The first supervision rule: ‘Tread softly, on my dreams’

This post is by Associate Professor Evonne Miller, Director of Research Training, Creative Industries Faculty, Queensland University of Technology.

But I, being poor, have only my dreams
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams

W.B. Yeats (1865-1939), The Cloths of Heaven

In thinking about the features of good supervision and inspiring supervisors, I have been pondering the relative importance of subject area knowledge, methodological expertise, research leadership / networks, and the more intangible individual and inter-personal traits like passion, personality, organisation, enthusiasm, warmth and approachability.

All are important contributors in determining the quality and relative enjoyment of a student’s phd journey, but which is MOST important?

And then, I stumbled across Yeats’ poem.

Early spring flowers


In the excerpt above, Yeats reminds us how valuable and delicate someone’s hopes and dreams are. Be careful, he warns, and tread softly.

While Yeats is writing about love, there is relevance and a message for thesis supervisors. While we can easily get caught up in the day-to-day mechanics and administrative burecurcay, Yates’ poem helps remind us to never lose sight that this PhD experience (at its best) is a precious, treasured dream for our students – so, let’s ‘tread softly‘.


How we interpret and enact ‘treading softly’ will differ depending on our values, personalities and time in the thesis supervision journey – as well as the characteristics and learning styles of our students.

At the beginning, it might mean sensitively channelling (not crushing) our student’s refreshing (yet often naive) enthusiasm, energy and desire to change the world. In the middle, it could mean being a supportive sounding board in light of unexpected data patterns, negative journal reviews or the simple challenges of balancing the demands of a PhD with daily life.

As supervisors, when our students are lost in their PhD journey, we need to ‘tread softly’ and show them the path to completion. At the same time, we have a responsibility to monitor stress levels and the pressure, reminding our students that pausing, taking leave and withdrawing are acceptable life choices.

And, in those last painful few months, ‘treading softly’ might be as simple as responding positively (with praise and encouragement, not email silence) in response to the first complete thesis draft.

For me, ‘treading softly’ is a powerful poetic reminder that our actions (or in-actions) have power; as supervisors, we need to remember that we play a critical role in shaping our students’ thesis journey and in crushing, or enabling, their thesis dream.

Thus, I propose that the first rule in thesis supervision is to be thoughtful, to be kind – in Yates’ terminology, to ‘tread softly’ .

What do you think?
What is your first rule of PhD Supervision?
Does ‘tread softly’ resonate or would you propose a different concept?

Join the conversation below and/or please feel welcome to submit a blog post documenting your own approaches.

Picture is of flowers


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