Episode 58 – How to find a fantastic research supervisor (and work well with them)

This week we were so lucky to have the opportunity to chat with Professor David Dunstan about being a research supervisor. David holds a joint appointment at the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute and Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia with the positions of: Head – Baker/Deakin Department of Lifestyle and Diabetes and Chair, Lifestyle and Diabetes (Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition, Deakin); and Deputy Director/Physical Activity Laboratory Head (Baker).

His research focuses on understanding the adverse health consequences of too much sitting and the potential health benefits resulting from frequently breaking up sitting time. In particular, he has developed effective strategies to reduce and break up sitting time in adults with or at risk of developing chronic diseases and to support office workers to reduce sedentary behaviour in workplace settings. His current focus is directed at understanding how best to implement efficacious ‘sit less and move more’ interventions at scale within the healthcare setting for those living with chronic diseases and elucidating the effects of sedentary behaviour on brain health. Relevant to our conversation, David has supervised many, many thriving and successful research students and has lots of excellent advice to share.

You can follow David and learn more about his work here:


Jen (00:00:00)
Hello and welcome to Let’s Talk SciComm, a podcast by the University of Melbourne’s Science Communication Teaching Team.
I’m Associate Professor Jen Martin and my wonderful cohost is Dr Michael Wheeler and we believe that science isn’t finished until it’s communicated.

Jen (00:00:47)
Hello everybody, I am really excited to welcome you to another episode of Let’s Talk SciComm.
And as always I’m thrilled to be joined by you Michael, my wonderful friend and colleague.
How are you going?

Michael (00:00:58)
Hey Jen, I’m doing very good today. I’m super pumped for today’s episode because we’ve got a very special guest. It’s a rare opportunity that I’ve got two of my bosses in the same place. So you know, you’re probably glad I said excited rather than nervous.

Jen (00:01:19)
Didn’t we tell you this is a performance development review, Michael? That’s what we’re doing here today.

Michael (00:01:26)
Well, starting to feel a little nervous now and excited for today’s episode because as the listeners know, in addition to teaching science communication with Jen at Melbourne Uni, I also work at Deakin University here in Melbourne, as a researcher with Professor David Dunstan who is our guest today. So David, thank you so much for coming on the podcast.

David (00:01:51)
Oh, thank you Michael and thank you Jen for having me on.
I’m looking forward to it.

Michael (00:01:55)
Excellent. And we’re going to be talking about supervision today. We’d love to get some of your insights around finding a supervisor and working with a supervisor because we really think it’s so important. Supervision can help develop your research skills, your knowledge, your confidence, support. You know, your supervisor also opens doors for you. But it can be challenging.
It can be hard, finding a supervisor and establishing that relationship, that productive working relationship can be hard for some students. And then on the flip side, it’s also important for supervisors and can be challenging, but also very rewarding for supervisors as well.
So we’re very excited to talk to you today David. Just to give the audience a bit of a sense of your background, David is the head of the Baker-Deakin Department of Lifestyle and Diabetes at Deakin Uni here in Australia.
And David’s a world leading expert on the health implications of sedentary behaviour and also sit less, move morestrategies for the maintenance of health and prevention of disease. And he supervised many PhD students and postdoctoral fellows in his career thus far.
To just paint a brief picture of that career for listeners, David’s held many research fellowships over the years. He’s been a chief investigator on many funded projects, totaling over 40 million Australian dollars, both nationally and internationally.
And you’re regularly named as a Clarivate highly cited researcher. I think you’ve been named five times since 2018, which is a rare honor that not many scientists get to put on their CV.
You’ve also published over 340 papers and 5 book chapters. So you know, I think it’d be fair to say you’re fairly senior in your career, senior from a professional sense?

David (00:03:47)
Well, I’m glad you said that. I was starting to worry.

Michael (00:03:52)
So David, it’s great to have you on the podcast. I wanted to start by taking you back to when you were in the position of finding your own PhD Supervisor and working with them.
Looking back now, you know, how do you reflect on that experience and what you learned from it?

