It seems obvious, and somewhat trite, to say that every supervisor-student relationship is unique – but that doesn’t make it any the less true. Whilst the idea of enquiring into the dynamics between my supervisor and his other students falls somewhat beyond the pale, I do get the impression that we are all treated differently: whilst I was left to my own devices to produce essays and long screeds whenever I chose, many of my co-supervisees have worked through a much more structured sequence of essays. There’s no value judgement there – it’s just different.
But we all have to build relationships with our supervisors, and it is important that these relationships are functional. If they fail or become problematic, then you are not going to get the best thesis you can, and you’re going to have a miserable time. It happens, unfortunately – sometimes through fault of one party or the other, and sometimes just through sheer conflict in personal chemistry. If that happens, then it is important to seek help. In my department, there was a strong culture of secondary supervision and accountability, meaning that if any problems arose, they could be dealt with. Just in case of such events, get acquainted with your institution’s policy on the matter.
But on a more positive note, how do you establish that relationship so that it lies on firm ground, can ride out the three years of your thesis, and be maintained into the future? For me, there are two concepts which answer this: ‘radical trust’ and ‘astute honesty’.
‘Radical trust’ has significant cache in the museum world at the moment, not least of all because of the advent of Web 2.0 (the medium through which I am talking to and interacting with you). There are many sources discussing the concept of ‘radical trust’, but essentially it means this: trust in the community which you serve to not mess up the things you give or offer to show them, and giving them some control over the situation and objects. This might not sound all that revolutionary, but for a museum this can involve giving over some curatorial and interpretive capabilities to people beyond its walls: and this, for an institution with a long history of controlling representation, can be terrifying. It takes a lot of trust.
So too does working on a thesis. You have to trust your supervisor to be able to give you good advice on your writing, your topic and your career. You have to respect their abilities and opinions (though you don’t always have to agree with the latter). But trust is mutual: they have to trust you to do the work, to do the best you can, to challenge them when you disagree, and they have to trust you not to plagiarise, and to do something truly new and innovative. Both parties in this relationship have to show that they deserve this trust – then the relationship will thrive, and produce the best possible work it can.
The second concept, ‘astute honesty’, is not something I have come across in other reading, but as a term it perfectly encompasses what I wish to say about telling the truth. With any close working relationship, you have to be open and honest, and this is especially true with your PhD mentor. Whilst it is important to remember that they are not your shrink, you have to be able to explain to them if you have non-academic personal problems, or difficulties and anxieties that relate to your thesis. These will all affect your work, so you need to be able to communicate.
It is also important to be honest in terms of your opinion about some aspect of your research. If you don’t agree with your supervisor, it isn’t a good idea to keep the idea under wraps and put a point into your thesis that you aren’t happy with. Broach the subject diplomatically, but make sure that your opinion is heard. You are not supposed to be a passive subordinate in this relationship – I have a tendency to do what I’m told, and I suspect that’s my main failing as it means that I’m not always true to myself. But if I don’t believe in the work I do, how can I expect anyone else to? Your supervisor will need to be honest with you too – sometimes brutally so. Here is where trust and honesty join: trust your supervisor to be honest for your benefit. They aren’t trying to hurt you: instead, they’re trying to help you.
Honesty and trust come together, and emanate from both participants. They are the fundamental stepping stones on which to base this key relationship. The other factors, based on the personalities of yourself and your mentor, are far too individual for me to provide advice – those, you will have to negotiate yourselves.