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Daily Archives: October 24, 2014

The PhD Seesaw

At the Graduate Research School’s recent Networking function I had the pleasure of talking to a PhD candidate, Sim KwongNui, who I discovered was happy to write a post about her experience as a thesis candidate at Otago.  Sim said, ‘but it’s not a bad news story!  I really like my supervisors and I like doing a PhD”.

It’s really easy to focus on the negative; on the hiccups we have along the thesis journey, on the troubles we have with writing or with our supervisors. It is important to acknowledge these issues and to speak openly about our difficulties and to examine possible solutions.

However, it is also important to celebrate our successes and to acknowledge the awesome work and the fantastic collaborations that are happening all the time across the University. No thesis experience should be just a bad news story!

This is Sim KwongNui’s reflection on the role her supervisors play in her study and a chance to celebrate a good news story.

Claire Gallop, Graduate Research School


“PhD study is like a seesaw ride full of ups and downs but I am blessed to say that my PhD study is a well balanced seesaw ride where my three supervisors keep it calm and steady at all times.”



When asked why I pursue my PhD study in the same department at the same university, an answer I always give is “Because I have great supervisors!” Honestly, I do.

Undoubtedly, all my three supervisors are quite different in their ways of carrying out a research project, providing supervision or giving feedback. Here are some examples of their different ways of talking to me in a similar scenario:

Supervisor X: “I hope you are spending the afternoon celebrating reaching this important milestone!”

Supervisor Y: “All good. Just one suggestion.”

Supervisor Z: “You are progressing fine. However, I would suggest that to finish in time you will need to be investing more time in writing.”

It is fascinating to see the differences in my three supervisors’ personalities. Somehow those differences complement each other and balance my PhD seesaw ride nicely. After all, my supervisors are not all the same as individuals so why would they be all the same as supervisors?

I really appreciate my Primary Supervisor’s empathy, motivation, enthusiasm, immense knowledge, and, above all, her untiring assistance and unerring support of all aspects of my PhD study. I will always remember the many times that I go to her and she has never failed to be there for me.

I am also indebted to my talented and highly motivated co-supervisor, for his generous and unequivocal support of my academic pursuits. I could not continue my efforts without his consistent encouragement and enthusiasm.

My sincere gratitude also to my other co-supervisor, for persevering with me as my supervisor from the time I started my Masters study. He has played a vital role in developing my understanding of research and he has provided me with a deep appreciation of this field of study. I attribute the level of my current position in academia to his excellent guidance, effort and patience throughout my research journey.

In short, all of my three supervisors’ encouragement and depth of knowledge, as well as their availability, have been major catalysts for my PhD study. For their contribution and good-natured support, I could not have wished for better or more approachable supervisors.

I understand that many postgraduate students have issues with their supervisors (or vice versa) but I wonder if it is due to the supervisor(s) and/or the student’s misconception of this seesaw ride? The reason a seesaw was made for two parties is that when you go down, there is always someone there to lift you up again.

Undeniably, I am lucky to have three supervisors who not only lift me up but also work as a team to keep my ride safe and stable. Nevertheless, I believe it is a joint effort between the supervisor(s) and the PhD student that makes this seesaw ride a good one – our most difficult task as a working partner is to offer understanding when we don’t really understand.

So, perhaps let’s not allow one bad apple to spoil the rest of the basket: there are always good apples for us to enjoy.

 Sim KwongNui, PhD Candidate, Higher Education Development Centre