly focusing on science graduates). We all know about the beauty of science, but it’s a long route until you start to see the big things happening in front of your eagerly eyes. It all happens in your masters, when you start to decide, what is that particular thing that fascinates you in science and you start working harder for it. Depending on from where you’re graduating (university and country), it takes a year or two to finish the master science programme. The major part of it is the thesis, which is generally a compilation of a short-research work. Master thesis is simpler compared to phd thesis, in which you may have some goals to obtain for the project you work upon. Some set-ups may already be available (only in rare cases, you may start a project from a scratch) and if you are lucky, you may be able to publish the work with others. In the UK., where I graduated Masters in Biotechnology, the thesis period was for three months period (shorter than my bachelors summer project in Delhi, India). I have not understood completely, why is Master thesis system is different from other countries like India, China or US, where a student gets ample amount of time to design his research, perform and conclude his short-research project. I was keen to study genomics, or molecular biotechnology, but it turned out that my grades weren’t enough for a master thesis project in such a area in a related research group in the university. Grades, is also something that pisses me off. (for me it were not that of poor grades, 60% in semester studies). I was confident on my practical skills and I also had a urge to learn new methods, to complete a research project in some of the challenging fields such as molecular cancer cell biology. With no time to think, I had chosen to work on DNA quadruplexes,by nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, for which I had no prior knowledge.
My first experience with ‘supervision’, which is the main argument of this article, had already started to build up during my masters. I am not going to enlist difficult moments I had, in this article, (as I would like to focus more on the impact of supervision in phd studies), but I have learnt many things out of it about supervisor and supervision. My supervisor was a phd, and had a small group (very-very small, consisting of 2-3 people, until I joined it. His psychology, which he had developed in some of creamy institutes in the US and UK, was that a master student was a slave and they should find their way by their own, in three months thesis period. The PhD students were asked not to monitor these master students. The funny thing was that he was a teacher of a course in the university and head of a degree course, and I also heard him saying that ”he has no time to spare for master students, which merely wastes his time”. The only question than arose to the students working for him was ”how the hell are we going to learn something”? But with our hard work, some luck and god’s blessings, we all manage to submit a thesis with his nil-demotivating research supervision. The experience was very bitter, but I moved on with it, with a different aim of doing research, irrespective of a supervisor’s behavior.
There are obviously, many types of supervisor, which I would not entitle as ‘bad’ or ‘good’, like a 2nd grader :).The Supervisor or Group Head or the Boss (whatever you would like to name it) is the person, who runs a research group, and basically generates scientific themes to work upon, not more than that. It’s bunch of students, postdocs, scientific staff and technicians, who work on the projects, headed by this person. His main role is to apply for money grants for conducting research on his ideas on the theme. Once he is successful, in bagging a lot of money, he hunts for brilliant minds, who can work for him being selected as doctoral or phd student by the university. To get into a proper research career, a MSc graduate has to pursue phd studies further, which is basically an extension to what you have learnt in your masters. Basically, you get more time to play around the techniques, what you have learnt over your bachelors and masters, in your phd. While in PhD, you spent 4-5 years (depending on the research project, supervisor, grant and university) on project/s collaborating closely with other fellow students and post docs. The collaborations also can happen with other research groups in the university or internationally.
