Just you, me and the PhD

January 12, 2007

Student-supervisor relationships are intense and don't always run smoothly, say Sarah Li and Clive Seale

There is a host of advice manuals on "How to get a PhD". And while many may be written by experienced supervisors, this is no substitute for solid information about what the process of PhD supervision is actually like.

It is striking that the few studies of PhD supervision that exist are based on secondhand accounts: usually interviews with students or supervisors and do not contain any direct observation of supervisions.

We had been student and supervisor in an (eventually successful) social science PhD. Sarah (student) recorded all her supervisions and kept all her draft chapters, written comments from Clive (supervisor), e-mails between us and a research diary. As she was about to consign this pile of material to the waste bin, she realised that these were qualitative research materials for an important new project. The rest, as they say, is history.

Funded by a generous grant from Sarah's university, we have been analysing this material for a project called "Walking the PhD journey together". We wanted to tell the story of how we managed and sustained the supervisor-student relationship so that our experiences might help others.

What follows is a series of milestone moments taken from our research materials and the recollections that these evoke.

Year 1
Sarah's diary:
Matching the "right" supervisor to a "suitable" student is paramount for both of us as we are aiming for the same goal - the successful completion of a PhD. Clive's initial concern was that English is not my first language, but he agreed that he would help me with this. I chose Clive because he had already supervised my masters degree successfully and, most importantly, I believe in him.

Sarah's diary: The bottom of my MPhil/PhD world fell out when I received Clive's comment on my first piece of work - the dreaded literature review.

He says that I am not up to the standard of an MPhil at this stage. I hate me and I hate him. I ripped up this piece of work furiously and went into hiding. I don't want to have any contact with anyone, including my supervisor.

Clive's recollection: I remember worrying a lot at this point about the impact my criticisms would have on Sarah. But I was also genuinely worried that she might not be up to doing a PhD, so felt I should tell her what I thought was the truth because I didn't want her to invest too much in a project that wasn't going to work out.

Our reflections now: Looking back, we realise how we both came through this most difficult time together. Clive did not abandon Sarah and kept on asking how she was getting on and making suggestions. Sarah decided to do some reading that helped in unexpected ways. Clive remembers being surprised and impressed with how Sarah bounced back with what seemed like unfailing optimism (Sarah: "Clive, if only you knew.") Sarah's recollection: I did some reading and this taught me to "unpack" concepts by saying "this means that", "the authors claims", "they promote the idea of". Another book taught me a crafty way of presenting arguments by using words such as "yet", "on the other hand", "nevertheless", "the challenge is", "if", "but", "alternatively", "thus", "therefore", "hence" or "proposes".

At the end of year one, Clive recorded that Sarah was "making good progress".

Year 2
Sarah's recollection:
I remember how the key concept of my PhD thesis was "discovered" during this year. I was collecting data on the activities of nurses caring for dying people. The downside was experiencing patients' pain and suffering. The upside was that everyone in the hospices, including the patients, was so friendly and nice to me. I found myself reciprocating their niceness by offering to make tea and toast for the nurses. I carried meal trays to patients' bedsides. In a supervision, Clive suggested I take "niceness" as a category for further investigation. The seed of my thesis on "symbiotic niceness" was planted.

Clive's recollection: I was starting to feel more confident that Sarah could reach the necessary standard. I was impressed with her enthusiasm and capacity to learn, which seemed to gain in strength after the core idea of the thesis had been established. Her written work became more precise and rigorous and I noticed that her knowledge of the data analysis method she was using was becoming far broader, due to a sustained programme of reading she had been doing.

Year 3
Sarah's diary:
Data analysis - painful and very challenging. This is an alien world to me. I have done qualitative research, but never on this grand scale.

This transcript, after Sarah had attempted a rather unsuccessful analysis of a large amount of data, shows how stuck we both felt sometimes.

Recorded supervision extract:
Sarah: I'm not sure... how... I really, no I am not sure, I'm really stuck.

Clive: Yes, so am I, actually.

Sarah: (chuckles).

Sarah's recollection : I was so embarrassed at my ignorance. I tried to fill the embarrassing gaps with lots of silly chuckles and giggles.

Clive's recollection: Sarah's capacity for laughter always made me feel cheerful about her capacity to overcome difficulties.

Sarah's diary: I passed my upgrade exam (MPhil to PhD registration status).

My new status has boosted my confidence and I feel that my supervisor's respect has grown. I am still a student, but I feel that Clive is more like a friend to me with whom I can now joke and laugh freely.

Years 4-5
Sarah's recollection: I was on a solid path to completing my PhD. I used this year to refine my analysis, consolidate the argument of the thesis and start writing up. Conference presentations, with helpful audience comments, played a part. Clive's meticulous attention to my drafts also helped.

Clive's recollection: Sarah started saying nice things about my supervisory skills. What she doesn't realise, I kept thinking, is how I am with other students. One of the reasons this one has worked is because of Sarah's "bounce back" factor when her work is criticised. "How to do PhD supervising" books always focus on what the supervisor can do to help, but the student plays a huge part in this, too.

Year 6
Sarah's recollection of the viva:
One of the examiners said: "Congratulations, Dr Li, you can now celebrate and sleep well tonight. Once again, congratulations and well done." I thought: "Phew!!!! Well done for both of us, Clive and I!"

This project has given us a unique insight into postgraduate teaching and learning. We have concluded that supervisor and student need to work at maintaining a comfortable relationship in which advice, criticism and disagreement can be delivered constructively. Teaching styles need to be tailored to match the student's needs. Cross-cultural issues also need to be taken into account.

Sarah Li is senior lecturer in the sociology of psychosocial palliative care at Kingston University and St George's, University of London. Clive Seale is professor of sociology, Brunel University.

Harmony and success in ten steps


For the supervisor

1. Temper criticism with praise and criticise the work, not the person

2. Give advice and suggest solutions to problems, but expect students to sometimes dismiss these and find their own way forward

3. Be available when your student needs help (and attend the vivaif your university allows this).

For the student

4. Try not to take criticisms personally. Instead, use it as an opportunity to improve

5. Take responsibility for making supervisions work well. Supervisors have failings and sometimes need help

6. Take responsibility for the PhD. Your supervisor is only one source of advice and information.

For both

7. Try to get a shared agreement about the nature of the problems and solutions related to the PhD (easier said than done)

8. Keep in touch, even when times are difficult. If it is too hard to talk about the work itself, find something else to discuss (for example, some interesting reading you have done recently)

9. Show politeness, mutual respect and sensitivity so that you can detect sources of embarrassment and misunderstanding (these may be evident in hesitations, silences or pauses in supervisions)

10. Keep a record of what happens and what is agreed.

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