Learning How to Navigate Doctoral Supervision

"Professional Development Corner" article by Tatiana Becerra Posada, McGill University

As Grant (2010) points out, choosing a supervisor is a determining decision for the success or failure in the relationship between student, supervisor, and thesis. Having to make this choice before being admitted to my PhD program was one of the first and biggest challenges I have faced in my PhD experience. As I searched for information about admission in my desired PhD program, I was very surprised to learn that having secured a supervisor was one of the prerequisites to start the application process. Therefore, finding a faculty member that would accept me as supervisee was the first task for my application.


Although I knew some faculty members’ work, I was not sure if I really wanted any of them as my supervisor; I knew their work, but I did not know them! I felt completely lost and insecure since I had no prior  experience contacting a prospective supervisor. I didn’t have any colleagues or friends with a similar experience to ask for help either, nor did I have any acquaintance at this university that could advise me on best ways to reach out to faculty.


I relied on tutorials and blogs on how to contact a prospective supervisor and then found myself scrutinizing the faculty profiles. I thoroughly read each professor’s profile on the department’s faculty webpage and selected the ones I shared some common background or research interest with. After choosing the two professors with the “most potential,” I embarked on an extensive search of their academic careers on academic and social networks (Research Gate, Google Scholar, Academia, Twitter, Facebook, etc). After reviewing their profiles, I read their latest academic work and had the wonderful feeling of being inspired by their ideas --this was a moment of joy since I felt this PhD program would be the ideal place to develop expertise in my area of research and grow academically.


After having two potential supervisors in mind, it took me several days to compose a first      email. Although I had followed a very formal and academic style, it was not effective; I had been waiting for the professors’ replies for almost a month! Their silence made me fear I had not met their expectations. Despite feeling vulnerable, and with the deadline for applications a month away, I persevered: I contacted the program director, who advised me to write a briefer and more direct email, just a paragraph long, where I explained my interest, summarized my experience and research proposal, and asked my potential supervisors directly whether they would accept me as a mentee. The reply came the next day! One of them accepted me, and so I could continue my application to the program.


My PhD application was successful. However, at the very beginning of my first year, I could not avoid feelings of ambiguity, uncertainty, and vulnerability due to the remoteness enforced by the COVID-19 pandemic. Contrary to my expectations, I had to start my PhD from home, thus limiting in-person contact with professors, classmates, and my supervisor. This lack of connection made me wonder whether starting my PhD had been a good idea at all. 


Feeling vexed by the novel and complex nature of the supervisory experience, I read guidelines, attended workshops, and asked classmates about their experiences. However, I did not find “the secret recipe” to a successful student-supervisor relationship. With limited opportunities to experience conventional supervision, I felt I was failing at understanding the dynamics of doctoral supervision, especially how to get to know my supervisor.


Getting to know each other is an essential part of the supervisory relationship (Grant & McKinley, 2011) since it lays the foundation to receiving the most appropriate help from one’s mentor.  Despite the physical distance imposed by the pandemic, my supervisor and I were able to establish new avenues to learn about each other. By corresponding through email and having phone calls and Zoom meetings, I have felt my supervisor’s support. 


He has supported me in important academic endeavors such as writing grant proposals,   requesting reference letters, obtaining university funding, developing my leadership profile, guiding my candidacy plan, encouraging me to pursue scholarly writing, and answering essential questions about my doctoral research. Beyond just giving me feedback, he has also shown appreciation and trust in my work and in my abilities to succeed in all these endeavors. He has become a mentor who has been willing to share his knowledge with me --his work has continued to inspire me and further my understanding of my research area. 


As pointed out in recent research on doctoral supervision (Sverdlik et al., 2018), supervisors have a supportive role which is essential to a student’s well-being and sense of success. In my case, throughout this first year, I have gained confidence in dealing with a supervisory relationship. I have learned that close contact and clear communication will allow me to continue navigating doctoral supervision. I have especially understood that there are no one-size-fits-all guidelines for a successful supervisory relationship; it is such a unique experience, coloured and shaded by the complexities that encompass the student’s and supervisor’s identities.


Having a supervisor from the start of the PhD, especially knowing that there is an expert who will guide me in every milestone of this path, has been comforting. I am aware of the key role my supervisor will continue to play in the building of my doctoral career, thus also exerting direct influence on my identity and agency as a doctoral student and future scholar. 


Grant, B. M., & McKinley, E. (2011). Colouring the pedagogy of doctoral supervision: Considering supervisor, student and knowledge through the lens of indigeneity. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 48 (4), 377–386. https://doi.org/10.1080/14703297.2011.617087 

Grant, B. M. (2010). The limits of ‘teaching and learning’: Indigenous students and doctoral supervision. Teaching in Higher Education, 15 (5), 505–517. https://doi.org/10.1080/13562517.2010.491903 

Sverdlik, A., Hall, N., McAlpine, L., & Hubbard, K. (2018). The PhD experience: A review of the factors influencing doctoral students’ completion, achievement, and well-being. International Journal of Doctoral studies, 13, 361–388. https://doi.org/10.28945/4113 

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Tatiana Becerra has been an EFL teacher educator for 10 years at Universidad de Córdoba, Colombia. Currently, Tatiana is a first-year, PhD student in the Department of Integrated Studies in Education at McGill University. Her research interests include EFL teacher education, L2 literacy, digital literacies and EFL learning in rural contexts.