Two single females and a slimy supervisor

May 16, 1997

What happens when a doctoral student finds the intellectual attentions of their supervisor turning into sexual harassment? Deborah Lee reports

A good work relationship between PhD student and supervisor is often described as the most important ingredient of successful postgraduate studies. How, then, do students decide whether or not to go along with the individual suggested to them? Does personal compatibility rate more highly than relevant research expertise? What happens if the student and supervisor cannot form a satisfactory work relationship? Or if the relationship becomes too close for comfort, what is the balance of power between the two parties, and how difficult is it for the student to opt out of the arrangement by transferring to an alternative supervisor?

To explore these questions, I draw from two interviews which were conducted as part of my PhD research. In response to a radio appeal for informants, two white, single, heterosexual, women psychology PhD students at a south of England university rang me to say that they had both had problems in one-to-one research supervision meetings with the same white, married male supervisor.

The two women - whom I will call Kate and Emma - had already met their suggested supervisor during MSc options they had taken the year before starting their PhDs. Kate said that during this course she had become aware of the man's emotional turmoil. She had heard rumours about his gambling and marital problems. In retrospect, Kate thought she might have taken more heed of these warning signs, but said that when she began her PhD she viewed the student-supervisor relationship as primarily a work relationship - the personality of the supervisor was much less important than his relevant research expertise. She had read several books that he had written and thought his ideas were brilliant.

Emma, however, had found the suggested supervisor a "bit slimy" during her masters. She had felt that he was mentally undressing her. While she was well aware that his extensive expertise in her field made him the most appropriate supervisor for her PhD, she viewed student-supervisor interaction as a close work relationship - in order to be able to think of the supervisor as brilliant, she needed to be able to trust him. Unsure what to do, Emma approached her male head of department for guidance. He assured her that she had nothing to worry about, so Emma agreed - though with reservations - to the supervisory arrangement.

These accounts of how students obtained a PhD supervisor reveal the initial ways in which supervisory relationships may become ripe for problems. Though there is a tension between personal compatibility and relevant research expertise in the process of deciding whether or not to be supervised by someone, relevant research expertise is often the most important reason why students finally agree to a suggested supervisor - even when this supervisor's behaviour has given them some cause for concern.

Emma's first supervisory meetings convinced her that she would not be able to establish a successful work relationship with the supervisor. The leering continued. She realised that doing research is very personal and felt that she could not discuss personal ideas with someone she was unable to trust. Emma decided to request an alternative supervisor. Her head of department agreed to this. Illustrating the importance of corroboration in accounts of sexual harassment in supervisor-student interaction, Emma suspected that this was because he had heard rumours about the supervisor's alleged exploits - he had apparently propositioned an undergraduate.

In contrast, Kate established a productive work relationship with the supervisor in their first meetings. She felt that she was gaining intellectually from his expertise. The relationship also became close. The supervisor began to talk to her about his gambling and marital problems. However, one day he suddenly accused her of discussing his gambling debts with another student. He later commented that as he was her supervisor she should be "nice" to him. Kate explained: "At that time I still liked him as a person. He was my supervisor and you build up this relationship and if it works well you do have a certain amount of trust and want to maintain a kind of friendly relationship." She did not, therefore, focus on deciphering what being "nice" to her supervisor might mean. This highlights the difficulties of jeopardising a close, productive student-supervisor work relationship. Students develop a degree of genuine liking and diplomatic loyalty for their supervisors which it seems both unethical and unwise to compromise.

Over time, however, discussion of the supervisor's personal problems began to overshadow necessary discussion of Kate's research project. She felt that he was attempting to gain her sympathy for his problems in order to engineer a sexual relationship. Kate explained that when she brushed off his sexual advances, he rang her in her hall of residence to say that he thought the direction of her work had changed, and that in view of this, he was no longer the appropriate supervisor for her work.

These two women's experiences reveal the unequal balance of power between student and supervisor. Supervisors have a great deal of control over the terms of their contact with students. The close work relationship which often forms can be exploited. The two accounts also show how problematic it can be for students to change supervisors. In order to request a new supervisor, Emma had to define her experiences as sexual harassment and have corroboration from a senior academic. Opting out at an early stage is, however, much easier than doing so when a supervisory relationship has been developed. For by then, the academic advantages of working with a particular supervisor will be even more apparent and a close working relationship will have been formed.

This supervisor should not be viewed as a rare aberration from a professional norm. Though many supervisory relationships are satisfactory, the conditions in which problems may flourish are built into the structure of one-to-one PhD supervisory relationships.

Many new students are matched with a supervisor, rather than being offered a choice. Warning signs can easily, therefore, be missed or underestimated. Students are informed of the importance of establishing a good work relationship with their supervisor. The relationship usually has to last for at least three years. The isolation of the PhD scholar means that the student-supervisor relationship is necessarily close - the supervisor is the student's main intellectual critic and also their pastoral guide. A doctorate and a doctor have to be successfully produced. The supervisor is needed to supply glowing job references on completion. Given these factors, many students may feel trapped in unsatisfactory supervisory arrangements. Sexual harassment is merely one manifestation of these features.

Deborah Lee is a postgraduate student at Warwick University.

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