Snow White and the Seven Supervisors: Managing your Team
I have seven PhD supervisors. Yes, you read that correctly! Seven. And whilst that might be quite unusual, larger supervisory teams are becoming increasingly common due to a drive toward interdisciplinary research (particularly in the sciences). Most journal articles in my field (climate science) will have 5+ authors, so it’s perhaps not surprising that supervisory teams are following a similar trend. In fact, my Doctoral Training Partnership (DTP) requires each of its PhD students to have at least three supervisors from across two different universities (most have four or five). Even if you have two or three supervisors, managing your team is very much a necessity. And it’s time to acknowledge that this isn’t always a straightforward task- different priorities, conflicting viewpoints and clashing personalities can all unwittingly cause tension, even if you are all trying your best to keep things harmonious. I’m still figuring this all out, but here are a few tips I’ve picked up along the way…
1. Identify the role of each supervisor
The reason why any PhD student has multiple supervisors is because each of them brings a unique viewpoint. No two supervisors are the same, so it’s helpful to identify early on which role they fill. Remember that this can be in terms of technical knowledge, and also any support or mentorship roles they provide. My primary supervisor is my “big picture” person- they know literally EVERYTHING about the broader context of my project. They are also my mentor, advisor, and general go-to person for celebrating those wins and whinging to when it all goes wrong. My method-specific supervisors (of which there are five!) are the best people to go to with questions and ideas about my lab work and data collection. They know the ins and outs of their specialism, but most of them haven’t worked at my site before. And to round out my team, my PI (principal investigator) is super knowledgeable about my study site.
2. Take stock of your relationship with each supervisor
Supervision is a two-way street, so to avoid any tension, it’s good to understand a) what your supervisors expect from you, and b) what you need from your supervisors. Have these discussions early on in your PhD, and revisit if needed. Include topics like working hours, responding to emails, meeting frequency, feedback and project ownership, alongside how best to contact them- be it a meeting, phone call, email or WhatsApp (surprisingly helpful for lab emergencies!). If you feel comfortable doing so, I’ve also found it useful to share any personal likes/dislikes (mostly with your primary supervisor). For example, I told them that I often need moral support (cheers, imposter syndrome), have a tendency to get hangry, and would appreciate them providing networking opportunities for me (via email and at conferences). I realise that this level of depth isn’t needed in every supervisory relationship, but it has really helped in the past. Each of the relationships with your supervisors will be unique (and related to their role in your team). Whilst it might seem like a lot of effort to accommodate everyone’s expectations, laying the groundwork like this can help to prevent frustration down the line.
3) Be aware of your supervisors’ relationships with each other
Whether your supervisors are 5 years post-PhD or 50 years, chances are they will have worked with each other before. There’s absolutely no need to dig into their history, but being aware of any previous differences of opinion will help you to anticipate them pulling you in different directions (this is most important when it comes to interpreting your results, not whether they all like chocolate cake!). It’s also important to know of any power dynamics in the team, especially if one of your supervisors supervised another one of your supervisors (it happens, trust me!). If they don’t know someone else on the team particularly well, put them in touch. Big supervisory team meetings, however scary for you, can be perfect to encourage everyone to communicate openly with each other. Whilst you’re figuring each of these relationships out, there is one very important thing to remember; YOU are ultimately in control of your PhD and your team. Supervisors are there to guide and support, but you should never feel trapped in a web of conflicting ideas. If you find yourself in this situation, remember that you can approach your PGR Convenor at Graduate School for advice. When well-managed, your supervisor team can be your best source of inspiration and a fantastic support network. So whilst sometimes I feel like Snow White with her Seven Supervisors (I won’t assign names, in case they’re reading!), actively managing my team has allowed me to develop a unique, diverse skillset. I am immensely grateful to be working with them all, and for the mentorship that they have provided so far in my PhD.
This blog post was originally published on the UofG PGR Blog. You can read the original here.