Managing a relationship with your supervisor/s

If you ask a cross-section of postgraduate students what one of the best (or worst) parts of doing their MA or PhD is, most of them will likely tell you something about their supervisor(s). A supervisor can make or break a postgraduate degree process, and I have to say I have heard too many terrible stories about students being poorly treated, ignored or just inadequately supported by their supervisors. But these stories do make me wonder if there needs to be more thought put into how to choose a supervisor, and then ‘manage’ a relationship with that supervisor to ensure that it works for both of you as effectively as possible.

I have started co-supervising students; I am working with one student in her final year and have just met a new student. I have to say, it’s a lot harder than I thought it would be, emotionally and intellectually. I worry about whether I am giving these students the right kinds of advice, whether I am being too directive or not directive enough, and whether I am helping them effectively to write the best possible thesis they can. Supervision is absolutely a form of pedagogy, and requires a dialogic, constructive relationship between student and supervisor to work really well over the long period of time that the average PhD (or even MA) takes to complete. And the work of building this relationship can be difficult, and must be done on both sides of it.

I concentrate, with the students I am fortunate to work with, on making myself accessible to them, and open to questions, feedback and so on. I try to give comments and feedback within 2 weeks, and mostly have been able to keep to this so far. I think accessibility, openness and timeous feedback are pretty standard expectations to meet, and all of this goes a long way to creating space for that pedagogical relationship to grow. But, I am also following my own supervisor’s example here. She was very accessible, open, warm and gave relatively quick and always useful feedback. I felt very well supported and mentored, and she is now a colleague, and still a mentor, that I am so fortunate to have. I want to be this kind of supervisor. But, even as I try to be all of these things, I still get really busy, and distracted, and I forget things. I still need to be managed by my students. I need to be reminded that I owe them an email, or prodded when they need an answer to a question, a form filled in or a recommendation for funders.

supervision 1

I think there are students who go into the MA or PhD with the expectation that the supervisor/s will set the pace and tone for the project, and will ensure that deadlines are set and met, and so on. Perhaps this is an expectation carried with them from undergraduate study, which is a good deal more structured than postgraduate study, generally speaking. Some supervisors may well be this structured, especially with a shorter MA project, but many are not. PhDs especially are as much about the actual research as they are about learning to become a more self-directed, independent researcher (who can eventually lead research projects and supervise others and so on). Thus, as a PhD student you may well be expected to take responsibility for your own project, and your supervisor may actually wait for you to ask for assistance, or feedback, or for you to check in and let them know how you are doing rather than being ‘on your case’ as such. If you do not, they might follow up periodically and ask how you are doing, but if you stop responding or go underground, a busy supervisor might just assume that you are either fine, or are no longer doing your research. While they perhaps should not just leave you be (especially if you really do need help), they may choose to focus on their other active students and projects, rather than spend more time trying to reach you with no response.

I would imagine students in this position feel neglected, and that’s a horrible place to be. But here’s the thing: you need to consider making the first move if this is where you are. You need to reach out and get in touch and let your supervisor/s know what’s going on with you. Perhaps they will step up and help if you let them know you what you need to get through this rough patch. Hopefully there will indeed be some part of it they can assist with, that is within the realm of their role as your supervisor.

If you have stopped talking to your supervisor/s or sending in pieces of writing for them to read, or stopped talking to peers even, pause here. Why have you stopped? Are you overwhelmed, struggling with reading, unable to write, writing a fair bit but worried it’s all rubbish and therefore don’t want to send it in? Odds are, your supervisor can help if you let them. Rather than waiting for someone, somewhere, to sense your distress and help, take a deep breath and reach out. Your supervisor/s can’t (and perhaps shouldn’t) always be the ones reaching out, setting deadlines, cajoling students into sending writing and so on. As doctoral students, we are expected to actually be able to cajole ourselves into writing and sending it in, and set our own deadlines, and ask for help when we need it. It’s tough, but it is part of the learning of the PhD: learning to be brave, write, ask for feedback, and receive it (even when it’s negative or difficult to hear).

frustration

If you are trying to manage your supervisor and they are ignoring or neglecting you, pause here: Are you being fair in your requests? For example, have you sent your supervisor 100 pages and are expecting quick feedback when this is the first piece you have sent them in ages, and needs careful reading? It would be better if you sent smaller chunks of writing, and gave your supervisor at least 2 weeks to get back to you. That way they can manage quick feedback, and give you more constructive assistance as your thinking unfolds. Have you given your supervisor a clear request for feedback? Rather than sending an email that says: ‘here’s my latest draft, thanks’ or some version of that, be more specific (and polite). Ask for particular feedback, and maybe request a face-to-face or online meeting 2 or 3 weeks hence. While it is undeniably necessary for supervisors to be responsive and present, it is also necessary for students to be fair, reasonable and clear in their communications.

If you are one of the unlucky, and probably very unhappy, students who has tried just about everything they can think of, and still cannot effectively manage your supervisor, it may be time to take more drastic steps, like approaching the head of department, or a mediator of some kind in your faculty, to try and resolve the situation. If you cannot, perhaps try to find help in other, more constructive places. As I have said before: it is an unhappy truth that not all supervisors use their power for good. But, even the good ones need some help from their students in learning how to supervise effectively – each student is different, and each supervision relationship unfolds differently and at a different pace. Consider ways in which you can play your part in maintaining and enhancing the two-way relationship with your supervisor/s, tough as that may be. If you have other suggestions for others who are struggling, please share them in the comments.

