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Advice and support for your academic journey.

Mentors and supervisors are invaluable helpers on our PhD journey, yet this aspect of a PhD is often not considered enough to ensure they are the right fit for us. This article, from a Ghanian perspective, provides advice on finding and maintaining the right supervisors, who have the potential to completely transform one’s PhD journey into an enjoyable one. It reminds us that supervisors should be seen not as someone to try to replicate, but to springboard us into attaining our own personal goals.

Several conversations I have engaged in as a PhD candidate have strongly underlined the enormous benefits of having supervisors who are as keen and supportive in your academic success as you are; and this is a factoid I have come to hold very dear and true. I met my current supervisor some five years ago, during my master’s degree study, and can wholeheartedly say that those have been some transformative years – academically, professionally and generally as a person. 
While the focus of a PhD usually lies on the acquisition of expert knowledge, there seems to be more to the journey. Writing, problem-solving, time/self/project management, data analysis, collaboration, communication, networking, critical thinking and resilience are but a few of other pertinent skills required to truly succeed in the PhD journey, or at least, as much as I have realized so far. While these skills are must-haves on the PhD journey, they are not easily acquired. Thus, one’s supervisors can be a simpler yet extremely resourceful path to learning and acquiring them. 

Who Are They – Supportive Mentors?

Supportive mentors, in this PhD context, come in various qualifications and/or forms from those directly involved long-term in one’s work (like your supervisors) to others closer to your own stage with shared experiences of successes and failures. In the mix are also oftentimes those whose professional trajectory may have had little semblance to one’s own, perhaps not working directly in your field, yet you can still learn so much from them. For example, there are the possibilities that PhD students get to work with supervisors who are familiar with only particular aspects of one’s work. Maybe as a good rule, do not discount them. They may have a lot of experience and resources to share to help make you a better candidate. The acceptance of the fact that learning is a continuous process is a great foundation to getting the best from such individuals.

Characteristic of such supervisors/mentors is the fundamental quest to propel young ones to success, with some taking it steps further by making it their personalized targets to churn out high-quality next generation doctoral graduates. It is also not a strange observation to find them to be tough, demanding, unwavering, strict and only occasionally chatty – especially on just their birthdays. I can however experientially say that their true worth is seen in the quality of leadership and guidance they offer, which is all a doctoral candidate may need. 

How Do You Find Them?

My experience certainly may not apply to everyone, but still ticks the boxes of many others when it comes to identifying the right mentors. How I found most of mine were by daring to make the first contact, being open and positive, and expecting to find them anywhere, everywhere and certainly sometimes via the stroke of luck from the lonely PhD students’ guardian angel. I will expand on each of these points below. 

Dare to Make First Contact

It is not uncommon to dread making first contact with potential mentors, given that most are typically of higher reputation and class especially in my part of the world, and few of us would want to risk an awkward and even embarrassing encounter with them. Access to such individuals is difficult, and making contact with them can feel even harder.

Nevertheless, once you have identified a potential mentor you have admired from afar at a conference, a lecture or webinar, it is rewarding to break the norm and make first contact. Thinking about it, there really is little to lose juxtaposed with how much there is to gain. Take this for a morale-booster, of how two of such dares I made to myself of making first contact a couple of years ago has gotten me fully-funded postgraduate positions with the benefits of paid research careers. Yes, putting oneself out there may occasionally dent one’s sense of pride, but it is altogether mostly worth it. If it turns out badly, count the win; at least you know what not to say next time.

Be Open, Be Positive

Personality traits are often the determinants of how individuals experience situations differently and this includes the identification of potential mentors. Nevertheless, the equalizer of all of us is a positive approach in attaining that which is being sought. 
Always leaving room to accommodate the possibility of encountering such individuals is half of the navigation done. This point thus can function as a sequel to the previous. As a mentor-seeking doctoral student, it does not hurt (and is more often of great benefit) to be on such alert. A little rehearsal in front of the bathroom mirror, say before a conference or reading of others’ experiences from @ThePhDPlace’s page on X will even often be enough. As part of being open, talk to others as well. Our doctoral journeys may not be the same but in the crux of it, they are very much similar. In some cases, you may land the same mentor as your colleague or at least you will find how such great scores are made.  
Opportunities, they say, always come to the prepared but I doubt nature seeks out the ‘prepared’ and doles out the chances to them. I think it is as basic as preparation transforming one’s perspective of an everyday encounter into a gilt-edged opportunity for transformation. 

Expect to Find Them Anywhere, Everywhere

Particularly in such a convoluted setup as academia, it benefits greatly to go with the mindset that everyone you meet has the potential to teach something unknown to you. With knowledge and experience being often the choiciest commodities on the academic market, it then becomes safe to say that success goes beyond the classroom or the laboratory. The technician, secretary to the faculty, etc may not have a tenth of the scientific knowledge and/or guidance you may require, but connecting with them may open enviable doors to the ones who may have. They can be great starts in the hunt for supportive mentors. So truly, be expectant of finding mentors anywhere, everywhere. Often you do not need to look too far as your project supervisor(s) may be all the mentors you even need.

Take Their Feedback, and Work Hard

It is not necessarily of benefit to have a plethora of meaningful mentorships and associations without allowing the transformative influence they possess to be channelled into you. One mentor may be enough and all you need if you are willing to put yourself through the challenge of following through with their guidance. As mentioned earlier, one’s first point of mentorship, 95% of the time, would be her/his supervisor(s) and their requirement of you is often the one answer to my question posed: “what to do [after identifying and connecting with mentors]”? Work hard. Do well to meet all expectations, hard as that may be.

Final Thoughts

Having mentioned all this, I find it still worth saying that as much as supportive mentors are potential springboards to a successful academic journey, that is all they can be – springboards. It is important to note that you are pursuing your own journey, writing your own story. Learn from your mentors but not with the ambition of replicating their lives. That possibly reduces your potential. Your mentor-mentee partnership should spring you towards the realization of what you want to be and want to attain at the end of the journey.

My best wishes to you, fellow or future PhD candidate.

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All views expressed are those of the individual authors and do not reflect the views of The PhD Place Ltd.
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