What happens when you know your study better than your supervisor does?

This is a tricky post for me to write – it feels risky in a way. I know my supervisor reads this blog, and I don’t want to offend her in any way. But I’m going to take this risk (and I think she would probably agree) because this is an issue that I don’t think we talk about enough, and that can be really challenging for PhD students to deal with when it happens. The issue is what happens when you realise, usually towards the end of the PhD process, that you know your work/study/theory better than your supervisor does. How do you navigate that, and deal with it constructively?

I confronted this challenge when I was working with my supervisor through my first full draft, and then some of the further revisions. Reading through my analysis chapters again, I noticed a few serious errors I had made that she had not picked up. Now, this may be because she skimmed some parts of the chapters and missed the errors (and I picked them up so all was well in the end), but that experience made me wonder: did I know better than she did what I was talking about? Had we reached a point where I needed to rely less on her advice and more on my own knowledge of my study and its parts, like the theory and data? I was not the most confident PhD student – I was plagued, really, by neurotic doubts and panic about my ability to produce a great piece of work. So, getting to a point where I had to rely more on me than on her, a scholar I truly respect and admire, was a bit terrifying. What if I was really wrong? But what if she was also wrong, or didn’t see what I saw because I had read more of the theory or seen more of the data than she had and so had a different and more intimate relationship with my study (which, of course, I did)? This was a serious quandary. Largely as a result of my own scaredy-cat, non-confrontational personality it was a real dilemma because I found that I did not know how to actually talk to my supervisor about this. I was scared of offending her, and I was not yet confident enough to really claim my own strengthening sense of my study and what I was writing about.

I don’t think I would have offended her – I recall her saying at a Doc week seminar around the time I started my doctorate that as student-researchers working on our own research we should get to a point where we know more about it than our supervisors do, and that this is a good thing because it means we are becoming more confident and able researchers, thinkers and writers who will eventually be able to supervise others, write books and papers, etc. I remember thinking that this was a really encouraging thing to say to us, because my vicarious experience of supervision, listening to many of the student-tutors I have worked with in the last few years who have been writing their own doctorates, was quite different. In many of these other supervision relationships (and to be fair I only know the tutors’ side of them), the supervisor seemed less than willing to hand over the power in terms of the knowledge and who holds it. Many of the students I have worked with have found working with their supervisors frustrating, largely because their supervisors don’t seem completely willing to allow the student space to take on the role of more confident knower, or the power in the relationship in terms of making decisions about what to write and what not to and how to present the final argument. In these situations, I wonder if the student finishes the doctorate feeling confident enough to go on and publish, present and build on their work.

In converse situations, I have worked with a few PhD students whose supervisors, like mine, actively encouraged them to own their work, and claim that researcher/knower role. These students presented their work-in-progress at conferences before the end of their PhDs, and co-wrote papers with their supervisors during and after the doctorate. They had a very different experience of their PhDs, and have gone on to have quite successful post-PhD careers thus far, largely because (I think) of the enabling and confidence-building supervisory relationships they were part of. They were encouraged to know their studies as well as, or even better than, their supervisors. They became researchers in their own right towards the end of their PhDs especially, and were not just apprentice students in a lower position to the supervisor in an unequal power relationship.

I am not sure that all students can take ownership of their PhD studies and their new roles as researchers and knowers in their field without encouragement and guidance. Those students who need very little supervision and pretty much do the doctorate regardless may well be able to claim these spaces more easily; but those of us who need the guidance and the advice, who need the feedback and support, also need to be told that it’s okay to know more than our supervisors do about our research by the end. We need to be told that it’s okay and even a good thing, because it means we are ready for the next step where we move out of the student-researcher role into the academic researcher role many of us do the PhD for, and where we can begin to share our research through publishing, presenting and building on what we have discovered. It’s a bit scary to realise that your supervisor has missed things you think they should not have. But rather than freaking out, try to realise that you saw those things and corrected them. You know your work that well. This should be an encouraging, exciting stage to reach, rather than a scary, doubt-full one – and I hope your supervisor will agree. I’m sure mine will :-).

