The good, the bad and the ugly

An inspirational supervisor can nurture a career, while a poor one slows its growth. Either way, mentors have a lasting impact

March 27, 2014

The cliché has it that research-focused academics can’t be bothered with teaching and are more interested in ploughing their own furrow than sowing the seeds of succession.

But even those with little time for undergraduate teaching have a crucial role in developing the next generation through their supervision of doctoral students.

This week, in our cover feature, we ask five established academics to tell us about the relationship they had with their supervisor, their strengths and weaknesses, and the effect it has had on their career.

The tales they tell range from the good to the bad to the hilarious (the illustrations aren’t bad, either). But what’s clear is that the relationship has a lifelong impact on the supervisee and often fundamentally shapes their career.

If you’re looking for evidence of ‘impact’ from researchers, then their abilities and commitment as a supervisor could be a worthy measure

In some cases this impact is tangible, for example in the form of patronage to help a talented protégé climb the ladder; in others there is an acute awareness of how demoralising it is when a mentor fails to support, or a welcome understanding of how to help a talented researcher graduate from underling to colleague.

One thing that occurs when reading these stories is that if you’re looking for evidence of “impact” from researchers, then their abilities and commitment as a supervisor could be one very worthy – and currently overlooked – measure.

Developing the next generation of researchers in your field surely has as strong a claim as any on this score, although, as with other measures of impact, the proof would be in a pudding that takes a while to bake.

The role of the doctoral student is somewhat different in the sciences and the arts: in the former, the PhD student is likely to be doing much of the legwork in the lab and, with any luck, co-producing papers; in the latter, the working relationship is less defined, and the postgrad’s lot can sometimes be a lonely one.

But in both situations the personal relationship is crucial and the reality is that the supervisor a postgrad ends up with can be “make or break” at the most exciting, vulnerable point in their career.

This is no doubt a blessing if you get the sort of inspirational mentor – brilliant in their field, generous with their time, judicious with their guidance – that we would want for all.

But it is a curse if – as in some of the cases detailed this week – you are stuck in a relationship that, for whatever reason, does not work. One wonders how many careers have been stillborn as a result of dysfunctional or unsupportive supervision.

The cohort model that is increasingly – although not exclusively – funded by the research councils may smooth out some of these disparities, making it more likely that students will receive consistency as they start out. It might also help to solve the problem of isolation among some postgrads. In this respect, the rise of the doctoral training centre, which is ironing out some of the vagaries of supervision, is to be applauded.

The hope must be that it doesn’t overly sanitise or dilute the one-to-one connection that at its best can provide the spark of inspiration that sends the budding academic’s career skywards – as well as ignite the occasional lifelong friendship.

john.gill@tsleducation.com

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