Long Distance Supervisorship

I just finished writing my master’s thesis and I am now waiting for formal signatures before I can submit it. The whole experience is still too fresh in my mind for me to provide an objective assessment, but one aspect of my graduate studies is worth talking about: doing research under a remote supervisor.

We all had this experience: it is the lab’s holiday party and everybody is having a good time. When the night is over your supervisor wishes you luck on your next semester and assures you that he will keep contact next year. Your confused look prompts him to divulge more information. You didn’t know it, but he is going on a sabbatical next year so he will be abroad when you pursue your first year of actual research. Memories from previous unattended research come back to you! You steel yourself. At least, you had the experience before. Good night!

Sarah had a piece on long distance relationship during graduate studies. Let this be the post on long distance supervisorship.

Maybe not the best way to keep in touch with your remote advisor (Credits: science-notebook.com)
Maybe not the best way to keep in touch with your remote advisor
(Credits: science-notebook.com)

Doing research for the first time when your supervisor is away is a challenge. Communication is slower which means it is much harder to settle on goals, make priorities, get first-hand technical help and get feedback. It is also difficult to get a “cruising speed”. Are you too slow? or are you burning yourself out?

One can be apprehensive of doing remote research, especially if it is your first time doing so on a full-time basis for an extensive period of time. Here is the advice I was given, wish I had been given and would like to give:

Formulate and work on [d/r]efining your research problem as much as possible when your supervisor is present. Any academic will tell you that defining an appropriate problem statement is a large part of the work. It is hard and requires a significant amount of refinement. Your supervisor has experience doing this and it is often the case that you will be investigating a problem she already has ideas about. Obviously the problem statement will be modulated by what one observes along the way, but starting with an agreed upon problem will significantly cut down on time lost conducting this part of the research over delayed communication channels.

Setup a weekly remote meeting time. I cannot stress enough how important this is. Every week have a remote meeting in which you outline what you have done since the last meeting, discuss the questions/encountered issues and settle on next goals. Simple remote video conferencing software such as Skype or Google Hangout suffice. Google Drive online documents are a great way to discuss things backed by a visual support. Granted, a regular meeting time does depend on your supervisor’s availability. Insist on it however. Talking things through every week can assuage your fears and get you back on the right road. It also paces you while remembering your supervisor of your existence. You can get much more information from this method of discussion than from a simple email.

Take more initiative. Because the feedback cycle is longer, you might as well try more things than what was directly asked for and discuss all of the results during your next meeting. You will at least learn something from this additional work rather than waste the slack time between responses.

Find other members of your research group that can counsel you. At least at the master’s level, you should have access to other PhD or finishing master’s students that can discuss research problems with you. Limited access to your main resource will force you to diversify your sources of feedback.

Setup a routine. At first, it will seem as though you have a vast amount of free time, but unmanaged it will disappear very fast with little to show for it. Find a work routine that is adapted to your pace and keep to it. It might be tempting to call it in early some days, but in the long run you will find yourself finishing more things if you keep working just as you normally would. It is a great opportunity to learn valuable self-discipline.

The reality is that this experience of research can be demotivating. If you know or suspect this might be your situation, then carefully consider the trade-off between independence and limited feedback when you decide to pursue or not remote research. For myself, I know I would now like to experience more frequent feedback in my next endeavour.



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