Making the jump from M to (Ph)D: supervision and literacy development

Although this blog is primarily focused on writing a PhD thesis, and more latterly on writing for publication, I have become aware fairly recently that I have several readers who are Masters students. This post considers the move from masters to doctoral study, and the supervision needs to scaffold further development in (Ph)D students’ literacy practices, building on the M(A).

Perhaps a good place to begin is with a generalised sense of what an MA thesis is, compared to a PhD thesis. A colleague recently commented that, if you want to be an academic working in some form of higher education institution these days, the Masters is the new school leaving qualification and the PhD is the degree. This signalled to me that, certainly in academia, the PhD is the basic standard if you want to be taken seriously, and in all cases I know of you need an M degree of some kind (MA, MSc, MPhil, MFA etc) to apply for and be accepted into a PhD. A Masters degree by coursework, involves a good deal of reading, writing shorter and longer papers on aspects of your reading, both assigned and self-selected, and culminates in the researching and writing of a thesis of around 30,000-40,000 words; an MA by research only involves choosing a research focus, designing an appropriate study, and researching and writing a thesis of around 60,000 words.

Giuseppe Momo's spiral staircase at the Vatican (thetimes.co.uk)

Giuseppe Momo’s spiral staircase at the Vatican
(thetimes.co.uk)

The point about an MA being a prerequisite for PhD study implies that completing a Masters degree would act as a form of preparation for PhD study, and that if you succeed, you will be well able to make the step up from MA to (Ph)D study. I have to say, in my own case, I did not find this to be quite true. My own MA degree, a mixture of rigorous coursework and writing shorter papers with a longer research paper (during which I was not well supervised), did a rather poor job of preparing me for my own PhD, which I started five years after finishing my MA. I did well in my MA – it felt mostly familiar to me as it was structured similarly to my previous Honours degree. The literacy demands were greater, especially around the reading and seminar preparation, but on the whole it felt manageable. My first year of PhD study was a shock to the system.

The main reason for this shock, on reflection, was that I really had no clear idea of what a PhD actually was or what researching and writing a thesis entailed, and working on my own, on one (huge) research project just felt like far too much, too soon. It was not really like my MA at all.

PhD thinking capA key difference between the (Ph)D and the M(A) is the demand for an original contribution to your field. The M degree generally does not require originality; rather, the requirement, generally, is that you show that you are able to design and conduct a research study, and create a well-written account of it in the form of a thesis. If you do make an original contribution that is a bonus, but you won’t be failed or held back from graduating with your MA if you do not. With a PhD, however, treading solely over previously trodden ground and making no new contribution to your field is considered to be a failure to meet one of the basic requirements, and may well result in you having to make significant revisions, or even being failed by some examiners. This, I think now, was behind the shock to the system: how was I going to up my game as a reader, thinker and writer to make this original contribution to my field? What previous literacy practices and skills could I draw on?

This points me to an issue that does not seem to be as readily realised in academia as it should be: that at each level of study, from first year to final year of an undergraduate degree, and in each different postgraduate degree, as well as beyond postgraduate study, the literacy demands made of students and writers change. Yet, the support offered to students post-first year seems to fall away at varying rates, based (it seems) on the assumption that the literacy practices they have been taught and expected to master (!) early on will carry them through the rest of undergraduate study. Postgraduate supervisors often seem to assume that the literacy practices and skills mastered in undergraduate study will carry through to and adequately support postgraduate reading, thinking and writing, and supervision does not often seem to involve helping students with developing their PhD-level literacy.

Without turning to the research on this, I think anyone who has been a student or taught students at both under and postgraduate level can see the problem here. Literacy demands change, and writers have to change to meet them, but without relevant support, teaching, feedback and guidance at each level to make the demands and shifts clear to writers, there will be repeated shocks to the system as writers progress through their levels of study. Believing yourself to be a good writer, based on your success at school, and then finding that you are not doing the right kinds of writing expected at university can knock your confidence enormously; by the same token, doing well in an MA and then finding yourself completely at sea starting a PhD can have the same effect. And knocks to confidence lead to other kinds of issues, like slow progress, self-doubt, strangled writing and misery.

Jorge Cham phdcomics.com

Jorge Cham (phdcomics.com)

Thus, I suggest (as a start) that we need to think far more carefully about the ways in which MA and PhD study connect, especially in terms of the literacy demands (taking into account the differences between writing and researching an MA versus a PhD in different contexts). We need to critically examine the connections (and gaps) between the literacy practices involved in completing an MA and those in completing a PhD, and finding clearer ways to supervise and guide students at PhD level that can scaffold them up from MA to PhD level. This is not a task for students to work out alone and without clear guidance – that way dropping out lies. Rather, this is a task for students to work on with strong supervision that not only focuses on the knowledge that students are writing about, but also how they are writing about it, and what they need to be doing with their writing to move up a level in terms of their ability to read, think and write more independently, more critically, and with a view to finding a strong voice capable of making an original or novel contribution – even in a small way – to their field of research and practice.