A Survival Kit for Doctoral Students and Their Supervisors
By Lene Tanggaard & Charlotte Wegener
SAGE Publications, 192pp | Buy on Amazon

Branded as a practical guide for managing the supervisor-doctoral student relationship, the book tackles much more than just that. It offers some much-needed perspective on one of the most important but often neglected relationships in science – that between a research student and his or her mentor.

Whether it’s math, engineering or social sciences, research is certainly not your average field of work. The average day looks nothing like most jobs and the challenges and rewards are often completely different from what you’d expect in other fields. Yet just like in any other job, there are fixed deadlines and concrete outcomes which need to be achieved. How then, do we best manage this situation?

The first step, Tanggaard and Wegener argue, is to treat the PhD like an apprenticeship. After all, the biggest challenge is not the project in itself, but rather becoming accustomed – or even better, becoming integrated – to a science community. This is more difficult than it sounds, and sadly, it’s a point where many students fail before they even start.

The whole thing starts with a right match. Too many people rush into any doctoral project available to them, without thinking about their match with the project, and the professor. Then, as the project evolves, so too does the relationship. If there was a mismatch from the start, things will get even worse and frictions will occur.

This is greatly amplified by the fact that becoming a researcher is not something you do one-time. It’s a process, and even more – it’s a way of life.

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The book writes:

“Living a life as a researcher is a never-ending iterative process of becoming. [..] The professional life as a researcher involves identity formation that is never fully accomplished, always in a process of learning and participation.”

I love that the book gives a lot of perspective on both ends, and it doesn’t shy away from hardcore topics, even some considered tabu. For example, one doctoral student tells of a failure which he couldn’t understand.

“I have lived through most doctoral students’ biggest nightmare – failing, being deemed not good enough, being fired.” He gained nothing from this experience, except a bit of perspective. “But I survived, the world kept turning [..] Failing dramatically in one’s doctoral research is not, thankfully, the end of the world.”

This is where I think the Survival Kit really shines — I only have my own doctoral experience (as a student) as a source of information, but it seems that everyone has their own, different, idea on PhD mentoring. This being said, it also does what it says in the title: it is a survival kit. It offers practical advice in every chapter, covering a broad range of topics.

There is also a distinct quality in the way the book, a charming clearness to the way the ideas are expressed, even when the topic is complex or delicate. Therefore, I recommend the book to all doctoral students and professors. Furthermore, I think reading it would benefit everyone working in science engaged in such a relationship – no matter what end they are on. It’s rare to get good advice on such things, and A Survival Kit does just that.

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