Me and my PhD supervisor: tales of love and loathing

Academics discuss how supervisors shaped their teaching

March 27, 2014

Source: David Parkins

When a PhD supervision session constitutes just another blocked-out hour in a besieged diary, it can be all too easy to forget that it could make an impression that stays with the student for the rest of their research career.

We asked five academics for their recollections of the PhD supervision they received, and the way it had informed their own approach to tutoring. Three had enjoyed excellent supervision that had deeply influenced their own practice. But two had not. One recalls exchanges with their tutor characterised by yawns and silences, while another was treated with a “cutting harshness”, valuable only as an exemplar of how not to conduct yourself.

The fact that both unfortunate tutees went on to have successful careers – albeit, in the former’s case, largely thanks to a second reader – suggests that sympathetic PhD supervision is not an absolute prerequisite for future academic success. But it is surely important. So what characterises it?

According to one highly experienced supervisor, good supervision is like good parenting: you have to be “tough and clear”, as well as “kind and generous”.

Another contributor suggests good supervisors must have “great curiosity and even greater responsibility”, while a third suggests a certain virtuosity with the F-word can also be an asset.

But the most important piece of advice for supervisors must surely be that if you see a fire extinguisher flying from your tutee’s hand towards your head, be sure to duck.

 

Student on chair illustration

I was stubborn and insensitive, but he never stopped supporting me

The relationship between PhD student and supervisor can be complex. A colleague of mine chased his supervisor out of the laboratory and then hurled a fire extinguisher at him. Fortunately it missed. Another was left entirely on his own while his supervisor did fieldwork in Tonga. My experiences fall somewhere between these extremes of interaction.

I started my PhD in 1980 and it has taken me until now to understand how the interaction with my supervisor has shaped so much of my career. I began with almost no understanding of what was expected or required, merely possessing a puppy-like enthusiasm, a passion for research and a determined disposition. By contrast, my supervisor was one of the great biologists of his generation, focused, determined, experienced and unimaginably busy. He had built a major research group at the cutting edge of his discipline. At the age of 21, the significance of all this made little impression on me.

Communication between us was not always easy, not least because I did not know how to listen. At one point I was told that I “must stop” a set of experiments. My response was to put the equipment on a trolley, wheel the set-up into different rooms and undertake the research surreptitiously at night. I did this for six months and the experiments failed. My supervisor had been right and I had been wrong, but he had used the word “must”. I still dislike being told what to do, but this experience taught me that automatically doing the complete opposite is not always an intelligent response.

There were many other awkward incidents. Memorably, I salvaged a beautiful oak professorial desk that had languished in pieces in the department storeroom. I assembled it and moved it into the communal office, for which I was branded by my supervisor as trying to be self-important. For me, it was purely an aesthetic issue, as my 1960s metal-frame desk did not appeal, and I responded to the criticism with forthright Anglo-Saxon expletives. I appreciate now why a PhD student with an oak roll-top professorial desk may cause irritation among the group. But at the time I simply did not understand the fuss or sensitivities.

These two examples illustrate why I was not an easy student. Yet my supervisor did not give up and in the end we generated some wonderful data. It was time to write.

My first effort was described as “the worst draft of a PhD thesis I have ever read” and “even worse than any of the foreign students’ ”. This uncompromising verdict stimulated a flow of text that went under my supervisor’s editorial hammer, eventually forging a thesis and then papers. Today, remembering those early verdicts, I take particular pleasure when referees comment that “this manuscript is well written”.

I also realise that I have adopted elements of my supervisor’s writing style. I am unable to use the word “reveal” but like to use “remarkably” and still write “by contrast” rather than “in contrast”; I try not to split my infinitives – a practice long abandoned by most; I have a tendency to number points in the text and I use whole phrases that have their origins back in those early days. This has all been passed on to my PhD students, who deliberately use “in contrast” and split their infinitives to make sure I have read their work.

So what else did my supervisor do for me, other than provide a rather difficult individual with an environment conducive to learning how to undertake focused, well-designed experiments, write scientific papers, deal with constructive criticism and be rigorously self-critical?

Well, so much more than I appreciated for years. It turns out that many nominations, awards and jobs were all influenced to a greater or lesser extent by the person who supervised my PhD. The support has never stopped, and I ask myself what, over the years, have I done for him? The short answer is not a lot. But at least in those early days I didn’t throw a fire extinguisher at him!

Russell Foster, a fellow of Brasenose College, Oxford, is professor of circadian neuroscience and head of the department of ophthalmology at the University of Oxford.