David (00:04:13)
Yeah, OK, you’re taking me back probably 25 years now. So it’s not fresh in the mind, but I think I can remember that it is a challenging period and a bit of a daunting period because just coming out of doing you know for instance, honours. And then having to initiate conversations with these people that you’ve read their work, it does take you out that comfort zone that you get used to as a student.
But it’s an important stage of your life is to actually take ownership of your own journey.
And my own personal circumstance was that at the end of doing honours, I applied for a scholarship from the Australian government. And they were being offered in Perth, which for those international folk, it was on the other side of the country.
I was feeling particularly challenged. I wanted to be challenged. And I also wanted to go to a place which had a reputation of being the number one in exercise and sports science. But I didn’t actually do my PhD in that department because the University of Western Australia has the Department of Medicine that works closely with the Human Movement Department.
And having an interest in cardiac rehabilitation, et cetera, I was directed to the School of Medicine, which was even more daunting because you’re dealing with clinicians, et cetera. But I think it was fortuitous because there was a project there that really was aligned to my interests.
And this is where I essentially fell into the world of type 2 diabetes. And to find a supervisor, I think, as I said, I took myself out of my comfort zone. And being confident, talking to senior clinicians who ultimately became my PhD supervisors, I think that taught me a lot in life is that you have to take ownership. You have to take ownership of your own journey. You can’t expect that it’s going to be handed to you.

Jen (00:06:19)
So David, you obviously learned a lot in the process when you were a student and you were deciding how you would you know, challenge yourself and what you wanted to do next.
But obviously, a couple of years have elapsed since then, and now you’re a really experienced supervisor yourself.
So I guess I’m interested, what have you learned about the student-supervisor relationship since then? And if you could go back, would you give yourself any advice as the student?
So I guess you know, if there are students listening now, what might you be looking for in a student? And what should they be thinking about when they look for this professional relationship, which is so important?
You know, a PhD’s three, four, maybe even five years. The relationship really matters.

David (00:07:00)
Exactly right. Relationships are so important in this because I often describe a PhD to a student as probably your most selfish period of your life, where you’re just investing in your own work. And unless you do the work, you’re not going to be successful.
What I’ve really learned from the other side of the fence is to have as much engagement as possible and communication as possible before actually signing to do a PhD.
And I really think it’s so important for us supervisors that we actually get to meet. Because that’s where you can get a sense of is this relationship likely to work? Does this person have interests that align to the work that you’re about to set them on to? And I think that it establishes that rapport early.

Michael (00:07:53)
Yeah, yeah.

David (00:07:55)
One other piece of advice is that supervising is quite busy and challenging. And I think some supervisors can fall into the trap of having way too many students at one time.
I really try to restrict that because the supervisor really needs to dedicate the required time to the student.
And for those that are looking out for supervisors at the moment, I would strongly recommend that they check how many students that supervisor is currently supervising because it can really impact on the time availability and also the engagement that occurs.

Michael (00:08:35)
Hmm. Yeah, I think that’s a really really good point.
I’d say David, it’s fair to say that you’re… that supervision is one of your strengths.
I turned out OK.

Jen (00:08:45)
Well, that’s up for, that’s up for discussion, Michael.

Michael (00:08:49)
For context, David was also my PhD supervisor. So OK, well, let’s say it’s debatable. We can come back to that point.
But we’re also supervising a student together now, David. And I’m able to see some aspects of how you supervise, I guess, from a different perspective than what I was able to see as your student.
And I guess every student is different. And I can see that you know, you need to adapt your approach to suit the student. And that really ties in with what we teach about kind of adapting your communication style to suit your audience. You know, it’s essentially the same thing.
And you also need to keep them focused on the big picture, support them in the day to day challenges and hopefully create opportunities for them, you know, open doors that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. So would you say that you have a particular approach to supervision or a particular supervision style?

David (00:09:49)
Yeah, I think I would lean more towards the hands on approach than the distant approach. And I think what you’ve, you’re referring to with current students etc. is having regular meetings scheduled. For instance, we have fortnightly meetings with this student.
And we also really encourage the student to manage up in terms of keep us organised and managed. So some of the things that we get the student to do is to send us an agenda of each time prior to the meeting. What are we going to talk about at the meeting? Because it keeps the meetings focused.
Then the other thing is following those meetings is having notes written about the meeting. So that busy people like ourselves can you know, refer back to if needed about well, why did we make that decision?
So I think it’s the managing up, this part. The other part is to establish rapport. I really in my academic life, I find supervising very rewarding. And in fact, it’s something that really keeps me enthusiastic about living in academia.
Because you can see people. You can see the growth that occurs over time. I mean, you’re a fine example Michael of the, of the growth. But for somebody that walked in extremely nervous about coming to do a semester, oh sorry, a year abroad, very nervous. But look how you’ve turned out.

