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Working with your Supervisor to Manage your Project

By Beverley Thomas, PhD Researcher, School of English.

A definition of a supervisor according to the University of Sheffield’s portal is a ‘subject expert who will guide you through your PhD studies.’ When starting doctoral studies, we may have this idea in mind, but not necessarily understand the culture of academia from the perspective of the institution. Also, we may not fully understand ourselves and what we truly want from the PhD.

When I began my project, I took it fully onboard that my supervisors would guide me as experts, thereby looking outward for them to identify what I needed to do. This, I thought, meant directing my unorganised thinking and championing the relevance of my work. But how could they? They did not have my life experiences, nor my relationship with Black communities and Black culture. For example, the initial purpose of my research was to capture stories of the Windrush Generation and their descendants. This meant gathering tales from my family, my grandmother, my people; analysing their lives and experiences in Britain and the profound effects of ancestral enslavement and colonialism.

In the initial phase of my research, I was fearful of failing and disappointing two White men I hardly knew, as I had conceded they ‘were the experts’. This thinking led to communication failures in the first few meetings, and so I began to email them, to explain myself. This was the first turning point. Their emails back to me were always gracious and thoughtful, changing my thinking, feeling, sense of self, and thus my relationship with these academics. They were human. They were kind and understanding; interested in me and in my cultural background.

The confidence gained from this first proactive step led me into the second phase: sharing my thoughts and feelings verbally. At first, I was uncertain. How could two middle-aged, middle-class White men possibly relate? So, I braced myself for the knocking that would come from allowing myself to be so vulnerable… but it never came. They were curious. They followed my comments with questions and interesting perspectives that led me to reconsider and reorder my understanding of myself, others, and our world. My second turning point was allowing myself to be vulnerable.

Firth Court in The University of Sheffield

None of these steps were easy, but led towards a far more practical, third turning point: convincing my supervisors I understood my role as ‘project manager’ of the doctorate, giving them the confidence to know that I could complete the research in a timely manner.

I presented this as the following ‘Plan of Action’:

1) A detailed plan of when each of the chapters will be done. This enabled them to see that I had thought about how the project would progress, thus easing their anxieties.
After all, it’s in their best interest that students succeed.

2) SMART targets that I shared with supervisors through the GANTT management project tool: GanttProject – Free Project Management Application, The targets were:

  • Specific: Goals should be for a specific purpose that add to the research.
  • Measurable: The goal should allow for progress tracking.
  • Attainable: Achievable on a set time scale.
  • Relevant: Questions I asked myself: With this course of action, are you setting yourself up for your next phase of research?
  • Time-bound: A target date for completion – such as a week, a month, or for the next supervision meeting.

By doing these steps, I showed I was indeed the ‘project manager’ of my doctorate, with my supervisors as an essential part of my support team. Later, one of them described me as ‘resourceful,’ because of my ability to manage the project.

Although I recognise, I have been fortunate with my supervisors, the various actions I actively took gave me confidence in dealing with them, ultimately creating a trust between us; and always having a plan to reference back to can clear up any future misunderstanding.

The last idea I would like to suggest is to join groups of other researchers and garner other people’s experience of working with supervisors. Here are some suggestions:

  • Writing Retreats: The retreat provides protected and focused academic writing time, and you do the writing.
  • Centre for Equity & Inclusion: seeks to enhance the university experience for University of Sheffield PGRs from racially marginalised backgrounds via a programme of events and training.

To conclude: Start Where You Are and Find Yourself and understand that your supervisors are human, too. Remember you already have life experiences that can help with project managing the thesis process, so your confidence in knowing this will transform your relationship with your supervisors significantly.