Blogconfidential: PhD - Pathetic, hopeless, Dire

Each week, Dr Margot Feelbetter poses a dilemma and offers advice for readers to respond to online. This week: PhD - Pathetic, hopeless, Dire

December 16, 2010

I am an academic manager who has been seconded to a social sciences school where the existing lead is on long-term sick leave. My first task was to bring some organisational structure to the school and then develop transparency in a team which has in the past suffered from mistrust and acrimony, with some staff members complaining of being overworked.

One of the first things I did was to sit down, one on one, with each member of staff and check through their teaching and research commitments.

From a team of eight, four seemed to be on top of things and doing a great job. Two were way behind with their research commitments. Their work is salvageable, but each will need to put in a considerable amount of overtime to catch up.

The real problem, however, was with the last two staff members, who are completing their PhDs. Neither appears to have produced any significant work at all in recent years. I would like to suspend their degrees as they have been working from home for two or three days a week and have nothing to show for it. For the past couple of years, they have been propped up by associate teachers and student feedback has been terrible.

I have told both staff members that they need to concentrate on teaching matters and that decisions about their doctorates will be taken at a higher level.

One of the candidates has threatened to go to the union, while the other will not talk to me.

I am not sure this is anything new: universities everywhere are full of academics trying to complete PhDs who neglect their research.

You need to look at the organisational culture you have inherited and accept that the academics in question were not encouraged to work hard by those to whom they answered.

Their failure is not entirely their own fault. Where were these academics' tutors, who should also be held to account for consistency's sake?

However, I do think you are being unduly harsh and need to relax a little. Try looking at the bigger picture.

First, you need to hold a meeting of all your staff and highlight your concerns in general terms. Present them with a realistic plan to get the department back on track. Be open, constructive and friendly. If you adopt too hard a line, it may well prove to be destructive.

Give everyone a chance to pull things back from the brink but explain clearly what will happen if they don't. Then carefully monitor the situation. Work to contracts, both individual and collective, which are specific about what is needed.

You will also need to engage with the students, meet their representatives and, again, set targets for improvement.

Taking a firm line does not mean being nasty or inflexible. Think of the longer-term and positive results that will follow.

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