Letter from Supervisor to his new PhD student

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Dear New PhD Student
This is an exciting time for you as you embark on your journey towards a doctoral degree. As your supervisor I thought I should write to welcome you and give you a few handy hints that may help us both to survive this voyage of discovery intact. We both have much to learn. Although we have exchanged emails, we do not know each other well. I feel at the outset, we have to display the good in us, and hide the crazy. Over the next three years this balance will switch, as we each reveal our true selves.
My role is to guide you through the minefield that is the modern research process. You will learn how to identify gaps in knowledge, critically review literature, pose useful research questions, devise testable hypotheses, acquire the necessary ethical approvals, collect and analyse data and so on.
But remember I am not your sister, nor your mother, nor am I your counsellor – I am not even your friend either. Some supervisors regularly socialise with their students. I do not. I am really not interested in the matters of your life. I understand life events will impact on your work, and I will be very sympathetic and talk through practical solutions. But I am not your emotional support – that’s what family and real friends are for.
At the beginning of this journey, I will provide leadership and instruction. But a PhD is an evolving process towards independence as a researcher, so by the end you will be in control of supervisions and you will be telling me what you need from me. I am very happy to see this happen. It is as it should be.
You do not need to be a genius to do a PhD. It certainly helps if you are bright, but some surprisingly unbright people seem to pass. The main characteristic you need in spades is ‘stickability’ – a ‘never give up’ attitude, and a willingness to suck up all problems that come your way (and they will), and find solutions to them.
But not everyone who gets a PhD becomes a Professor – so it is crucial that you make the most of opportunities to acquire other transferable life-skills that will be useful in non-academic fields.
Your PhD research is unlikely to change the world. I’m sorry to break bad news, but there it is. For most people, PhD research is the vehicle they use to demonstrate that they have the skills and abilities to be taken seriously as a researcher. If you can change the world as well, then that is a bonus. But don’t expect it.
Not everyone who embarks upon a PhD will pass with flying colours. I can (and will) give you my best advice at all times, but I am not responsible for your final thesis – you are.
Although we start, with me ahead of you, but by the end we will be equal, and in some areas you will be my superior. This is also as it should be. For a brief, shining moment, you should be the world expert in a tiny prescribed area of the topic you have chosen to study.
I receive no specific reward or financial gain for the pleasure of supervising you – so yes, I do expect my name to go on any publishable papers which may emerge from your data. If no publishable papers emerge, I will be frankly disappointed.
I have now supervised 11 PhD students. I can almost guarantee that at some time during your 3 year programme you will experience some kind of personal crisis (illness, bereavement, relationship problems, and so on). And, if you escape these, then your research will be plagued by some major drama (vital equipment failure, collapse, & then sudden disappearance from the planet).
Again, I will be sympathetic and practical. Time out is always an option, to stop the clock ticking. But your final examiner will not care about your troubles. You are judged on what you produce and how you defend it in the viva – not on how much effort it took you to overcome life’s obstacles to get there.
So now, are you sitting comfortably? Then let us begin.
Good luck – and may your journey be fruitful,
Your Supervisor
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