Someone to watch over you

June 16, 1995

Claire Sanders looks at the pressures on PhD supervisors. How would you feel if your PhD students taped their supervisions?" The question, posed by John Wakeford of Lancaster University to an audience of supervisors was met with laughter.

The all-crucial relationship between PhD student and supervisor can make or break a budding academic career. Stories abound of traumas suffered by the students - but what of the poor supervisor?

This was the subject of a workshop run by Lancaster's Unit for Innovation in Higher Education.

The academics who attended ranged from heads of school to postgraduates. They considered several case histories, including that of "Caroline", which demonstrated the mess that supervisors can easily find themselves in.

Caroline had a history of problems with her supervisors. She had started her PhD with one supervisor - and she wanted to start again with someone else. Caroline also had a bad relationship with the head of department - "Roger".

Her new supervisor, "Phil", found it a strain motivating Caroline. And she developed severe problems writing up her work. She felt Phil to be unsupportive, while he felt that "nothing short of my rewriting it would be good enough". Communications broke down.

Phil was abruptly relieved of his responsibilities by Roger, with no formal discussion - and no paperwork. After Caroline had suffered a traumatic viva and been told to rework some experiments and resubmit, Phil found that on paper he was still her supervisor.

Roger forced him to resume supervising by reminding him that "when the faculty committee came to consider making my appointment permanent a successful supervisory record would help."

His concerns that Caroline was fabricating some results were neither documented nor followed up.

The workshop's verdict was: "Give Roger early retirement." Dr Wakeford says: "The department was clearly badly run - and in the present climate, where there is enormous pressure to complete a PhD in three or four years, this has serious repercussions."

Departments are moving towards joint supervision of PhDs. "It is too risky to make a student's future dependent on one person," says Dr Wakeford.

And, he says, "if it is hard to get hold of supervisors, yet what they say is invaluable, then why not tape the session?".

One popular suggestion was that supervisor and student should each regularly write about their progress so far, and either sign each others' accounts or, if there is disagreement, use the accounts as the starting point for debate.

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