Tuesday, November 30, 2010

How to learn from your supervisor

When you are in a PhD program like mine, in which virtually no course work is involved and you are supposed to spend 40 hours a week in your little room with your stack of papers and a computer, you might really feel the need to be nourished with some fresh ideas.

Your supervisor could play an important role here. The Dutch PhD system is inspired by the medieval practice of the master and the apprentice. However, nowadays supervisors are really busy people that only every now and then can transfer knowledge to their student. I, for example, feel that most of the interaction I have with my supervisor is based on him approving my progress, adding some ideas and putting me back on track whenever I need.

But how can I be a better apprentice, how can I benefit more from the knowledge of my supervisors?

During my time as a PhD student I have found a few ways to learn from my advisors. My preliminary answers to this question are:

1. Coffee breaks
Some of the most interesting talks (not related to my research topic) I have had with my supervisors occurred at the coffee machine or during the coffee break. Hearing their random stories about conferences, other people's research and approach to research feel very valuable to me. I get the broader scope, I get some insider information from my advisors who have been in the academic world for decades. What I learn at those moments appears to be lessons for my -hopefully- future academic life.

2. Field trips
Last Friday, my advisor and I went to inspect a real case of my research. I learned more in those two hours on the site than I have learned in a few weeks in my office. Since my advisor had scheduled this time to go there, he also had enough time to give me and my fellows a little lecture there. It was absolutely great. Seeing this case and getting all this interesting information made me feel that bit by bit I am growing to an expert in my field and that I get the opportunity through my PhD to learn what is not being taught in courses.

3. Writing papers
When I give a draft paper to my supervisor, he can quickly see where I have not been clear enough, where I should add an extra figure and where I should expand a little more on the topic. This teaches me to be more critical and find the flaws in my writing.

Unfortunately, these occasions have been very scarce and I would like to benefit more from the knowledge and experience of my advisors. How do you learn from your advisors?

1 comment:

  1. I'm a part-time PhD student and only in college 1 days a week, and as such I get very few opportunities for spontaneous meetings with my supervisor. I agree though, the times when I have just chatted with him when not in a formal meeting have been really useful. Unfortunately, mnost of the time I have to make do with the more formal meetings...which are incredibly productive and he is full of ideas and inspiration so I can't complain!