Michael (00:11:29)
Yeah. I remember the first thing you said to me David, when I walked into the into the lab and I kind of met you for the first time. And you kind of you know, open my eyes to some possibility that I never knew existed, which was the fact that I, I look like a footy player, Joe Watson.
That’s the first thing. So you know, I realized at that point I was going to have to brush up on my footy knowledge. I’ve never met Joe Watson to this day. Joe, if you’re listening, I’d love to just meet you.
And I think that’s a really interesting point that you make about the student having to manage up. And it’s maybe not necessarily something that students would think about if they haven’t got this kind of experience.
But you know, as you say, they’re working with their supervisor and I guess their supervisory team as well. So you know, you’ve got multiple people on the team and they’ve all got different I suppose, strengths to come together and give a bit of a rounded supervision experience for the student.

David (00:12:33)
Yeah, I think it’s really important that you do get that different expertise, but also different approaches and different perspectives etc.
And I think an effective supervisory team works well when one or another of the supervisor can have the harder conversations.
And, you know, it’s a little bit of good cop, bad cop sometimes. But it’s important that it’s kept to a, a firm timeline.

Jen (00:13:03)
And David, I have to ask, are you normally the good cop or the bad cop?

David (00:13:08)
That’s a, that’s a good point. I’ve experienced both sides.
And I think as I got more senior, I’ve had to have some bad cop experience.
But I would say that I’ve had 80% good cop versus 20% bad cop.

Jen (00:13:25)
Michael is nodding, smiling.

David (00:13:26)
What, what do you think, Michael?

Michael (00:13:29)
I think that’s about right. Yeah. And well, 1% RoboCop.
I don’t know why I said that, just popped into my head.
There you go. Must be the silver headphones.

Jen (00:13:42)
David, you were talking earlier about you know, Michael kind of being young and nervous. And it makes me think, you know, we work a lot with Masters level research students. So students who are in their very first experience of being independent researchers.
And one of the things we discuss with them a lot is often they really just feel like an imposition on their supervisors. You know, they’re aware of just how busy their supervisors are. Sometimes they’ll say it’s almost impossible for them to even get time with their supervisor. You know, it’s a real sense of almost being a burden.
And of course, we try and communicate, “Well A, your supervisor agreed to take you on. So it’s part of their job. But also it’s probably their favorite part of their job. You know, it’s their most rewarding, interesting part of their job.”
But I’m interested in your thoughts on you know, what can a student expect I suppose, of their supervisor? You know, obviously it’s helping to make sure that the research is done well. It’s about publishing work. It’s about getting whatever thesis is required done. It’s about presenting at conferences.
But there might also be mentoring and guidance around applying for grants or jobs or setting up collaborations, editing work. There’s a million things that a supervisor could do to support a student.
Do you have any sort of guidelines around what reasonable expectations are on behalf of a student? Or does it just come down to you have to have a conversation around mutual expectations?

David (00:15:01)
I think it’s important to have those mutual, you know, those conversations about mutual expectations.
But coming back to your point about well, supervisors agree to take on students. And so I mentioned before about being careful about selecting supervisors that, who may be supervising eight to ten PhD students at once, because that’s 10 times the amount of work. It really can become challenging managing those supervisors.
I operate on sort of a method of if I know I’ve got so many tasks to undertake in the week, I put the PhD students’ work up the top because I know that they’re waiting for me to get back to progress to the next level.
And that might not be how a lot of other supervisors operate. But I feel that sense of obligation that now, I’ve tried to do it as much as I can because we all get involved in grant writing, etc. But I think it’s being again, managing up because often students may want feedback on a, let’s say, a manuscript and the supervisor has a grant due in you know, a week’s time.
Communication is so important in academia.

Michael (00:16:32)
Yeah, no, you’re so right. And I think I’m definitely guilty of that, David, sending you abstracts with two days before the deadline.
And you have to realise that you need to allow time for supervisors to give you feedback. You know, that’s absolutely something that you can expect from them.
But as long as you’re managing that time correctly. I think one of the other things then that I think you’ve been really good at is networking and introducing me certainly to other researchers, you know, especially at conferences.

