Reflections on HDR supervision: The graduate student experience

Ebony Monson (School of Life Sciences) and Allira Hanczakowski (HuSS) participated in the supervision panel convened by Jamie Burford during our first graduate researcher orientation of 2019. 

The reflections from all participants in this panel were thought-provoking and reflected the diverse ways that supervision occurs across the campus. Throughout this conversation it became clear that there is no one ‘perfect’ model for arranging supervision. It is always a complex negotiation between all the players involved and is responsive to the kind of knowledge that is being produced.

Ebony and Allira generously contributed to this post for us, based on their panel notes.


Photo by Kobu Agency |

Jamie: Could you please introduce yourselves and tell us a bit about your research project?

Ebony: My name is Ebony Monson and I’m currently beginning the third year of my PhD in the School of Life Sciences. My research focuses on looking for novel mechanisms that drive an immune response to viral infections, with the hope that teasing apart the complexity of an effective immune response will allow the creation of novel anti-viral treatments to combat in-curable viral infections. I currently have 1 primary supervisor (Dr Karla Helbig) and 2 co-supervisors. I also have 2 external panel members who have an input at my progress panel meetings.

Allira: My name is Allira Hanczakowski and I am in the second year of my PhD in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences in the discipline of Italian Studies. I currently have one primary supervisor (Dr Gregoria Manzin), while my other supervisor (Dr Brigid Maher) is on maternity leave. I am undertaking a practice-based PhD; I’m translating an autofiction novel from Italian to English and researching strategies for transferring culture-specific elements across linguistic and cultural boundaries.

Jamie: What is something you find really impressive that your supervisors do? 

Ebony: I’m really impressed by how my supervisor, Karla, finds the time to manage the five PhD students in our lab along with all of her other responsibilities; such as teaching. Karla always has time for all of us and always makes us feel like we are the number one priority. I also find it impressive how broad her knowledge base is. Never underestimate how much your supervisor knows! In our lab we have very diverse research questions that we try and answer, and Karla seems to always have these pockets of knowledge that she will whip out. If you are ever stuck on something I suggest going to speak with your supervisor as much as possible - they are there to teach/train you for a reason!

Allira: I am impressed by the approachability of my supervisors and the way they make time to meet with me and support me with my project. They have made it clear to me how I can contact them, and I know that I am also able to stop by to have a quick chat. I am also really impressed by the way that my supervisors help me to focus on the ‘bigger picture’, by always checking in to see how I’m going. By talking about other aspects such as work/life balance, teaching, etc. they help me feel valued and remind me that I am not defined by my PhD. I think the support my supervisors give me is one of the main reasons that my PhD has been ‘smooth-sailing’ so far.

Jamie: What is something you find more difficult that your supervisors do? How do you address that?
Ebony: Although Karla finds time for all of her PhD students she is a very busy lady. The way I try and help this situation is to be as organised as I can when I have a meeting with her- so I’m not wasting her (or my) time. I am really lucky in the fact that I don’t really have anything negative to say about my supervision. I am a massive believer in if you are able to keep on top of things by being super organised and really valuing the advice given by your supervisor, there shouldn’t be a worry with your supervisor.

Allira: Nothing really! I guess one of the challenges is that I am not given strict deadlines, and this is probably common to many graduate researchers. That means I need to make my own timelines and set myself some stepping-stones to achieve these.

Jamie: How often do you have a supervision meeting? What would you typically do in such a meeting? Are there other times you would meet?

Ebony: Recently, my supervisor and I set up an ongoing fortnightly meeting in which we discuss anything from the last 2 weeks that I want to talk to her about. Fortnightly meetings are a really good way to keep motivated- as I try and have new things (experiments, new pieces of writing etc.) to show her every meeting. It has been extremely beneficial to me as a supervisee and also I think Karla enjoys that she is regularly hearing about what I am doing to keep me on track or push me in a better direction. We also have weekly lab meetings with our whole lab, these are designed to have 2 people from the lab share their results every second week, and in the other weeks we have a journal club. For those who are not familiar with journal club, it is set up so a group of researcher (such as our lab group) will critically evaluate recent articles in the academic literature. For our lab, we are scheduled to present a recently published journal from our field in which our whole lab will join in a discussion to talk about the good and not so good parts of the journal. This allows us to highlight new findings, to read and appraise publications critically and even get new ideas from the new literature for our own work.

Allira: It really depends on what’s going on and what I have got coming up. For the first 6 months of my candidature, we would meet every three or so weeks. After that we met less frequently when I knew what I was doing. Now it is more frequently again, so around fortnightly. I always send my supervisors an e-mail a few days before saying what I want to go over. These could be broad questions, (i.e overall timeline), or it could be very specific research questions. I do this so that my supervisors have enough time to prepare as well. I also try to reflect on what I have done after the meeting, and plan the future direction as a result of our discussion. Sometimes we have also used our supervision time to practice presentations before conferences.

Jamie: What's the number one tip you would give to someone just starting out on a working relationship with their new supervisors?

Ebony: It’s really important that you have a close working relationship with your supervisor, and this is something I’m so lucky and grateful to have. To be able to trust that they have your best interest at heart is really important. I suggest to see your supervisor often, schedule fortnightly meetings to keep yourself on track and be really open and honest with your supervisor with how you are tracking or even with how you are feeling. I’ve certainly had a wonderful working relationship with Karla my supervisor, something I don’t think will stop when I hand in my thesis as she is the best mentor I could have hoped for.

Allira: I guess my number one tip would be: don’t be shy and don’t hide from your supervisor. It’s a relationship, and you will get out of it what you put into it. I think it’s really important to be honest and open with your supervisors about how you’re feeling and how your research is going. Don’t forget that they have been in your position before! I would also say that working in proximity to your supervisors is really valuable. It offers a sense of community and belonging, even just seeing your supervisor and having a conversation in the staffroom etc. So if you can, making the effort to come in and work on campus to establish that connection can be really useful.

Ebony Monson is a PhD student in the School of Life Sciences, La Trobe University. Her research focuses on looking for novel mechanisms that drive an immune response to viral infections, with the hope that teasing apart the complexity of an effective immune response will allow the creation of novel anti-viral treatments to combat in-curable viral infections.

When Ebony is not in the lab she is busy helping organise different activities for HDRs in the department as the President of the Physiology, Anatomy and Microbiology (PAM) HDR student Society! Follow her twitter at @ebony_monson and her lab @HelbigLab.

Allira Hanczakowski is a PhD student in Italian Studies at La Trobe University. Her research focuses on combining the practical and theoretical sides of literary translation, and addressing translational issues across nations, languages and cultures. Her previous work has explored the lexical-semantic aspect of translating emotion. Allira’s first book-length translation, Beyond the Undiscovered Soul, by David Bellatalla, was published in 2018 by Montura Editing. She has also published journal articles in The AALITRA Review and Colloquy: Text Theory Critique.