Mónica López López is the Netherlands’ best PhD supervisor
5 questions for Mónica López López, Supervisor of the Year
PNN praises the way you help PhD candidates develop not only their research skills, but also their networking and other relevant skills. How do you help your students achieve this?
‘In my own trajectory as a PhD, I benefited a lot from international networks and connections with great researchers all around the world. These networks helped me establish international collaborations, gain support for my projects, and even find a job in academia.
Networking during your PhD is very important because, besides all the obvious academic benefits it brings, you can gain a lot of social support to help you navigate the most difficult moments of your PhD. I want my PhD researchers to experience the same support and opportunities I had during my doctoral research.
I speak openly about networking to my team members and to other PhD researchers that approach me for advice. I share my skills and my experiences, I explain my big failures, I introduce them to the research community, promote their work among my colleagues, and make room for my team members in scientific meetings.
I encourage my PhDs to organise symposia and take leadership roles in international conferences; and I extend some of the keynote invitations I receive to them, so we can present together. I also encourage them to share their experiences with others and I learn a lot from their own strategies.’
PNN also praises the versatility of your supervision. What is your secret to staying versatile in a demanding academic environment?
‘I think they referred to versatility in the context of playing different roles or caring for different aspects in my students’ lives. And let’s be honest, caring beyond the academic production is really hard. The system is very demanding, as you pointed out.
Under these stressful conditions, it’s easy to develop tunnel vision: you only see papers to publish and deadlines for their defence. This might prevent us from understanding their whole story, the obstacles holding them back, the personal problems that impact their PhD progress.
When you understand more about your students’ identity, who they are, what motivates them, what is challenging for them, and what they bring to academia, you can do a better job tailoring your supervision to their unique needs. That always leads to better results in terms of research output.’
What is the biggest lesson you have learned from supervising PhD candidates?
‘I think that in the beginning, I was more reserved with my team about my own struggles and failures. And I think that was wrong. It’s important to expose our PhD researchers to our difficulties and our disappointments.
When they only see you getting grants and celebrating papers and other achievements, they might develop unadjusted expectations of academic life. That can increase their feelings of self-doubt and their imposter syndrome.
Nowadays, I make sure that they know about my many failures and mistakes as an academic. We talk and laugh about it, we acknowledge the pain this causes, and we motivate each other to continue working.’
What is the most important advice you give your PhD candidates?
‘I would say invest time in building meaningful relationships and creating your academic community. Find colleagues that will support you intellectually and emotionally and do the same for them. This has a positive impact on your mental health, but it also lays the foundation to transform our institutions into better places. Practice academic solidarity and do better at understanding the situation of groups that face particular forms of oppression.
Showing up for your colleagues who are struggling in the academic institutions is important. Ask them about their experiences in a sensitive way, read and educate yourself about issues of social justice and equality. And be ready to step out of your comfort zone and to use your power and privilege to promote structural changes that will make our universities more ethical and inclusive.’
You are a popular speaker at local PhD days. What is the most important development you see in this stage of academic life right now and how should the academic community benefit or learn from it?
‘I’m seeing amazing things happening right now, thanks to different formal and informal organisations of PhDs in this university, trying to positively transform academic life. I also recognise the commitment of many staff members in these endeavours. For instance, I see a lot of good work to raise awareness about mental health issues in academia. It was even the main topic of the PhD Day 2019.
I see many PhDs raising their voice about systemic issues affecting underrepresented groups in academia. We’re finally talking about institutional sexism, racism, and power dynamics. And we are making some slow progress towards a more LGBTQIA+ affirming university (for instance with the introduction of unisex toilets).
While crucial, these conversations have been sometimes difficult to have. But I think we are ready now to start walking the walk. I trust that Gerry Wakker will be able to turn these conversations into real actions from the new Diversity and Inclusion Office. I’m very excited about this project.’