David (00:17:02)
Yeah. And I place a lot of emphasis on that, Michael. Because I know what it was like myself when you go to these big scientific conferences without having people introducing you to other people. You can essentially feel a bit lost.
And I think, again, it’s another obligation of the supervisor is to do that and to create those networks and build an academic career. I mean, you’re set on the pathway to a successful research career.

Michael (00:17:32)
Yeah, definitely, definitely. And I guess the supervisor is, is able to open a lot of doors for their students as well in lots of different ways that may not necessarily be obvious, you know. A lot to do with networking, as you said.
But also it can be challenging. There is a lot of opportunity there I think for students. But difficulties do arise. And I’d love to circle back to, to this point.
What would your advice be around dealing with maybe some of the common challenges that that can arise during supervision, things like disagreements or conflict, miscommunication, even ethical issues?
What would your advice be around kind of resolving them or even, even better, preventing them from happening in the first place?

David (00:18:21)
Oh well, good point, preventing them from happening in the first place is a key. And it comes back to that managing up and that regular communication.
But it’s not without its challenges, you know, a PhD journey. And I think this is where, if having regular meetings scheduled, these things can be discussed.
One of the key pinch points is when it comes to manuscripts, for instance, and order on manuscripts, for instance. If a PhD student’s working on a project funded by the supervisor, what are the obligations there of who should be the senior author?
Now, we do have our own guidelines. What I’ve operated on the principle is that it’s the start of the PhD student’s career. And the most important thing is that they’re the first author. And it’s their work and what it does, it creates that ownership for the student to ensure that the work is of high quality. Having transparency about that process from the outset is so important.

Michael (00:19:25)
Yeah, and the guidelines you mentioned, you know, so important, maybe students don’t necessarily know about that.
But yeah, the National Health and Medical Research Council here in Australia do have guidelines around authorship.
And you know, how do you define that? Because it can be a bit of a tricky thing to navigate.

David (00:19:43)
Oh yeah. And we’re fortunate that we do have those guidelines.
But it’s still, for any paper, I think it’s just so important that early on you start to identify the author list and start to identify well, with your supervisor.
I think we shouldn’t place ownership on the student to have to do this. But the supervisor should provide that guidance on how to structure the author list that truly reflects the contributions.

Jen (00:20:11)
So David, listening to you sort of talk about obviously, there’s in any professional or otherwise relationship, you know, there is the potential for conflict and there’s communication and difficulties.
But I really love the fact that early on you said that it’s one of the most rewarding parts of your job. And I just absolutely love the fact that at the start of the week when you’ve got a busy week, you are prioritising time for your students. I think that’s absolutely superb.
And I guess I’d just love to hear from you, you know, if you had to kind of sum it up, what are the benefits to you of being a supervisor and being a mentor?
You said you love to kind of follow people’s stories. But I’m guessing it’s also really developed a whole lot of skills in you that have been really beneficial in your own career, things that you’ve learned by supervising students.
You know, if you had to kind of pitch to someone, this is why I think you should be a supervisor. What would you say to them?

David (00:21:03)
I often draw parallels to sport and the coaching in sport that I do with my young kids. And I think what I find the most rewarding is seeing the growth.
And you know, this is our next generation of researchers. And to put them on a pathway to a, an academic career that is set up so that the principles are passed on, that’s what I find so rewarding.
And it’s funny, when the thesis is written and the acknowledgement sections from the student are heartfelt and truly reflect, I find that so rewarding.
In fact, I share it with my family, with my children, et cetera. And then they go, “Wow, you’ve really done a good job here”. I mean, I think that’s not what you do supervision for. But I think that you have enormous pride when you see PhD students win such prestigious awards like Michael did in his thesis, being awarded the best PhD thesis at UWA.
And that’s where you feel that coaching, that coaching experience has been, has paid off because you’re seeing the player or PhD student on the highest, on the highest stage there.

Jen (00:22:22)
Well, it sounds to me like your students are very, very fortunate to have the opportunity to work with you, David. I wish I had the chance to be supervised by you.

