Dear New PhD Student – a letter from your supervisor

Dear New PhD Student,


This is an exciting time for you as you embark on your journey towards a doctoral degree. As your supervisor I thought I should write to welcome you and give you a few handy hints that may help us both to survive this voyage of discovery intact. We both have much to learn. Although we have exchanged emails, we do not know each other well. As with all new relationships we have both been at pains to display the good in us, and hide the crazy. Over the next three years this balance will switch, as we each reveal our true selves.

  1. My role is to guide you through the minefield that is the modern research process. You will learn how to identify gaps in knowledge, critically review literature, pose useful research questions, devise testable hypotheses, crawl through the morass that is research governance, acquire the necessary ethical approvals, collect and analyse data and so on.
  2. But remember I am not your sister, nor your mother, nor am I your counsellor – I am not even your friend. Some supervisors regularly socialise with their students. I do not. I am really not that interested in the minutiae of your life. I understand life events will impact on your work, and I will be very sympathetic and talk through practical solutions. But I am not your emotional support – that’s what family and real friends are for.
  3. At the beginning of this journey I will provide leadership and instruction. But a PhD is an evolving process towards independence as a researcher, so by the end you will be in control of supervisions and you will be telling me what you need from me. I am very happy to see this happen. It is as it should be.
  4. You do not need to be a genius to do a PhD. It certainly helps if you are bright, but some surprisingly unbright people seem to pass. The main characteristic you need in spades is ‘stickability’ – a ‘never give up’ attitude, and a willingness to suck up all problems that come your way (and they will), and find solutions to them.
  5. But not everyone who gets a PhD then goes on to be a full-time researcher, or becomes a Professor – so it is crucial that you make the most of opportunities to acquire other transferable life-skills that will be useful in non-academic fields.
  6. Your PhD research is unlikely to change the world. I’m sorry to break bad news, but there it is. For most people, PhD research is the vehicle they use to demonstrate that they have the skills and abilities to be taken seriously as a researcher. If you can change the world as well, then that is a bonus. But don’t expect it.
  7. Not everyone who embarks upon a PhD will pass with flying colours. I can (and will) give you my best advice at all times, but I am not responsible for your final thesis – you are.
  8. Although we start with me ahead of you, by the end we will be equal, and in some areas you will be my superior. This is also as it should be. For a brief, shining moment you should be the world expert in a tiny prescribed area of the topic you have chosen to study.
  9. I receive no specific reward or financial gain for the pleasure of supervising you – so yes, I do expect my name to go on any publishable papers which may emerge from your data. If no publishable papers emerge, I will be frankly disappointed.
  10. I have now supervised 11 PhD students. I can almost guarantee that at some time during your 3 year programme you will experience some kind of personal crisis (illness, bereavement, relationship problems, and so on). Or, if you escape these, then your research will be beset by some major drama (vital equipment failure, sudden disappearance from the planet of every patient with the condition you want to study). Again, I will be sympathetic and practical. Time out is always an option, to stop the clock ticking. But your final examiner will not care about your troubles. You are judged on what you produce and how you defend it in the viva – not on how much effort it took you to overcome life’s obstacles to get there.

So now, are you sitting comfortably? Then let us begin.

Good luck – and may your journey be fruitful,

Your Supervisor


For those looking for more serious and sensible and useful advice about doing a PhD in the UK – start here

Not just another PhD

Advice for new PhD students

Advice to new PhD students

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18 Responses to Dear New PhD Student – a letter from your supervisor

  1. Brilliant, useful for supervisors as well as students! Brings back memories, I always enjoyed the moment when the student “turned the corner” and the independent thought took over from waiting to be spoon fed.

    • annebruton says:

      Thanks for commenting. This posting has divided opinion on Twitter (Marmite style). The main bone of contention seems to be my attitude to co-authorship. In this I follow the guidelines for biomedical journals and believe I fulfil all the criteria for papers produced by those I supervise during their PhD years. I believe the key to harmony is to discuss authorship openly and upfront before any paper is drafted, so everyone knows what to expect. All research is collaborative. Co-authorship reflects this collaboration.

      • Rahul Siddharthan says:

        The link is broken. And, yes, this troubled me too. I’ve known plenty of students who published independently of their guides, and I feel such independence should be encouraged.

      • annebruton says:

        This post was written with my tongue firmly in my cheek – so not to be taken too seriously. Of course PhD students should aim to become independent of their supervisors – that is the process. In the UK system, it would be unusual for students not to have significant input from their supervisors when writing for a publication, which is why we would expect to be included as authors.

      • Rahul Siddharthan says:

        Thanks for the response! And I commented before checking the age of the post (someone shared it on facebook). BTW, ICMJE’s site elsewhere has guidelines for who should be an author, possibly different from what you linked: they give four criteria, ALL of which should be satisfied for authorship (and anyone who satisfies all four criteria should be an author). While advisors in general would satisfy these criteria, I have known several cases where they didn’t, and refused authorship

  2. anonymous says:

    While I can understand the opinions stated here, I think this is rather old school ‘put up and shut up’ and ‘It was suffering for me so it should be for you too’.

    I wonder if you’ve read grad hackers latest post on pg mental health? what you perceive as wanting to be spoon fed could potentially be a cry for help from an overwhelmed sstudent . most students know from undergrad that they need to be independent. But all the tacit rules of academia make it difficult. A post about some of those things might have been more positive and helpful for new phd students. This sounds a little bit like a moan…

    • annebruton says:

      Hello Anonymous. Thank you for commenting. I’m sorry you were not able to read all the way through to the end of this posting. If you had, you might have realised this was written with a touch of irony, and not as a genuine advice letter to PhD students. That is why I wrote: ‘For those looking for more serious and sensible and useful advice about doing a PhD in the UK – start here’ followed by some links, at the end. Good luck with your research.

      • Rishi says:

        There are couple of more point you should add.

        — Here is a list of all my former PhD students and their status. Most likely this is where you will end up after doing a PhD with me.

        — Here is a list of my former PhD students who did not finish.

        The best link for advice is

      • annebruton says:

        Thank you for commenting.
        My first PhD student completed in 2007. Since then I have supervised a further 7 doctoral students to completion (6 PhD and 1 DClinP).
        Of these 8 students: 2 were awarded research fellowships for postdoctoral research (UK), 3 had appointments in Higher Education (UK, Thailand, Portugal), 2 went into clinical leadership roles (UK, Saudi Arabia), and 1 returned to China to seek employment.
        I have also had one student fail to complete, whose registration was terminated by the university.
        I currently supervise 3 other PhD students, with a new one due to start in October 2014.

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  5. Marco says:

    You know, if I wrote such an inhuman letter to any of my PhD students, I would be ashamed.

    But, there are people out there who like and approve the whole “dog eats dog” approach to life. Good luck with that!

    • annebruton says:

      Thank you for your comment.
      I disagree with your use of the term ‘inhuman’ but believe you are entitled to express your opinion. Irony never travels well outside the UK.
      Good luck to you too!

      • Isabel says:

        I completely agree with Rishi.
        Successful supervisors generate (mainly) successful students. I was lucky in that.
        Beside that, I might say that the irony is very very subtle in this letter. But, I understand that no everyone has the ability to write down own ideas in a good manner. We have to take it on faith…


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