Blog confidential: The Exploitation Game

Each week, Dr Margot Feelbetter poses a dilemma and offers advice for readers to respond to online. This week: The exploitation game

August 5, 2010

I am undertaking a PhD. I purchased a recent issue of Times Higher Education because a line on the cover grabbed my attention: "Must do better: who has the worst PhD pass rates?" In fact, there is more of an untold story here - one that is likely to lead to a backlash against me for raising the issue.

For me the issue is not about whether I am at the best university for pass rates, but about the level of exploitation I experience at the hands of my supervisor. I receive a very small bursary, so I work a few days a week in a relatively low-paid job. I am in my second year and I am being run ragged by the professor who supervises me. Of course I expected to be called on to undertake some lectures, but the amount was never fully defined.

In my letter of confirmation I was told that it would be "commensurate with the expectation of your supervisor and bursary paid", but little did I realise that this relationship would become so exploitative. My professor has essentially dumped on me over the past 12 months and I cover at a moment's notice for "unforeseen circumstances" and "unexpected grant applications requiring immediate attention".

At the start of my research I accepted that I could be called on in unique and unprecedented circumstances, but the way things are now, I am covering not just for my supervisor but for others in the faculty, too. It seems as though a bursary is a clarion call to anyone to exploit me. I am unclear about what to do now. I did see my supervisor about this matter, but he became agitated and challenging, and said it was all "part of the experience". Well, I cannot agree. If the quality of supervision was acceptable it would at least compensate, but even this is problematic.

Undertaking doctoral studies is hard enough without being run ragged by your supervisor and others in the faculty. You do not state whether you are full- or part-time, which may affect your level of anxiety and confidence about reaching your completion date. Given that we are approaching the summer recess, it is an opportune time to ask to sit down with your supervisor and draw up an agreement. This should have been undertaken already, but if you do it now you can explain your anxiety about falling behind and ask for more structure in relation to the institution's expectations of you.

In any case, it is surprising you do not get paid for work over and above the "minimum requirements" agreed at the start of your studies. Many PhD students have more formal arrangements and are paid the going rate when they undertake teaching "over and above" the specified requirements.

I agree that this is an untold story where the less written down the better ... for some. Ethics must be upheld and educators who support doctoral students should behave better. It is no surprise that PhD failure rates are so high. If your supervisor does not agree to treat you better, there will be a more formal route for you to follow - which could result in a better outcome, or jeopardise your relationship. Please keep me informed.

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