PhD student with laptop

#81: Meet your PhD supervisor online!

Are you missing out on encounters with your PhD supervisors while working off-campus? Feeling more lonely, and low in motivation to progress with your work? Why not arrange more encounters in an online-space? We suggest two great options for meeting online with your supervisors which can compensate for informal contact as well as regular meetings. 

PhD Success Lab

Are you currently working from home office, or are you working off-campus for any other reason? Then you might not only miss the normal buzz at the institute, but also the usual encounters with your PhD supervisors. For many PhD candidates, not being able to see their PhD supervisors in person means feeling more isolated, and lacking motivation and support (Erichsen, et al. 2014).

But working off-campus does not mean you automatically have to be cut-off from all  exchange with your supervisors. There’s no need to isolate yourself like a recluse. There are great opportunities to meet your supervisors online, and there are many ways in which you can do so. 

Don’t be shy – it’s perfectly fine to ask for more online contact with your supervisors! With this blogpost we’ll help you along the way: We’ll make suggestions on how you can initiate and meaningfully organise online encounters with your PhD supervisors. So that you don’t miss a beat when not working together! 

Close contact is key to good supervision  

When you work in the same institute as your supervisors, you have many opportunities for informal contact, and of course you have regular appointments with them to check-in and progress with your PhD work. Close contact with your supervisors is key for building and maintaining a good relationship with them throughout your PhD.  A close relationship with your supervisors motivates, ensures high quality research, and helps you grow as a scientist. 

The relationship with a supervisor goes beyond pure professional and technical support. A supervisor is also a mentor and guide, and their support does of course influence your well-being and your confidence as an early-career-researcher. In our SMART ACADEMICS blogpost #10:  Good supervision: What you can expect, we have outlined that good supervisors also offer sympathy when something goes wrong, and motivate you when you’re feeling down. There’s a great SELF CHECK “How good is my PhD supervision?” to see for yourself how your supervisors are doing regarding key quality features! 

While many PhD candidates struggle to meet their supervisors regularly when working together on-campus, this has become even more difficult in times of Covid-19, when many PhD candidates and supervisors are working from home. But the same problem arises during longer periods of absence – either by a supervisor or yourself – e.g. when doing field work, being on expeditions, secondments, or during a stint in another lab. 

Being off-campus, however, does not automatically result in a disadvantage when it comes to supervision. There are so many fantastic technical opportunities which can compensate for the lack of direct personal exchange, and even open up new arenas and opportunities for convenient collaboration.

Take the initiative

Your supervisors might miss you less than you miss them. So informing them that you actually suffer from a lack of exchange is an important first step. Most of them will be happy to adjust their support, but can only do so if you let them know. 

Just in case your supervisors have not yet discovered the full bandwidth of online communication tools and meeting spaces, or if yours are not among the most tech-savvy, we suggest that you take the initiative and come up with a few concrete suggestions for how you can meet online and improve your cooperation.

We suggest that you distinguish between informal contact and meetings with your PhD supervisors. Both are perfectly fine to arrange in online settings, but the focus and the choice of tools should be different. 

1. Informal contact with your PhD supervisor

When working together on-campus, there are many ways in which you’re informally in contact with your supervisor. You may hit the cafeteria at the same time, pass each other in the hall, or see each other at departmental assemblies or lab meetings. All of these occasions give opportunity for a quick chat or a spontaneous and casual conversation. And if you have a quick question, or a burning issue that needs to be resolved, you can pop-in your supervisor’s office and ask for help. Over time, these small encounters help you get to know each other and build trust. 

That type of casual or spontaneous encounter is more or less eliminated when working off-campus. As a consequence, you may feel ‘cut-off’ from not actually working together anymore. Communication is blocked – you normally hear departmental news from each other, like who’s just managed to secure a great grant, got published in nature, or is going on parental leave. And you can easily get stuck with a smaller issue, because there’s no one around to just go and ask. All these ‘minor’ issues contribute to the experience of  work culture at a research institute or university.

