The other side of supervision – Interview with Henk Wymeersch (Supervisor of the year 2015)

HenkThe winner of the Supervisor of the year prize Henk Wymeersch, Associate Professor at department of Signal and system, discussed with us about his view on supervision and much more. Here comes the whole interview:

Q: Why do you think that you received this award?

I was quite surprised because I haven’t graduated any students yet [4.5 years], so maybe it is sort of premature. But I think the reason is that I am quite dedicated to my students.  As a professor I have many things coming at me but, I always prioritize people and papers. If a paper needs to be written or submitted I’ll drop everything, if a student needs help I will drop everything. I believe that people appreciate that.

Q: We asked your students how you can find time for everybody with such a big group [8 phd students and 2 post docs]. Their answer was: planning and preparation, do you see those among your strengths?

I would say so, I do it because there is no choice. If one works with so many people everything has to work like clockwork, everybody has to know what they are doing, when it has to be done and how their work relates.

Q: Do you encourage collaboration between students?

I try to make sure that each students has his/her own research area. When these areas are touching I point out the potential in the collaboration, but it is up to them. I am kind of the hub, I know exactly what everybody is doing and I make sure that these connections are available.

Q: How do you coach your students?

I have been changing my approach with time, initially I was doing more telling or taking work on me. Coaching is a better strategy both for the student’s growth and for me, but it takes a lot of time to drive someone through a learning process and the coaching style must be adapted to each situation. I am still improving my coaching skills but, the gradient is positive.

Q: You do not have a Swedish background, did you find supervision at Chalmers somehow different?

I have seen in other schools where people enter the PhD program and some of them make it and some don’t. It really depends on how strong they are and how they get along with their supervisor, and the supervisor could be very hands-off. Here the way how we do the PhD program is different, it is supposed to be more like a PhD factory. Students enter and after five years leave with a PhD almost guaranteed. This makes it harder on us [supervisors], because we have to make sure that everybody is lifted to the level of international quality required for a PhD, but we manage. It is a strategy where one has to push up the weaker students but of course the strongest students may not get the attention that they would get in other places. So we have to strike a balance.

Q: Are you talking about a particular supervision culture here at Chalmers?

Yes, we get a lot of training on how to do supervision, which changed a lot how I perceived supervision. The training courses are very good, and every year we have workshops with teachers where we can talk about these topics.

Q: Do you have an open discussion about supervision with your colleagues?

Yes, students have all sorts of problems, personal and research problems. Sometimes I do not know how to handle them but, I can always knock on the door of my colleagues. Here [at the division] we have other two professors who have received this same award and we are very lucky to have such a good culture on supervision.

Q: Do you feel more motivation or pressure from being such an important person in the life of so many young professionals?

It is a big responsibility. Worrying about the student’s research and career is something that is part of the work.

Q: How do you keep track of the situation of all your students?

So, what I do every week is have individual meetings with each student [1h] and a group meeting; then I try to walk every day into people’s office for a quick chat but, of course I do not manage every day. I know that some people are closer to me in terms of their research and some are farther away but in any case I have to make a bit of an effort and go talk to everybody and ask how it is going. It is a small thing but I think that people appreciate it.

Q: How do you approach on scientific problems?

Depends on the problem and the student. Some are more hands-off and for some we go through every line of a paper if needed. As research methodology, for some of them I have prepared a piece of paper that they hang on their wall, which is like an algorithm to solve problems. There are simple rules, one of them is: simplify the problem, if can be solved make it harder again, if it can’t be solved simplify more. It is like a loop whenever they get stuck I point at the paper. There was a professor at MIT who had a vision on how to solve a complex problem “simplify it until you have the simplest but not trivial problem and that is the one that you solve first”. It is a nice way to look at it.

Q: Your group has been growing in these years, how are the new members integrated in the work environment?

We have a so-called expectations meeting, where I send them a list of all my expectations and what they can expect from me, and I ask to send something similar to me. Later we meet and talk about it. This helps to remove some possible tensions in the future.

There is one more thing I want to bring up, I try to create a team of people not a bunch of individuals. We have a dedicated website [public], a logo, a brand and the students are proud of being part of the team. We work together and we have activities together so people associate to be part of that team.

Q: How important is it for a PhD student to be internationally recognized in your field?

If one wants to play at an international level, one has to be internationally visible. As a researcher, you need to go to the main conferences, work with the top people in the field and invite them over. One cannot play local, at least in my discipline [communication engineering]. It is possible to work only locally and do very good, but to disseminate the work one needs to be visible to the outside world.

Q: Sometime the PhD projects focus on the regional level which can be in contrast with what you just said

My vision to put my students into projects that would allow them to get this international visibility. Otherwise I am blocking certain opportunities in their future. If they want to have the experience to go abroad, do a postdoc, or work wherever, they should have it. If I am blocking them I feel that I am doing something unfair to them.

So every student is basically forced to go abroad for a few months. Each of them have international collaborators, some in Singapore some in the US, wherever it makes sense.

Q: How do you find this collaborators, is from your personal network?

Yes, I use my network to find collaborators for my students, sometimes magic happens sometimes not, and then I’ll try to find another collaborator. This is possible because I try to be very visible, I travel all the time (which is something that maybe the students complain about).

Q: They didn’t complain, they said that you have a response time of 5 hours on emails or Skype

Yeah something like that, I give a 24h guarantee.

Q: Do you find time to do personal research?

I have almost no time and this is a little bit sad, but on the other hand the students are like the instruments. We do math on the white board and it is almost like doing research on your own. I’m forcing myself to do research and I’m planning to write a book in the coming years so then I have no choice but to do my own research.

Q: Are you writing a didactic book?

No, it is on state-of-the-art research book. I like writing, so I wrote a book during my post doc. If you like writing, it is a lot of fun; it doesn’t sell like Harry Potter but it is a positive thing, both personally and for the community.

By Alberto Alamia