Formal and informal ‘supervision’

I have put supervision in the title of this post in scare-quotes with deliberate caution. I am not implying that supervision during a PhD is not something to be taken seriously, or a questionable part of the process; rather I am signalling that we receive different kinds of help from a range of people during our PhD that I think could count as a kind of supervision – the informal part of the title, and the focus of this post.

Perhaps a good place to start would be to define my own understanding as well as other understandings of research supervision in order to create a reasonable working definition. David Delany, in a very interesting literature review on research supervision, cites many different understandings of how supervision can be understood or defined. Two key themes emerge, though: one is that the field of research supervision is a contested and much-debated discourse; the other is that supervision is definitely about pedagogy, with some writers defining it as a very sophisticated form of teaching, and an excellent space in which to bring teaching or pedagogy and research together. To be sure, research supervision is about building a new generation of young researchers who will push boundaries in their fields and do hopefully excellent research during but most especially beyond their PhDs. But how does a PhD student learn how to be an excellent researcher? And who should/could they be learning from?

Supervision can happen in a range of ways: through written and verbal feedback; through supervisors writing papers with their students; through providing students with illustrative examples of exemplary researchers’ work; through supervisors assisting students to develop conference or seminar presentations at various points of the PhD, showing their students ways in which to talk about their work; through supervisors being tacit examples of ethical and critical research behaviour…. Without going into all the ways in which supervision can work well or not, let’s focus on this working definition, then: research supervision brings together research, teaching and learning through a pedagogic relationship between a student and one or more experienced researchers/teachers who can learn from one another, and where opportunities are created for conversation, guidance,  and growth in especially the student’s capacity for research, writing, thinking and being in their field. I think this probably needs some tweaking, but if we accept that this is a decent-enough way of characterising what supervision could and should be during a PhD, we can see that there are others, apart from our formal and assigned university supervisors, who can offer us forms of informal supervision. My point here is that as PhD students we can draw on a range of these kinds of people and resources, and should, in order to help us progress more successfully and less alone-ly through our studies.

I, for example, was fortunate enough to be part of a research group, and spoke about my research to colleagues abroad and in my PhD programme locally. They were asking similar kinds of questions and using similar conceptual tools, so they were able to be critical friends, and offered me some very helpful advice, pointers and suggestions for ways in which I could think or write differently about parts of my thesis. I spent a lot of time to and from work in the car (about 40 minutes each way) talking to my husband, also an academic, about what I was thinking and writing about, and although he is in a different field entirely, he was able to listen, distill, summarise and feed back to me what I was saying in ways that helped me clarify or further develop and question my thinking. I also chatted a lot to a close friend on Skype during my PhD (also a PhD scholar) who offered both intellectual and emotional support (and eventually proofread my thesis). I read blogs like Patter and The Thesis Whisperer and got a lot of very helpful advice and support from these, especially from Pat Thomson’s posts on Patter. In addition to all of this – which I most definitely characterise as supervision, albeit informal and often ad-hoc – I had a very accessible, helpful formal supervisor, with whom I am hoping to continue working into my post-doc research.

I think I have been both fortunate in the availability and clever in my use of the supervision opportunities I have had. Where you may not have luck on your side in being assigned a good supervisor who understands supervision as a form of pedagogy, you may have to be more clever and resourceful in using other opportunities to get the help, support, guidance that you need. There are so many resources – kinds of informal and ad-hoc ‘supervision’ out there now: blogs by students and supervisors; friends; colleagues; partners; books and journal articles… In the end what I am arguing for you not to confine your definition of supervision to just the relationship, even if very functional and happy, with your formal supervisor/s. Drawing on other valuable, informal kinds of supervision which act as pedagogy and from which you can learn does not undermine that formal relationship; rather, it enhances your whole PhD experience and can make the process less lonely, less fraught and much more about learning, growth and your own scholarly and personal development.

What kinds of informal supervision do you make use of?