Woman at desk illustration

She was detached and harsh, but the benefits became apparent later

I completed my PhD in the 1990s at the same university where I’d been an undergraduate at the tail end of the 1980s. My vibrant department was an exciting place to be in the period when “New Historicism” was still new and the first biographies of the relatively recently deceased Michel Foucault were beginning to be published.

It also struck me, on the very first rung of my academic career, as a department full of inspirational women. The staff photograph of one impossibly glamorous lecturer (who died much too young) showed a wraith of smoke making its way across her timeless face from the cigarette she balanced between elegant fingers. Two younger women had recently been appointed, and watching how they handled their first lectureships was invaluable to me. My supervisor was also a woman, and was well known and very established.

At first, I felt lucky to be working with her. It quickly became apparent, however, that she was a matchless source only of gnomic wisdom. “ ’Twas ever thus,” she would slowly intone, nodding her head, pointing her fingers into steeples in front of her mouth, her lively, intelligent eyes flashing at me from behind thick glasses in a way that utterly closed down the conversation and left me feeling like an imposition. (She was the kind of supervisor whose claims to extreme busyness suggested a series of commitments far more important than my own packed schedule, which counted for little when it came to making our rare appointments.) Buck-passing on her part was often – in a way that wouldn’t be possible these days – presented to me as a valuable career opportunity. As a consequence, painstaking editorial tasks, in the inky-fingered days before widespread digitisation, took up huge amounts of my time and earned me just the smallest mention in editions that trumpeted my supervisor’s name.

She could be cuttingly – and, with hindsight, unconsciously – harsh. I vividly remember the hot summer’s day when she phoned me at home as I was jubilantly constructing a Swedish flatpack bed. I answered and told her what I was doing. There was a pause before she delivered, in her clipped, diamond-pointed intonation, a little line that did much to remind me just how much harder she thought I should be working, and how very unimportant I was in the academic scheme of things: “Good. Building a bed. That’s a marvellous life skill, I’m sure.”

But she also did much for which I’ll always be grateful. Six months in, when my initial PhD project was really floundering, she suggested I take a day out and spend it reading books by a woman called Margaret Cavendish in Cambridge University Library. This was a wonderful experience in itself: the rare books room was a hushed treasure trove which, despite its arcane rules and indomitable gatekeepers, felt like home – unlike the well-stocked but austerely modernist concrete library of my home institution. But, more importantly, the trip presented me with the eventual subject of my thesis and first book.

The last time I heard of my supervisor, she had semi-retired to a comfortable job at her favourite university, and had overcome a serious illness. The wonder to me was that she had succumbed to it in the first place, having always seemed invincibly steely.

But now that I’m a supervisor myself, I do remember her increasingly fondly. When we become parents, we realise how much we, as children, sometimes took for granted the hard work and affection of our own parents. Similarly, when we become supervisors, we would do well to remember not only the difficult times but also the marvellous opportunity offered by having a remarkable scholarly mentor almost on tap.

The influence of my supervisor has certainly endured – albeit in reverse. Where she saw me as “just” a PhD student, I take an altogether more holistic approach to supervising. I treat my doctoral students as young people trying to build careers, with complex and conflicting demands being made of them every day. If I can support them, be approachable and let them into my life, I can better guide them in an increasingly precarious world where, perhaps, ’twas ever thus, but it needn’t be.

Emma Rees is a senior lecturer in English at the University of Chester and author of The Vagina: A Literary and Cultural History (2013).

Student in cafe with letter illustration

I was lucky. He displayed great curiosity and greater responsibility

“Mr Zaretsky, the world is not holding its breath to read your next chapter.” I looked up from the letter, gazed out of the window of the cafe where I was sitting and sighed. I had missed a deadline and, as always, my adviser, Hans Schmitt, drove home the point with little hesitancy and less sentimentality. And a good thing too: a deftly delivered blow of a two-by-four to a student’s head is, at times, the greatest service an adviser can render.

I was then living in Paris, where I had moved thanks to a fellowship from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, after a year spent scouring archives in the southern city of Nîmes. Although weighed down with several boxes of index cards (the fruit of my research) and a Mac Plus (it seemed so portable back then), I felt unbearably light: my wife and I had gone through a painful transatlantic break-up and I was still struggling with the fallout.

But Mr Schmitt (at the University of Virginia, professors are addressed as our founder, Thomas Jefferson, is, as “Mr”) would have none of it. He shared with me his shock and concern about the divorce, but he did not allow this to bleed into our professional relationship. As a result, his letter avoided any reference to my private history. Instead, it was all about the public history of Catholics, Protestants and Jews in Nîmes during the Occupation. Following the letter’s opening zinger were several typed pages in which Mr Schmitt meticulously corrected and commented on the much-belated dissertation chapter. He criticised my unsubstantiated claims, but also complimented (though much less frequently) my use of archival sources and oral interviews.

