Mick Rae

“Students sacrifice a lot to do their PhD and it’s our job to nurture that.”

Supervising PhD students is never a chore. In fact, if it wasn’t a part of my job, I would happily do it for free in my own time! It’s always a real pleasure to have someone come into your world and show a genuine interest in your work – in fact, it’s an honour to have someone choose to dedicate several years of their life to my area of research.

Every PhD student I’ve had, I would maintain that I offered them a fantastic project to work on. But every one, after about six months, has come back to me with a slightly different idea – and it’s my job as a supervisor to be willing to listen. I’ve taken on this person precisely because they are smart, so I don’t presume that I always know best. Often a student has found a way to take the research somewhere new and exciting. And that’s what is so brilliant about having a PhD student involved in a project: they bring a fresh brain and a new perspective.

I think the key qualities for a supervisor are enthusiasm, humanity and humility. Enthusiasm for the research and for the PhD process is essential. Humanity, because we need to remember that PhD students are individuals, dealing with lots of other things in their lives. And humility, because the PhD is a shared journey. In the first year, the supervisor and student will work closely together. In the second year, the student starts to have a lot more independence. And by the third year, the student will be educating the supervisor! That’s when I know I’ve done my job well.

Support and training

Being a PhD supervisor is a big responsibility but at Napier, I don’t feel out on a limb, because there is such good support and training through the Research Degrees Office. They provide a really good framework of support for supervisors, and for the students as well. Every student not only gets a Director of Studies and co-supervisor for the research side of their PhD, but they also are allocated a panel chair, who isn’t involved scientifically, but oversees the whole process to ensure things run smoothly for everyone involved.  

Students need to choose their subject well, as they’ll be living with it for several years. It needs to be more than something they just want to do – it should be an itch they have to scratch. That level of enthusiasm and drive helps build the relationship with the supervisor and will take them through to completion. 

As supervisors, we should always ensure we make time for our students. They sacrifice a lot to do their PhD and it’s our job to nurture that, to go the extra mile. And at Napier, that’s what we’re encouraged to do.