We suggest the following two channels in combination as a great way to stay in contact in a casual way:

Instant messenger app

Use an instant messenger app built for team-communication. This is a nice way to check-in in the morning, and easily keep  a casual conversation going on work-related issues throughout the day. With the easy-to-use interfaces and instantaneous back-and-forth communication, this feels very close to a real conversation. You can organise your conversations in channels and threads so that with a lot of exchanges over time, you’ll not lose the overview. You can attach graphs, figures, and latest results or references, as well as photographs from your field-work. In contrast to the fleeting character of a real conversation – here you’ve every idea, hint or reference your supervisor passed on saved and at hand for later on when you need it. 

Restricted to home-office during Covid-19, we started using Slack for the TRESS ACADEMIC team, and it has been a total win for all of us. We use it to say ‘hello’ when we start working, and actually communicate throughout the day much in the same way  we would if we were all together in the office. It’s a fabulous way to feel connected – it’s so great that it is addictive! Slack is free to use in the basic version – which should absolutely do the trick when you communicate with a supervisor. 

Pre-arranged short encounters per video-call

In addition to that, think about setting up a short get-together on a weekly basis. Why not have a 15 min. coffee-break via video-call together, or check-in mid-week over lunch. These short video-calls should not have the purpose of formal meetings, but actually substitute for the casual conversations that you’re missing out on. On these occasions, let your supervisor know how you are feeling, exchange the latest news from your field, engage in friendly gossip, or talk about upcoming opportunities or events.  While you can also quickly dip into an issue you are having with your research, the real questions, however, should be discussed in a proper way during the regular supervisory meetings. 

2. Regular meetings

These are the cornerstones of good supervision, and where the bulk of actual tutoring takes place. Regular meetings with your supervisors are crucial for your learning process, and for getting input on your research, thus enhancing the quality of your work. They also ensure that your supervisors can keep an eye on your progress so that you can complete within the given time-frame of your graduate programme. Meetings are also there to go over written feedback you received from your supervisors. and to establish how to move forward until you see each other again. 

So in short – there’s no proper PhD supervision without regular supervisory meetings. Missing out on these because you can’t meet in person would be a big set-back with your PhD study. You can easily get stuck, with no help in sight, or go off the planned course with your research, or get lost in irrelevant details. 

Luckily, good regular meetings are super easy to arrange online and nearly as good as the real thing. Actually, they even have advantages that on-campus meetings don’t have, such as collaborating with multiple supervisors or external experts from different countries or continents without stacking up huge travel time and cost. The latter might be more of an issue than you think – just to come up with one example, the Norwegian Universities have – due to Covid 19 – saved a staggering 100 mio. EUR on travel cost in 2020 (Fanghol 2021)! And we’ve not even mentioned the benefit to the environment! 

Regular formal supervisory meetings with an online collaboration platform

For the purpose of formal meetings we suggest  use of any of the available online platforms which allow for collaboration of multiple people. Very well-suited are ZOOM, Microsoft Teams, Adobe Connect, etc. so check what your university is offering or has installed already. 

Conveniently talking to multiple people is just one great feature of  ZOOM, just to give you some more details on this platform. What makes it super smart for supervisory meetings is that you can share your screen to show latest results, go over a code to find a bug, or work together on a shared google document to revise a draft paper together. You can also use the whiteboard function to let your supervisors explain something, collect thoughts while brainstorming, or jot-down notes, all of which you can save and share afterwards. In short: It’s a joy to work together on Zoom, and it’s very versatile!

Conclusion

We know that it’s nice to meet your supervisor face-to-face from time to time, but there are many superb ways in which you can collaborate during times when you can’t see each other in person. Missing out on opportunities to communicate are definitely a thing of the past! There are ample technical options suited for various types of encounters, all of which can be used in specific ways to make online supervision a success. 

We encourage you as a PhD candidate to get active, and bring up the issue of online meetings with your supervisors – let them know that you wish to see them more often, and suggest which apps or platforms to use. Volunteering to set it all up for them can sweeten the experience on their side. 

Get in touch with your PhD supervisors today so you can make sure you get the online-support you need and deserve during your PhD! 

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