 

Choosing the right supervisor for you

Jorge Cham: www. phdcomics.com

Jorge Cham: www. phdcomics.com

This post is mostly about advice to prospective or starting-out PhD students, and it’s about choosing a supervisor and setting up a mutually respectful and constructive relationship. A PhD supervisor is the most important person in a PhD student’s academic life for the duration of the process:  good supervision can make the experience one of growth, stimulation and mentorship (and even some fun); bad supervision can lead to delays, frustration, blocks to progress and lowered self-esteem. So it’s important to choose the right supervisor and set up a mutually agreeable working relationship.

The first piece of advice was given to me by a few people when I was starting out: choose the supervisor and not the university. At PhD level you need to make a real contribution to knowledge-building in your field, and to do this you need someone who knows your field well, and can guide, advise, challenge and push you to do better research, writing and thinking than you may have done thus far in your career. A university with a great reputation may look like a good option, but who will you work with? Obviously there are compromises to be made here, and you’d need to weigh up your particular case looking at things like how far away your supervisor is, and how you would make the logistics work if they are not in the same city as you (mine is not, for example). But there are great online tools now, like Adobe Connect, Skype and Google Drive that make staying in touch across distances easier. Choosing the supervisor rather than the university tends to pay off if you can set up a good working relationship with them. I made this choice and it has worked out well for me, even though I don’t get to see my supervisor face-to-face more than 2 or 3 times a year. I chose her because she is a key person in the field I am researching and working in and I wanted to draw on her expertise and also connect with her networks of other scholars. This is also something to consider when choosing a supervisor – the world and people beyond your present research and work that they can introduce you to.

The second thing I have learnt a few lessons about is how to set up the relationship so that it works for both of us. I’ve been lucky – and sometimes finding the right supervisor is luck – because my supervisor is kind, open to new ideas and willing to talk about how things are working out along the way. We are similar people, so we tend to get along quite well. I don’t need a lot of contact, but I do need her to be there for me when I have questions or get stuck or write something I need feedback on, and so far it has worked well in that she has been there for me when I need her advice or feedback, and when I have needed to be left alone and not feel pressured she has given me space. I have learned to ask for what I need very clearly, so that there is no confusion or frustration later. I make a list of the questions and send them to her before we meet on Skype if I can, or at least tell her what I’d like to talk about. When I send writing it is with a covering email telling her what I have sent,  at what stage it is and what I need her help with (and also what to ignore or not comment on just yet). This works quite well, because she knows where I am in my process and can give me the feedback and advice I most need at that point and also point me in the right direction with the next steps. I think I really am lucky, though, because I work with other PhD and MA students who have had awful experiences of supervisors who are distant and disengaged and then suddenly appear demanding writing without any warning and then drag their heels with feedback and give unhelpful ‘advice’ that leads to the students getting delayed or even stuck. Supervisors have a lot of power in this relationship, and not all of them use their power for good.

Many supervisors don’t see that supervising is teaching and mentoring, one on one, and miss opportunities to really help their students grow intellectually. Students are the ones who have to deal with the fallout of being poorly supervised and it is really tough, so taking time to do your research and find the most right person you can to work with is important. Do some thinking about where you want to study, as this is a good starting point. Do you need a supervisory relationship that is face-to-face most of the time or can you cope with being remote? Think about your proposed research. Whose names keep coming up in your reading? Where do they work? Could you get into the university they work at, and request to be assigned to them as a student? Go online and search prospective university sites – look at their postgraduate pages and also look for your prospective supervisor candidates. Send a polite, well-thought out email to the person or people you’d really like to work with. Write a short proposal of a couple of pages about the project you want to do and ask them nicely if they’ll read it and think about working with you. Often when you apply to a PhD programme you need to name a prospective supervisor, and it’s essential that you make contact with them before you fill in these forms and name them. If they have a sense of what work you want to do, and have agreed to be named as a prospective supervisor you could have a better chance of getting into the programme and also launching your relationship with said supervisor on the right foot.

I’m sure there are lots of other hints and tips people have, and you could all probably tell a range of both encouraging and scary supervisor stories. These are the top lessons I have learned, and I hope if you are starting out that they are helpful, and that you end up being one of the fortunate students with encouraging and happy-ending stories to tell :-).