Fearful of being the supervision fool

Lili Bidwell 8 April 2017

At the start of first year, the prospect of supervisions seemed like the chance to relive the terror of interviews several times a week. Although the support of other students in supervisions should have alleviated some of those nerves, there was still that lingering suspicion that the questions posed for discussion would focus on the things that were confusing – meaning quickly going from treading water to being completely out of your depth.

Make no mistake, starting studying at Cambridge was an exciting prospect, and it has lived up to every expectation a student could dream of. As the Vice-Chancellor Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz says, “A Cambridge education offers you the chance to engage with academics at the forefront of cutting-edge research”, and the value of this cannot be understated. Being given the time to ask questions that help you work through confusion, and to be asked questions that force you to push the limits of your knowledge, is to be given the chance to engage with your subject in a way second to none.

Yet, while the pre-supervision nerves might have dissipated somewhat with the realisation that they aren’t as frightening as the vague memories of interviews might have led you to believe, that is not to say terror has been entirely eliminated in the battlefield a supervision can sometimes feel. As an undergraduate student, I may be extremely enthusiastic about my subject and driven to study it further, but I am a novice nonetheless. Being a novice in the face of an expert is nerve-wracking, to say the least – and there are certain embarrassing mishaps that it would be preferable to avoid. Mishearing ‘scansion’ as ‘scanning’ and so giving the wrong definition would be one of those mishaps (although of course an entirely hypothetical example, which hasn’t happened to me before).

When speaking to students farther along their Cambridge journey, the message I have often heard in response to such nerves is not to worry; nobody knows exactly what they’re doing all the time. This reassurance was even echoed by one of my supervisors, who once pointed out they would have no job if we turned up knowing everything and could just tell them all the right answers. This encouragement to openly admit ignorance has often given me the confidence to be the idiot and ask the question that probably has an obvious answer, but one I’d like to hear anyway.

Still in my first year, I’ll be the first to admit that nerves sometimes get the better of me, but I am quickly finding myself increasingly comfortable exposing myself as a know-nothing-novice.