He (the supervisor) is basically a Phd in that area of research or in a broad discipline, and also obtains professorship in the field in the university after years of hard work. The hard work, in short, can be described as collection of high impact journal publications, numerous amount of networking among other scientists globally, professional lab set-up, and eyeing to bridge academia to the industries. There are of course junior research groups, where the heads or supervisors are not yet professor or associate professor, but they can also conduct research activities with a bunch of people working for them. I will come to the point of supervision now. They are not to be labeled as good or bad because these people are highly qualified and intelligent and allowed to do great scientific work, but highlight is the attitude they carry effecting the people around them. Some of them you may expect as straightforward and others complex. I have even heard from my peers, that some of supervisors who graduated in US.( I mean who obtained a phd) appeared to be very different in behavior and ways of doing research. Some of them did’t hesitate meeting their graduate students often and some left their graduate students to bang their heads on the walls and to find their own ways.(where sometimes you may even have to think of research project of your own, because your supervisor was too busy to take care of you and research training, which honestly ‘sucks’ in my point of you.( I apologies to use ‘suck’ instead of disgusting, pouring my emotions :()
I have listened to many noble laureates and successful scientists talking over their prize winning sessions or in TED global conferences, how important it is that you have a great supervisor, who steps up in your success and failure.(i am pointing towards a graduate student success or failure). A keen graduate student will for sure, find his way, but don’t you think its harsh way of scientific training?. I am pretty sure that these supervisors know, how difficult is to make a name for themselves after a year long experience in their field of research?. A successful graduate student has to go through prolonged studies in his post doctoral or research associate work, where he is independently working on a project and simultaneously learning the nitty-gritty of obtaining grants and attending high profile conferences. If he is smart enough and serious thinker, he is successful in getting a dozens of high impact journal publications in his name. In scientific published work, what matters is that whether you have a lots of first author papers, which will demonstrate your credibility as an independent scientist. Returning to the point I was making, don’t you think harsh phd training can crush the passion you gather for your favorite scientific work? It is also easy to find a perfect supervisor for yourself, when selected for a phd programme. But, not all non-university organization gives your opportunities to select your supervisor, and if you are interested in a project, you just apply for it. Believe me, its not easy to identify the person, when you’re being interviewed. Even for post docs, it is sometimes hard to figure out the right employer for them. They end up leaving their job and changing the group or entering into industries or other fields. I myself work in a research institute than university, where the functioning of a research group is totally different than a university academic group (not going into details of it), where I selected my research group by online application. I am honored to have worked with a Marie curie European fellowship for certain projects for 2 years. My idea had always been to start working somewhere, not thinking of a supervision and supervisor. Luckily, I am in a quite popular big group. Big or small group, does effect your phd training (not stepping into detail). This time I am lucky to have a open minded supervisor though lack of supervision has effected a lot, but I have developed a trait ‘hope’ that finding my own way (although it will take a long hard route) will open my door someday.
I think when I look at my Masters supervision and compare it to the phd supervision, what matters most is the phd supervision. I would like to provide some reasons why I say so. Firstly, PhD is an essential requirement to enter into academics or to say to pursue further research work in your field of research. Teaching is additional thing (which you do often) as a post doc or higher academician. Research and teaching go hand in hand, because, what you discover in lab needs to be dissipated as knowledge to newer generation of keen students. To return to my point, if you lacked phd supervision, that may create some sort of problem in further academics. A general perception is that you are more independent than a master student, while pursuing a phd and hence one shall find his own way of investigating and thinking of a research topic. I totally disagree with it, as , a phd student, you’re still learning to find your way in performing complicated experiments or presenting your research work. Some supervisors hardly show any concern to graduate students,.whom they excite in the beginning of their phd about the fantasies of science, But, as the time passes by, students try to figure out, is he getting a proper scientific traning?. I have many PhD colleagues, who say they ”met their bosses once a year”, if they had a great result. How ridiculous situation is that, where you feel like useless and unwanted?. But, their are bosses , who have a group meeting per week, to sort out projects, their progresses and lab resources Still, those meetings generally don’t provide much happiness to phd students. Some of colleagues, when they started had no project (which had also been my situation) to work. The sad part is that the situation never improved and they end up with a low profile phd (with fewer publications and conferences), which is never going to help for further academics. Some people (I know) who are now working as a post doc, also say that most of crucial thesis results were obtained in their very last year (what is important, is they also lacked a geared supervision activity during their learning). What I want to highlight is that a lack of supervision, makes a phd student work slow, demotivated and end up with hopeless career opportunities. Although, scientists at the level of professors, do have a variety of work (which I totally understand, consumes a lot of time and concentration), but they are not aware, what impact they are providing on the graduate students, is irreversible. PhD training period is generally long and if you loose those precious year just because of poor supervision, I am afraid it only has negative effects.
Some PhD students (like me and many of my colleagues) become mummies, try to absorb the hard situations they are facing,by becoming non-reactive to environment. We develop a trait called ”Hope”, that we think that we will manage to finish our phd in some great fashion one day.
This article is meant to be a eye-opener and I have taken care to not to demotivate any prospective student wishing to do a phd. To be honest, research is what I think of , scientific writing is my secondary passion and I am challenging the situation of poor supervision by finding my own ways and waiting for right time.
I hope readers will know the truth after reading the article, and I also think some of you reading it, may have also experienced it. So, I hope to receive your comments too.
I will be back with my scientific articles soon.
With Kind regards