Challenge my supervisor?

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We expect you to challenge us, not the other way around. That’s the message blogger Nadya Karimasari gets in a meeting with her co-supervisor.

My co-supervisor, Wolfram Dressler, visited Indonesia a couple of weeks ago to do fieldwork in Berau, East Kalimantan. Thereafter he came to Bogor to present his findings. This is where I met him.

We had agreed to meet inside the majestic Bogor Botanical Garden, a vast area of approximately 87 hectares established in the 18th century that today contains more than 13,983 specimens of trees and plants. A tinge of freshness hung in the air; the grass and leaves were a bit wet; light rain had just stopped falling. We sat at a café near the orchidarium. Wolfram, in need of some energizing liquids after a workout session, ordered a cup of double espresso, a glass of mango juice without sugar, and a bottle of plain water.

After a while, I asked him what he thought about my research preparation so far. At first he replied: ‘Really? I thought we were just going to socialize?’ I couldn’t help it. I am eager to start my PhD research. Wolfram, who was an Associate Professor at Wageningen University for two years before he moved to University of Melbourne, Australia, gave me some advice. Among other things, he emphasized the need to balance meta-theory, meso-theory, and fine-grained empirical data. Also, he pointed out that it is important to not only work the whole day. ‘Go to the beach when you feel like it.’

We secretly expect you to challenge us

Because my PhD research is part of a collaborative team project, I also asked him how I could make sure my PhD proposal would fit well under the umbrella project, to which he replied: ‘We secretly expect you to challenge us.’ I paused, transfixed by that eye-opening line. ‘Otherwise, what would be your contribution to science? You have to come out of this PhD as your own independent mind’, he said. I was still without words, trying to absorb what this meant. As my research is on nature conservation in Indonesia, he added: ‘You are Indonesian. You have to tell us about your country, not the other way around.’

Take away message noted: I have to come to terms with this new perspective. My supervisors don’t intend to tell me what to do, which would be so much easier, instead they expect to be challenged by me. How am I supposed to challenge ‘giants’ when I am standing on their shoulders? It’s a huge task, indeed. I have to study really, really hard.

featured photo: Autumnal vibes in Oxford — © Stephanie Kelley 

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