Even when separated by an ocean – which was far wider before the internet – Hans Schmitt was by my side. He had been there ever since the day I asked him if he would serve as my adviser. My reasons for choosing him had little to do with modern French history – my field of study – since Mr Schmitt didn’t work on modern France. He had written books on the French Catholic nationalist Charles Péguy and the European Coal and Steel Community, regional politics in Switzerland and the Quakers in Germany. Nor did my reasons have anything to do with historiographical trends: Mr Schmitt – who died in 2004, 15 years after I defended my dissertation – thought theory was best left in the physics department and gender was best left to job applications.

But I recognised in Hans Schmitt two essential traits for an adviser: great curiosity and even greater responsibility. His sense of wonder about the past was striking, as was his sense of duty towards it. And since the past’s future was in the hands of his students, Mr Schmitt treated us with the same respect and sense of responsibility. He liked to say that the only inevitable thing is what has already happened. Now that I am the age he was when I first met him, I see just how lucky I was to have had him as my adviser.

Robert Zaretsky is professor of history in the Honors College, University of Houston.

 

How to help, or hinder

My career total of supervisees is now more than 80 and, over the years, I have learned a vast amount about what to do and what not to do as a supervisor. Here are my top five dos and don’ts.

Always

  1. Remember that a PhD is an organic process. Reassure the student that change is not only good, it is necessary. If you end up thinking the same way as when you started, something has gone wrong. This advice is particularly helpful in year two, when the end seems a long way off.
  2. Read drafts. I have an agreement with my students that I will correct minutiae in a first draft, but after that I expect perfect copy without typos or mistakes in English. This is very time-consuming in the beginning, but rapidly helps students improve their writing and thinking skills.
  3. Have a clear understanding about what tutorials are for and recognise that students’ needs change. Spend time suggesting reading in the first instance, but then make sure you are given a piece of written work in advance of meetings so that you both have something concrete to discuss.
  4. Be rigorous in reading and returning work quickly. If you have several students, read in the order you receive work. I tell students my reading is like aircraft stacked up over Heathrow: they land in order, nobody jumps a queue.
  5. Be generous with time and above all with ideas. Supervising is like good parenting: you have to be tough, clear, kind and generous.

Never

  1. Impose yourself on students. They are independent beings, not clones (see point 5 above for parenting parallels).
  2. Skim through a chapter and hand it back without annotations.
  3. Neglect to send a page or two summarising the advice you have given after a tutorial, because nine times out of 10 the student will be too agitated to remember what was said.
  4. Seek to engage too closely with a student’s personal life. When a friendship develops, it can last a lifetime, but it has to grow naturally.
  5. Choose examiners whom you may not be able to trust. I have co-examined with people who hadn’t bothered to read the thesis, people ideologically opposed to the thesis and people who see vivas as a time for aggression and one-upmanship. An external examiner can be as important as a supervisor for the future, writing references, giving career advice and perhaps even collaborating with research projects.

Susan Bassnett is professor of comparative literature at the University of Warwick.

Lab coats illustration

Our expletive-filled interactions arose from our drive and commitment

My PhD was a masterclass in the art of swearing. I don’t mean that I was frustrated all the time: far from it. But regardless of whether my research was going well or if it was in a phase when nothing seemed to work, my supervisor, Greg Hughes, and I communicated almost entirely in expletives.

Some might argue that this reliance on swearing was a result of deficiencies in our respective vocabularies (and they’d have a point in my case). But I prefer to think that it reflected the extent to which we were both engaged with, and driven by, the research. Far from being the disinterested and dispassionate operators scientists are supposed to be, we both cared deeply about the interpretation of spectroscopic data, the best way to set up an experiment, and the issue of whether what I was seeing in a scanning probe microscope image was real (or yet another irritating artefact). And I gained a huge amount from our “robust” exchanges of ideas.

But it wasn’t just Greg’s remarkable talent for using the F-word as object, subject, (ad)verb and adjective in a single sentence that impressed me. His enthusiasm for research and teaching, his generosity with his time and his inspiring mentorship also played a huge role in convincing me, less than a year into my PhD at Dublin City University, that I wanted to be an academic scientist.

