The beauty of having multiple and interdisciplinary supervisors

I want to reflect a little on my supervision today. I’ve talked a little bit about some of my supervisors before, but I want to reflect on it from a little bit of a higher level today.

As part of the Centre for Doctoral Training in Digital Civics, I am required to have a supervisor in Computing Science (or more specifically, from Open Lab) and one supervisor from a different school in the university. Since I am in the ‘public education’ section of my cohort, this means I have a supervisor from the School of Education, Communication, and Language Sciences (ECLS). On top of this, I am very lucky to also have another supervisor from Northumbria University’s Department of Social Sciences, Criminology in particular.

It’s amazing to have three supervisors that are so different from a disciplinary perspective. They support me in all sorts of different ways, and although having people from all these different areas supervising me is sometimes challenging, the negatives of being pulled in all of these different directions are definitely outweighed by the positives.

The amount of time I spend with each of these supervisors varies greatly. I work at Open Lab, and sit a few desks away from my supervisor from there. I see him most days, and have a regularly scheduled supervision with him every two weeks (though this has only started happening over the last few months). My supervisions with the other two supervisors are much more sporadic. I meet my supervisor from ECLS somewhere between every month and every couple of months. I see my supervisor from Northumbria at a pretty strange schedule. She is on the board for one of the charities I am working with, and is herself a researcher working on sex work research, which makes me see her in all sorts of different situations: for example, I’ve had supervisions at the charity office after board meetings, I’ve had conversations with her on the phone and often met her for coffee or as part of other projects’ meetings; next week I will see her at the COST ProsPol conference in Copenhagen.

I think it has only been once that I’ve actually had all three supervisors at the same meeting. As far as I remember, this wasn’t as chaotic as I would have thought it to be. But having said that, I absolutely over-prepared for the meeting too. It was a few weeks before I went off on a one-month internship at National Ugly Mugs (NUM) roughly a year ago. I had a little booklet of my project proposal, a detailed research plan, and other bits of reflections and writing I had done for everyone to take home and have a look at. We talked, in very little detail, about my project and how great it will be to get stuck in it properly. It was a nice experience, but I don’t remember whether it was super useful to the research (which I guess means it wasn’t the best supervision I’ve ever had…). Having said that, I think it’d be nice to have another one of these super-supervisions in the near future.

These different styles of meeting patterns also cater to different needs I have as a PhD student, and the tone, structure, and outcomes of our meetings are also often very different. Each of my supervisor has a different supervision style, different areas of expertise, and different ways in which they support me. Having very different relationships with each of these supervisors also leads me to talking about different things with each of them, sometimes focusing more on the personal and emotional side of doing a PhD, other times focusing very directly on specific projects I’m working on, while at other times I’ll focus on my PhD dissertation more directly. It’s weird and it’s nice, but what I’ve learned is that it is incredibly important for me to get on with my supervisors on a methodological / ontological level, but also on a topical and theoretical, as well as personal level. Having said that, I think each of them has a very different way of looking at my PhD and the work I do as a whole. They have different relationships to Open Lab, my projects, my dissertation, and ultimately me.

I like this though, I like that I need to cater to different types of supervision. I feel like it makes me a more rounded student and person, and forces me to look at my work through different lenses. This often causes tensions, which can be frustrating at times, but overall makes me reflect more on the work I’m doing and why I’m doing it.

Yesterday, I had a supervision with my supervisor from ECLS and she pointed out that the way I work is a really strange mix of pragmatism and self-criticality. On one hand I really like organising my thoughts in layouts, I like having structure to my writing, and don’t really want to start writing until I have a well thought-through outline. For example, I’ve written multiple outlines for literature reviews and more recently my dissertation overall, but since I am still not entirely happy with it havnen’t really started writing on these things yet. I know I need to stop doing this and just start writing, but knowing I am going to reflect on everything I’m thinking now to change it again makes me not want to do that. Yesterday however, she gave me some good advice: just stick with it for now. Stick with what I’ve got. It makes sense and seems to be structurally sound. I need to somehow learn to marry my pragmatism and self-criticality. A way that I can get to writing the dissertation rather than just writing papers while still letting myself be self critical (there is no reason why I can’t write stuff and then later rip it up and restructure everything. In fact, I know that that is going to happen, but for it to actually be able to happen, I need to have something written first).

So here goes. My writing goals for the next few months: have the sections of my dissertation that I can have written written by the end of the summer. I want to write a CSCW paper for mid-april, at least one CHI paper for September, and another CSCW paper for November. At the same time, I have my Annual Progress Review at some point in June at which I need to present the panel with some writing I have done for my dissertation. This means, I want to have written a draft of my literature review, methodology chapter, and the chapters for the two case studies I should have (almost) finished by the summer. This gives me the chance to spend the next year on writing my analysis, discussion, and conclusions, which would put me in a pretty good place for finishing on time.

It really was only due to the different types of conversations I’ve had with all of my supervisors over the last month or so that I’ve figured out a potential way of looking at everything I’ve been doing. It’s taken me more than a year and a half to actually figure out what it is that I’m interested in looking at in detail from the work I’ve been doing, and it’s taken me many conversations with friends, colleagues, and supervisors to get to a point where I almost feel confident enough to start writing my dissertation.

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