One of the most important things to have during a PhD is a good supervisor. Not only someone who knows their stuff academically, but someone you feel you can trust to honestly critique your work, someone you can go to for advice and support, someone who gets that this whole PhD thing is tough and wants you to succeed at it.
PhD candidates at my university typically have two supervisors, one primary one who is usually more experienced, and a secondary one who is often an early career researcher. When I started, my primary supervisor was Professor Anthony Smith: a giant in the field of Australian sexual health research and a gem of a human being.
Unfortunately, in September 2012, Anthony was diagnosed with lung cancer and passed away a couple of months later, two years ago today on November 7, 2012. I wrote this piece a few days later, to have a record of some of my favourite memories of him.
When I first met Anthony, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of him. We got off to a bit of a rocky start, which probably didn’t help: he’d been on leave for the first six weeks or so of my PhD, so I’d gone through the process of narrowing down a topic and starting a literature review with only my secondary supervisor to turn to for advice, keeping Anthony up to date via emails (to which I never got a single reply). The only thing I knew about him was that he was called Anthony just like my associate supervisor – in my head, I’d dubbed him “Big Anthony” and the other “Little Anthony,” which was fitting because Anthony Smith was both taller and older than Little Anthony. Together, they were the A-Team, which delighted me no end.
But anyways, that rocky start….at our first meeting, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. Other people at ARCSHS had nothing but good things to say about him, but I didn’t have any idea what he was really like and I was a bit worried that we wouldn’t get along, wouldn’t be able to work well together. I walked into his office that first time, introduced myself and said something along the lines of “It’s good to finally meet you.” He nodded, as if to say, yes, social niceties must be observed, blah blah etc., and then launched into a lengthy explanation of why he didn’t particularly like the topic I had chosen (possibly not original enough and too difficult to collect data on) and what HE thought I should be doing instead (something about lesbians and field hockey, the exact details of which have totally escaped me). I was completely and utterly disinterested in said topic, and told him so. He looked a bit taken aback, but sighed just a tiny sigh and said that of course, the final decision was up to me as it was my PhD, and we carried on from there.
Thankfully, our relationship improved, especially when I discovered that he had a wicked sense of humour. It took awhile to get used to the fact that he was quite blunt, definitely not a “heap praise on you when you’ve done even a mediocre job of something” type of person, but that actually made it even more incredible when I got any sort of compliment from him at all. (As an illustration of his straightforward way with words, consider what he said to me after I’d given a presentation to ARCSHS on my research proposal. I stopped by his office afterwards and asked him how I’d done – maybe fishing for a compliment just a teensy bit – and to ask if he had any tips for future presentations, and all he said was, “Well, you’re not going to give that talk again, so it’s a bit irrelevant, isn’t it?” That was Anthony.)
One of my favourite Anthony moments took place not long after I’d started, so I’d only known him for about a month. I had managed to pinch a nerve in my neck (a repeat injury, actually, as I’d done the same thing the year before) and so was in quite a lot of pain. I went to the doctor’s and on my way home, stopped by ARCSHS to ask if we could reschedule a meeting we’d had set for the following day. He looked horrified at the sight of me in the neck brace I’d been given, told me to take as much time off as I needed (although he suggested a lengthy reading list I could make progress on while laid up in bed) and then asked in a very concerned voice if I’d been given the “good painkillers,” the ones with codeine in. I said yes, I had, and he said, with a perfectly straight face, to remember that if I didn’t need them all, I could probably make quite a lot of money selling them on the black market and also to let him know if there was anything he could do to help while I recovered.
Even though I only knew him for a little over a year, Anthony had a huge impact on my life, not just as a supervisor but as a person. He was completely unique, quite unusual, completely irreplaceable, and I will miss everything about him, from the giant bowls of mints he kept in his office to his rants at the ineptitude of university bureaucracy (which were spectacular). The fact that he will not be guiding me through the rest of my PhD, that I will never again show up for a meeting to hear him grumbling about this or that piece of technology, or glance at the “Mr Smith” sign on his desk and wonder at its significance – I really wish I’d had the guts to ask – doesn’t seem quite real yet. I wish I’d had more time with him. I wish I’d talked to him more. I wish I’d told him that I called him Big Anthony….thinking about it now I think he probably would have found it funny. I wish he’d been around to see at least the transcript of my first participant interview, to tell me that I’d not done a great job but next time would be better (probably). But mostly, as cheesy as it sounds, I wish I’d made it more clear how important he was to me and how much I appreciated having him in my life.
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