One lasting memory I have is of a particularly fraught experiment in the last year of my PhD. A considerable amount of the science I did took place at the now sadly decommissioned Daresbury Synchrotron Radiation Source just outside Warrington. Experiments at synchrotrons (particle accelerators that generate an intense beam of radiation invaluable for studying a wide range of materials) are scheduled around short allocations of “beam time”. This necessitates lots of long shifts in a cramped environment and often results in sleep-deprived, caffeine-fuelled scientists bickering about how best to sort out just why the blasted instrument has given up the ghost this time. Get the experiment wrong and it might be well over a year before you get the next allocation of beam time to attempt it again.

After a rather arduous 40-hour shift, I was about to leave for breakfast when Greg arrived. I barked out a list of instructions, including telling him to leave certain key parameters on the experimental kit alone. He would have been quite within his rights to take umbrage at the lippiness of a young and rather unkempt scientist with a fraction of his research experience. But instead, he nodded sagely and smiled. He later told me that it was at that point – when I was telling him what he should do, rather than the other way round – that he realised I deserved the award of a doctorate.

Ever since, I’ve used the willingness of students to robustly argue their case, and/or tell me why I’m wrong, as a benchmark for their PhD readiness. By that point, they may also find that they are swearing just that little bit more than when they started.

Philip Moriarty is professor of physics at the University of Nottingham.

 

Yawning man illustration

I was saved from an advisory vacuum by a responsive second reader

My most vivid recollection of meeting with my dissertation adviser Brendan O Hehir (no apostrophe, please!) as a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Berkeley in the 1960s was the volume and duration of his yawns, which could sometimes last as long as 10 or 15 seconds.

Granted, my painstaking analysis of the rhetorical strategies Jonathan Swift used in urging the Irish people to boycott William Wood’s copper coinage in the Drapier’s Letters may not have been gripping stuff (spoiler alert: they succeeded). But this was the same Brendan O Hehir who had co-authored not one but two lexicons to Finnegans Wake (one Gaelic, the other Classical), as well as an annotated edition of 17th-century poet John Denham’s Cooper’s Hill. If anyone should have had a high tedium threshold, it was surely Brendan.

Nor, to the best of my knowledge, did he suffer from narcolepsy, although, to his credit, he had survived childhood rheumatic fever and two experimental heart bypass surgeries that had helped transform him from a skeletal nine stone to nearly 14 stone in less than a year, with an accompanying dramatic revival of his libido (it was Berkeley in the 1960s, after all).

I had taken several of his courses and he had even once published an article on Swift’s poetry, so he seemed a likely choice to direct my doctoral dissertation. I asked Gardner Stout, who had published a scholarly edition of Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey, to be my second reader because it was in his seminar on Swift and Sterne that I’d begun to investigate the Drapier’s Letters. His easy manner was the exact opposite of Brendan’s incredibly awkward small talk.

While never true social friends, I had once invited Brendan to dinner as thanks for supporting my successful Fulbright application for research in Ireland, on which occasion he downed several cups of “Irish coffee” after instructing me to leave out the sugar, cream – and coffee. Ever the pedant, he corrected my mispronunciation of Irish towns, including where I eventually settled, Dun Laoghaire – which is apparently pronounced “Dun Leary” and not, as I had ventured, “Dun Lay-ug-hairy”. Who knew?

Once settled in Ireland, I began making what I considered productive use of the Trinity College Dublin archives, and sent Brendan progress reports on what I discovered. By way of response, all I received was deafening silence. Six months passed and still nothing – which, as Lear remarked so memorably, was not altogether encouraging.

Of course, living in Ireland a stone’s throw from Joyce’s Martello Tower in Sandycove was not entirely a hardship; and I was commissioned to write an introduction to Gulliver’s Travels for the same series for which “Famous Seamus” Heaney wrote an introduction to Macbeth. But by 1970 the job market was starting to dry up and I needed to get my degree and begin seeking gainful employment.

Whenever Brendan did get around to responding to my letters, his written comments continued to suggest drowsiness. Fortunately, Gardner came to the rescue. He not only responded promptly but also grasped the holistic argument of my thesis better even than I did. His detailed comments both challenged and directed in ways that enabled me to return home confident that the end was nigh. Further fortified by the approval of a third reader, I succeeded in 1972 in attaining a faculty position at Southeastern Massachusetts University (now the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth), where I remained until I retired in 2013.

Because my scholarly focus shifted radically over the years from Swift and the 18th century to Sylvia Plath (much too long a story to recount here), I soon lost contact with both my dissertation advisers. The last time I saw Brendan was at a Modern Language Association meeting in San Francisco nearly two decades later. By then he was so physically transformed by the brain cancer from which he would soon die that I scarcely recognised him when he was “introduced” to me. Rather than a yawn, my facial expression more closely resembled that of Edvard Munch’s Scream.

Richard Larschan was professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.

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