David (00:22:32)
Oh, thank you. I think the other thing that the model that I have is that I see the students as one of the team members in the research team. So then they’re not sitting in another room. They’re actually sitting together with the research staff.
And that, I mean, camaraderie that is developed is just so important. And when you have research staff going out of their way to assist the PhD student. When you know, crunch times come, writing thesis and helping with you know, getting various forms completed, I think that that’s what you’re creating an environment that’s collegial and full of positive reinforcement.

Michael (00:22:16)
Hmm. Yeah. And it’s about I guess, creating an environment that is really, it’s an internship to be a researcher. And it’s about working in an interdisciplinary team and considering the PhD as a job, I guess. So, you know, I think it’s definitely good to foster that culture early on.
We like to foster a bit of a culture on this podcast of you know, lighthearted banter. I’m sure the listeners are so familiar with and that’s why they tune in all the time.
So… And we’ve gotten to that stage of the podcast where we’re going to move to the quick questions. So lighthearted questions David, just to round out the interview.

Michael (00:24:10)
First question I would like to ask is: If you had to pick an alternative career to what you’re doing now, what would it be?

David (00:24:20)
Oh my goodness. I would love to be a commentator of multiple sports on the television or radio.

Jen (00:24:28)
Well, that sounds awesome. Well, that could be your next career, I think.
Ok, second question. What is your proudest professional moment?

David (00:24:37)
I’ve got, I’ve got a many proud moment. And I think you want a quick answer, didn’t you?
I would say the proudest moments is seeing when all the PhD students are graduating, up on the stage there. They’re proud moments.

Jen (00:24:53)

Michael (00:24:54)
Yeah, I think we asked this question to a few people and it does come up a lot.
You know, it’s about enabling others to achieve and succeed.
So, you know, that’s a great answer.

Bit of a curveball question next, David.
I don’t know how good your ball handling skills are. But if you had to go back in time to witness any science or historical event, what would it be?

David (00:25:19)
Oh I, I would say the creation of X-ray. I still to this day cannot understand how that process can take place.
And I would have loved to have seen the science that led to the X-ray being developed.

Jen (00:25:34)
That’s a cool answer. I love it, Michael.
We have to start storing all these up so when we do invent our time machine, we know where we should head back to.

Michael (00:25:42)
Yeah, we’ll have a list of umm, yeah, action items. You need to go here and then here.
Leave going back to the dinosaurs till last.
That probably wouldn’t be a good first one to go back to.

Jen (00:25:55)
Yeah, good plan.
David, is there a topic in science that you’re really interested in, but that you’ve never had the time or the opportunity to learn anything about?

David (00:26:06)
I think increasingly I’m learning a bit more, but the whole use of digital technologies for delivery of health interventions is something that I would like to do a lot more in.

Michael (00:25:16)
Yeah, it’s a fast moving area with you know, technology moving so quickly. It’s very very very interesting.
So, David, you’ve given us some really good advice and valuable advice I think for a lot of our listeners.
And I suppose I wanted to, to round out the conversation, just to really ask what would be your very top tip for students who want to get the most out of working with their supervisor?

David (00:26:44)
Careful planning. Careful planning and time management, organisational skills is just, I think, just critical for the student, but also for the supervisory team.
Careful planning, choosing the right supervisor and then managing up. I come back to it all the time. Managing up is just so important.

Jen (00:27:04)
I think that’s just been a fantastic message for everyone to hear, David. And a really empowering message for someone who feels like maybe that’s not within their remit to manage up.
So I’m very grateful to you for sharing that message with everyone today. And I’m so grateful that you are such an effective time manager that you could make time to come and talk with us today.
It’s been such a pleasure. Thank you.

David (00:27:26)
Oh, thank you very much for having me on board.
He’s been talking about this for a while and I’m, I’ve been looking forward to it, to this day.

Michael (00:27:32)
I’ve been, yeah, I’ve been threatening, threatening to have you on.
So yeah, no, it’s great that we finally done it.
I’m sure there’s plenty of other things that we could talk about in the future.
But for now… Thank you, David. Much appreciated.

David (00:27:44)
Oh thank you.
Thank you Jen as well.

Michael (00:27:55)
Thanks for listening and thanks also to our wonderful production team, Stephanie Wong and Steven Tang for making these episodes happen behind the scenes. And thanks also to you, our listeners, for your support.
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