From a Triple I Ph.D. "Student" to a Supervisor
By Vasiliki Mylonopoulou, PhD
Postdoctoral researcher in Human-Computer Interaction
University of Gothenburg, Sweden
A couple of years ago I was part of an Innovative Training Network called CHESS, funded by the European Union. It was an International Intersectoral and Interdisciplinary training network for people who wanted to follow a research career in industry or academia. All of the 15 trainees were enrolled as Ph.D. students at their local universities. Therefore my Ph.D. experience was a mixture of what the network was asking from all of us and the day-to-day supervision with my local supervisors. Today, I am a supervisor myself, at master’s level and co-supervisor at Ph.D. level. Even though it is hard to separate the influence of the network from the influence of the supervisors, I am confident that my supervision style would not have been what it is, if one of the two was missing.
Early-Stage Career Researchers
In the network we had the label Early-Stage Career Researchers not Ph.D. students. It was pointed out that we were experts in our areas. We presented our research multiple times in the network’s events, different universities, and companies in or out of the consortium. Slowly the label “student” faded away and I started seeing myself as a professional early in my career. This gave me courage and I was bold enough to go and discuss my research with anyone regardless of their status or education - from a master student to a guru of my field. The important thing was to have a nice discussion with someone about my subject. Of course, I knew that I did not know everything, but I knew what I was working on and I felt I could contribute to a meaningful conversation.
Many fellow PhD researchers as well as my students carry the label “student” as a prisoner caries their ball and chain. They assume that they are not in a position to question someone who has more experience or is higher in academic ranking. This is one of the first things I say to my students: “do not let your label bring you down, you have studied and experienced a lot of things, you are an early-stage expert, and your opinion is valuable.”
Career and Development Plan
In the network every six months we had to update the career and development plan. It was a document in which, among other thigs, we had to note what skills we wanted to acquire, what steps we took in the past months towards them, and what steps we planned to take to improve them further. The skills were research focused and transferable. This document supported me in two ways. First, to think about where I wanted to go and what skills could be useful for me. Second, I had to list all the steps I took towards improving the skills in the past months. In the PhD process one can get lost, it is usually four long years, and you rarely feel that you are making progress. Taking the time to reflect on the actions I took and how those actions related to my personal targets, made me aware of the tremendous work I did in only six months even though I felt that the actual thesis was stagnating.
In the first meeting with my supervisees, I give them my version of this career and development plan. I explain that this is for them to think about their career, the skills they would like to acquire and for me to create opportunities for them to acquire these skills. It is a way for me to know that they get the support they need to fulfil their targets and not only the bureaucratic requirements to take their degree. Every now and then we visit the document, and we see what we did to reach the skill level they wanted to achieve and what to do to improve other skills.
Networking is extremely important in any career for cooperation and acquiring a job. From day one my supervisor arranged meetings to hold presentations on my subject to people she thought relevant and took me with her in networking events. In the second year I had the opportunity to meet people at conferences and later cooperate with them in other European projects, organise research visits to their premises, and participate in the events they organised which expanded my network. Of course, all of these were financed from the funding the network acquired for us and I can understand that an average PhD degree lacks such funding. Understanding the value of networking, now I try to learn how I can create an environment that fosters the development of networking skills.
Nowadays (2020-2021) COVID-19 restrictions are set in place, the networking in the conferences became harder but contacting people one judges relevant regardless of the place of residence became free of charge. I already started connecting my students with people that I think are relevant, however, I know it is up to them to cultivate the skill.
I have only started my journey as a supervisor however I feel that I have a strong basis to support my supervisees on pursuing their dreams and grow as people and professionals. CHESS network showed me the potentials of a PhD training, now it is time to use the tools I have, to create a nice environment for learning and growth.