Kathleen Clarke (Moore) is a Ph.D. candidate in Higher Education at the University of Toronto. You can follow her on Twitter @_KathleenClarke where she tweets about graduate education, mental health, and disability.
When it comes to the graduate student experience, people talk about the role of the supervisor a lot. We often discuss picking a supervisor and managing your advisor. A recent blog post over on Thesis Whisperer called “How to get a rock star supervisor” offered recommendations on what students should consider when looking for a supervisor. The author, Dr. Evonne Miller, had some great tips, suggesting students look at whether they are an expert in their field, whether their personality and supervisory style are a good fit, and whether they are kind. She also suggests thinking strategically about how they can help you and building an external network of support. One comment by Dr. Miller caught my eye:
“And I know that some students do not have the luxury of picking their supervisors, or the relationship may have broken down. In these situations, how you manage the situation and your interactions is critical and I recommend (1) contacting the higher degree research support team at your university for advice (there are lots of processes, policies and practical tips to assist).”
This stood out to me because after completing my comprehensive exams I found myself without a supervisor. During the first two years of my program, several faculty members left my department and I eventually had no one. It was a surprise. It was scary. And it was hard to even start taking steps to figure out how to find someone.
In this piece, I offer a few recommendations on what to do if you find yourself in this situation. Luckily, things have worked out very well for me: I have a fantastic supervisor and a great committee. But there was a point where I didn’t even think I could continue in my program because I had no prospects for a supervisor. So, before you start hanging “Wanted: Supervisor” signs around town, here are some suggestions for what to do first.
1. Evaluate who you know. I recommend that you first write down every course you took during your program. Think about whether you would want to have a conversation with any of those faculty members regarding your dissertation and a supervisory role. If you think they could be a good fit, reach out. The first person may say they aren’t interested, they are retiring, or they want you to take more of their classes, but by having this conversation you open up your options. Not willing to take more classes? Move on to the next candidate. Work your way down the list of candidates and see where it takes you.
2. Read your departmental guidelines. At the same time as you’re setting up meetings with potential supervisors, look at the policies and procedures for other options. Departments often have different rules on who can act as your thesis/dissertation supervisor. While in some departments your supervisor has to be within your department, in others, you might be able to have a supervisor from another area of your institution. Before looking outside your department, however, be sure to read the fine print in the guidelines or talk to someone about whether you can expand your search for the supervisor.
3. Look high and low. Assuming you are able to look outside the department, start researching faculty in other departments. Find a few faculty members doing research in your area. Set up a meeting to talk about your work. I recommend approaching this meeting as an opportunity to get to know someone and see if it might be a good fit personality-wise. If it seems like it would work, then you can start working out the logistics of signing paperwork to make their supervisor role official. If you find a supervisor in your department, you might circle back to this faculty member to be a committee member.
4. Level up. Let’s say you are not allowed to have a supervisor outside the department. You may want to consider talking to someone like the chair of your department about your current situation. The department may not be aware of which students do not have a supervisor. Sharing what options you have considered for a supervisor and what steps you have followed might be met with some feedback about what other options you might want to look at. People want you to be successful and sometimes you need to talk to a person higher up on the food chain, either in the department or institution, to get the wheels turning.
These steps don’t have to be completed in order: you don’t want to put all of your eggs in one basket so do several things at the same time. Talk to potential supervisors in your department while you are also looking into procedures for how to get someone outside of your department. Research faculty members in other areas at your institution in case you do need to look more broadly.
All of this can take time and it can be frustrating. You may get turned down by several faculty members before you find ‘the one.’ Like the constant rejection we face in academia (with manuscripts and grants, for example), you have to move on and know that eventually, it will get sorted out… even if it does come to posting a flyer around town to get someone. Has anyone tried that?
Have you been in this situation? What steps did you take to find a supervisor?
[Image by Flickr user eltpics and used under Creative Commons licensing.]