Friday, September 30, 2011

Secrets of Highly Successful PhD Students

Last week was Graduate Student Week here at UQ. Across the week the UQ graduate school organized a number of presentations, workshops, and panel discussions to help UQ RHD students make the most of their time as a research student. As an aspiring graduate student, I decided to attend a workshop titled 'The Seven Secrets of Highly Successful PhD Student'.

Running the session was Maria Gardiner maximizing performance in high achieving groups like PhD students and academics. She presented hints and tips, based on research, which can help PhD students work productively during their candidature and finish on time.

It seems I am not the only one keen to unlock the secrets of a successful PhD. Earlier this year secret number 1 – The Care and Maintenance of your Adviser was published in the journal Nature. That’s right, although we may at times think it is our supervisor’s responsibility to guide their student, it is just as much a student’s responsibility to ensure that they are well guided through their PhD.

So how do we go about getting the most out of our student-supervisor relationship? Here are some tips/ideas that were presented in the workshop and also in the article. 1. Ask for help - We often think that we are high in the priorities of our supervisors and that they know when we need help. Supervisors think that when their student needs help they will come and ask. Therefore, if you need help, you need to go and ask. If you are waiting for your supervisor to read your mind you could be waiting a very long while.

2. Meet regularly - The very most important factor that predicts timely completion of a PhD is regular meetings. This should be one-on-one time set aside to talk with your supervisor about matters relating to your current research. Regular meetings should not be avoided … even if you feel like you haven’t gotten anywhere since last meeting. This may be a sign that you need some direction to get back on track. We all know our supervisors are super busy people but given the value of meeting regularly, it is something all research students should attempt to attain/maintain.

3. Get as much as you can out of your supervisor meetings - To get the most out of meetings, make an agenda. This will ensure that you cover all of the things that you planned to cover and that you don’t get side-tracked (and if you do it will help you get back on the point). A bit before the meeting (a day or 2 before) make a list of points that you want to cover in the meeting and e-mail them over to your supervisor. You can also print out a copy for you and a copy for your supervisor and hand it to them at the start of the meeting. This will provide a framework for the meeting and help the meeting stay on track, stop you forgetting things you meant to ask and stop you from deciding not to ask things that you really need to know because you might ‘feel silly’ asking.

4. Be on the same page as your supervisor - After meetings you should e-mail your supervisor with a few dot points of what you are going to do (and maybe what they are going to do) now based on the outcomes of your meeting. They should be specific e.g. "I will write method section of paper X". So that you and your supervisor can see you are both on the same page (and so they can gently direct you back on track if you were misguided). Writing down the outcomes of each meeting and what needs to be done also makes you feel accountable for the jobs you have to do before your next meeting.

So go forth and take responsibility for getting the help you need from your supervisor.

Kearns, H. & Gardiner, M. (2011). The care and maintenance of your adviser. Nature, 469, 570.

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