Should you wine and dine them or just correct their spelling?

August 4, 2000

A postgraduate's progress depends on their relationship with their supervisor. Anne Sebba asks if women -with their maternal instincts - are better suited to the role.

Itake all my postgraduate students out for lunch and dinner regularly. We gossip as much as we discuss work and conferences and there is not a single one I do not have a personal relationship with," says scholar and broadcaster Lisa Jardine.

"They come to my house, too, and often, if they're having trouble in their own lives, you have to scoop them up and they even stay over. I've had three children so I'm used to being involved. I don't know if I'll ever grow out of it," adds Jardine, professor of Renaissance studies at Queen Mary and Westfield College, London, and a self-confessed "foodie" who loves cooking and believes in the importance of family meals.

But could a male academic offer postgraduate students the same personal level of support without it being misconstrued? And do women academics risk being too motherly?

"I think some of my younger male colleagues - under 45 - are quite good at the relationship side these days. And I'm definitely not a motherly type in the soft cuddly sense. In fact, I'm thought of as pretty scary by Jeremy Paxman and Melvyn Bragg. But this is special. Doing graduate studies is a depressing time because you are poor and alone and often have troubled relationships. The only connection you have is with your supervisor and it is definitely for life.

"I haven't lost touch with any of my postgraduates. I see them as my extended family and think of at least six or seven as sons and daughters," Jardine says.

She is keen to emphasise how much she derives from her students. "In fact, it is entirely selfish, because they are very brilliant and they keep you connected. I inhabit this incredibly vital intellectual world where younger people provide you with a whole web of ideas. It is a real spin-off. I'm doing three books with ex-students. I see it as a full-time commitment to the next generation."

Gillian Beer, King Edward VII professor of English literature at Cambridge, has been supervising PhD students for the past 35 years. Like Jardine she resists becoming too maternal, and is particularly careful to avoid feeding them. "Of course they come to the house for cups of tea and in groups to parties, but I don't ask them out until they've finished. Once they've got their PhDs, very rapidly the whole thing transforms and they become close and often lifelong friends."

As long as they are students, Beer never asks them about their personal lives. "Sometimes it spills out, but there are counsellors for that."

Much as she might like the relationship to be one based on equal knowledge, she admits: "They wouldn't be coming to me if I didn't have a wider range of knowledge. In that sense I am their senior. Even when we're in discussion I'm still their senior because you must be frank and sometimes say, 'I think you may have to start again', or 'I like this chapter and the way you've got this going, but I think you're then running into sand'. Usually I manage without undermining them."

But getting the relationship right is more complicated than simply labelling it as motherly, sisterly or even apprentice and master. Some female professors, remembering their own days of being supervised by a man and not wanting to repeat the pattern of domination over a young and fertile mind, try very hard to make it a relationship of equals.

Ludmilla Jordanova, professor of visual arts in the 18th century at the University of East Anglia, nurtures six doctoral students. Rather than take them out for meals, she uses another device to ensure her students do not feel isolated - a weekly reading group. "We meet at 12.30 once a week and take it in turns to introduce a piece. It means my students all have a sense of community and we keep our critical reading skills honed."

Marilyn Butler, former regius professor of English at Cambridge, believes one of the reasons some male academics continue to have problems supervising women graduates is because men still fail to identify women as future leaders. "They are not used to thinking of women as the ones who will get the big grants and they write less convincing references about them. That is clearly a genuine perception and it relates to a wider social problem."

Butler's postgraduate students are mainly women and she is only too aware that the Oxford and Cambridge environment - and she has taught at both - is very combative, which works to the male advantage.

"Girls learn at school to sound fair and come to a reasonable conclusion, but this is no good at postgraduate level. My main success is to persuade non-aggressive students to write new, firmer introductions and conclusions and to put their nicely subtle and carefully observed answer lower down."

Butler feeds her postgraduate students useful information on the pugilistic nature of public meetings and the subtle way in which male groupishness and over-ceremonious politesse rules. But above all, her own success as the first female rector of formerly all-male Exeter College is an invaluable role model for young women scholars.

Having a good student-supervisor relationship is not necessarily a question of gender - clearly there are just as likely to be brilliant and inspirational male supervisors as there are inadequate women supervisors. It may be age that really counts. But it could be that same gender student and supervisor pairings - for both sexes - helps to make for a more thriving relationship.

ENTHUSIASM IS THE MOST IMPORTANT ATTRIBUTE

* Warren Boutcher, a lecturer at Queen Mary and Westfield

College, London, is a former postgraduate student of Lisa Jardine. He now supervises three female postgraduate students in the school of English and drama and believes gender is completely irrelevant to the student-supervisor relationship. "Some supervisors are inspirational and some just correct your spelling.

"Initially, Lisa and I didn't get on and she was upfront in saying that my work was not going in the right direction. Her style is to have strong ideas and never duck confrontation. At first I didn't react well to this. But after a deep think I realised she was right because her comments are not personal, they are based on a professional assessment."

Students who are not robust are weeded out early, but those who can take it are inspired and thrive.

"The other important thing she taught me is always to make sure you have enthusiasm for students' ideas and even if you feel dreadful and down, make sure you appear 'up' for them because it is such a solitary time."

* Heidi Mulvaney, 24, working for her PhD at Southampton

University's civil and environmental engineering department, is specialising in coastal defences and intends to teach. Mulvaney describes her relationship with one supervisor as "brilliant, because it is based on mutual respect. He is not sexist and he makes me feel like a colleague."

But she recognises that there are difficulties for women in engineering. At Southampton there are no women professors or lecturers in the department, just research assistants, but there are at least five women doing doctorates. She knows of relationships between female postgraduate students and male supervisors that have been disastrous, largely because some engineering professors have grown up in a traditional, male-dominated culture and feel threatened by the number of women coming up through the ranks. As a consequence they treat the doctoral students as schoolchildren.

"If the relationship doesn't work who do you go to? Student counsellors can't really help. Of course it is more difficult to build up a close relationship with a male academic because he can't invite a young woman to his home," she says.

"But the good supervisor can always get round that and take you to the pub. Admittedly that's a male place, but it gives opportunities for talk and banter not necessarily about work. DIY is a good topic for breaking down barriers. I feel comfortable enough now to say to my supervisor, 'Come on, we're going to the pub.' But I also know that the only way to earn their respect as an equal is to make sure you do a good job."

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