Reflections on supervision (Helen Lee)

As the September graduation approaches, I look forward to seeing one of my graduate researchers get her degree, after persevering for nearly 15 years to finish her thesis.

Her case is unusual, as she had three periods of maternity leave and other long breaks for a range of reasons. But she was determined to finish, and I’m so proud of her!

It leads me to reflect on my experiences as a supervisor since she was one of my earliest graduate research students.

I’ve now supervised more than 50 postgrads and it’s one of my favourite roles as an academic. The close intellectual relationship that develops between supervisors and graduate researchers is always mutually beneficial and in some cases even leads to enduring friendships.

Each of my students has had their own issues to deal with, such as family responsibilities, periods of illness or simply the need to take leave to earn some money. Life gets in the way sometimes, so it’s crucial there is open communication between supervisors and students to ensure any obstacles can be navigated until the thesis is on track again. I’ve learnt over time that communication is particularly critical in the early stages of that relationship, such as establishing how often to meet and sorting out expectations around things like timelines and feedback. There can be significant differences in how much direction a student expects, or a supervisor wants to give that, if not addressed early on can, lead to confusion and misunderstandings.

Throughout a student’s candidature these conversations about expectations need to be revisited, as students require different types of support during the various stages of research and writing. These conversations can also include discussions about other ways supervisors can mentor their students, apart from writing a thesis.

Supervisors can be a valuable resource as students start to think about their careers beyond graduate research study, through encouraging them to present at conferences, seminars and workshops; to think about publishing some of their thesis material so they begin to build their ‘track record’; and to help in other ways such as putting them in contact with scholars in their field or potential employers. Many of my students have tutored in the subjects I teach or worked for me as research assistants; boosting not only their track record but also their income.

Few of my students have researched a topic closely related to my own research but this hasn’t been a problem. In fact, that’s one aspect of mutual benefit: I get to learn about all sorts of topics I wouldn’t otherwise have time to read about! My students benefit (I hope!)  from my knowledge of the discipline of anthropology, and my familiarity with what examiners are looking for. I can guide them towards meeting the examination criteria – especially when the research topic itself becomes all-consuming for the student and the task of producing a thesis seems overwhelming. There are always others involved in this process, anyway, and co-supervisors and panel members often bring particular areas of expertise the students need. I also encourage students to join the postgraduate culture of our department and the wider college and university, because peers offer forms of support and encouragement that can be all-important at times when students are feeling daunted by the vast amounts of reading they need to do, or struggling to make sense of their data, or finding postgraduate study a lonely endeavour.

As a PhD student, my principal supervisor knew nothing about my topic but was encouraging and always confident in my ability to produce a good thesis. However, he was always busy and I was often hesitant to request meetings for supervision. I know now I should have taken responsibility for ensuring we had regular meetings and requesting timely feedback but at the time I lacked the confidence to do so.

That’s why I see communication as the key to coping and, fortunately, it’s easier than ever now. As well as face to face meetings, supervisors and students can stay in touch by phone, email and Skype, even from a distance.

Throughout all the years of her candidature, and even during periods of leave, my soon-to-graduate student kept in touch with me and, when she was actively enrolled, we met regularly. Our ongoing communication played a vital role in her meeting her goal of graduating with a PhD, as did her determination and her enduring passion about her thesis topic. Our lunch after her graduation, with her three children, will be a celebration of her inspiring achievements!


Professor Helen Lee is a member of the Department of Social Inquiry. 

Her research focuses on the people of Tonga in the South Pacific and Tongans who have migrated and settled in countries such as Australia. 

She is a very experienced graduate research supervisor.