An open letter to PhD supervisors

phd supervision May 01, 2023
Descriptive, letter and pen

Dear esteemed supervisor,

Thank you for the supervision and guidance, your assistance is very much appreciated. I write this letter to discuss how we, your PhD supervisees, feel about supervision and how this can be improved. It is not meant to cause any offence but meant to contribute to a better professional relationship for better things to come.

Firstly, we are all unique students with our own styles of working and qualities. Please do not compare us to your previous students or yourself, when you were a PhD student. While we understand that we need to be nudged and we need to know how others have done things, when we are not respected as adult learners with our own life circumstances and experience, we feel like we are being treated like children. Please give us room to grow and find out what works for us; ask us how we like to be supervised. We will get there, trust in our process and abilities.

Secondly, please listen to us first, before you recommend anything. We do our homework when we make decisions about our research, so please give us a chance to justify our choices and defend them. We may be naive at times, or ignorant of certain complexities or different ways of doing things but before giving us the “right” or better answer to our problems, please give us the space to practice defending our methods. Also, while you tell us the answer, tell us why we were wrong or what we have neglected to consider. Guide us and not instruct us.

Thirdly, please ask us how we are doing… really. There are many things that we don’t tell you initially because we do not want you to think poorly about us. Standing outside your office, we take a breath, sweep our personal worries and family troubles under the rug, then walk into your office with a visage of confidence, so that you can trust in our abilities. The doctorate can sometimes be a lonely journey where we feel like we cannot confide in people around us because of the esoteric nature of our work or simply because there is no one around we trust. You are sometimes our only form of pastoral support.
We apologise for the many times we may behave as though the sky is falling; for us, it feels like it really is. We perhaps made a mistake in our work, forget to collect a consent form or have an impending deadline that we need to rush for. For us, the PhD is our complete focus at the moment so any problems with it make us feel like we are falling into an abyss. Please be our safety net, tell us it is alright to fall because there is someone there to catch us. Help us allow ourselves to fail, miss a deadline, muck up a review panel because, on our own, we cannot permit ourselves that. If we indeed fall, let us pick ourselves up and try again, we will learn and do better, we promise.

We work very hard to meet your expectations, but we are also humans. While we need someone to tell us our mistakes, we also need someone to assure us that we are on the right track. Every step we take, every decision we make, we do so with sound justifications but also with constant doubt. Every day we doubt if we deserve to be where we are and do what we do. It is the impostor in us. It may perhaps never go away. So once in a while, remind us that we are capable of getting things right.
We know supervision is not an easy job, some of us have the experience of supervising undergraduates ourselves. We also know that you are perhaps new to this or it might just be the way you prefer to supervise. Please note that we need to be guided, not instructed, encouraged and motivated, not ridiculed and shamed. When we succeed we will always remember you for the support you have proffered. The day we are conferred our title, you have accomplished something, as much as we have; so, let us work together towards this in a supportive partnership.

Yours Sincerely,
Dr Ken Yan Wong,
on behalf of PhD students around the world