Chapter and verse

Tara Brabazon gives supervisors her top tips for guiding doctoral candidates successfully to completion

February 18, 2009

We commence with a story set in a mid-week morning during the 12th week of semester. First-year students have their main assignment due. Honours students are in the final stages of drafting their dissertations. Walking to work at 7.30am on Wednesday in an attempt to moderate this frantic time, first years are already camped around my office door, shuffling nervously.

This anxious situation then becomes substantially worse. A PhD student arrives unexpectedly at 9am, trying to eject the first years from the office. Her scheduled meeting had been held the previous day. When the last of the traumatised first years vacated the office, the postgraduate closed and locked the door and explained to me that our 30-minute weekly meetings were not sufficient. She required at least an hour and a half a week to address all her concerns, telling me that I wasted too much valuable time on first years and that PhD candidates should be the priority.

This was a hell of a morning. At the moment of her greatest anger, I realised that there was an even more urgent issue to address. How was I going to exit the office, with first years hovering expectantly, to start a tutorial at 10.30am? We will return to this Inspector Gadget escape from my office.

But in the decade that followed this harrowing morning, I assembled a checklist of Tara’s ten tips for time management in PhD supervision. They offered a guide to manage those moments when barricaded in my office with undergraduates and postgraduates banging on the door with the force of a police raid. How do we ensure that our doctoral students are not marginalised or ignored for more urgent, but probably less important, commitments?

1. Make the first meeting count

The most important moment in PhD supervision is the first meeting. In one hour, the research framework can be established, the terms of the relationship formed and the trajectory of the next three years put in place. I do not give postgraduates any alternative but to see their doctorate as a three-year candidature, not to be extended. The key strategy for this first meeting is to use a whiteboard and plan the entire thesis, predicting problems and revealing potential strengths. By the time students have left the room, they have a title, thesis statement, argument and nine prospective chapter headings.

Their aim between the first and second meeting is to flesh out these details and write a paragraph under each possible chapter heading, outlining the proposed content. They then bring this document to the second meeting. We determine the easiest chapter to write and they start their research. This strategy eases the stress on the student as they have a grasp of the overall project at the start of the candidature. It breaks a daunting PhD into parts, making it manageable and understandable. As a supervisor, such a process is helpful because I have an immediate sense of the project’s trajectory and whether it is small enough to complete in the available time.

2. Make the first year count

I expect three chapters to be completed in the first year of candidature. Obviously these initial attempts at doctoral-level scholarship will require the most drafting before submission, but making students focus on “finishing” three chapters of the research project ensures that their first year is not wasted with generalised reading.

For laboratory and fieldwork theses, this plan is more difficult to implement. Experiments and participant observation require different timetables and timelines. However, with a writing goal in place for the first year, students know what is required of them and do not become complacent with the “I’ve got plenty of time. I can find religion, discover crack or enter therapy and discover how much I hate my mother” excuse culture that is chronic in doctoral programmes. My goal is to keep students regimented through an imperative to complete chapters. When they are busy with research and writing, few problems emerge. One maxim is self-evident: unless PhD students have a great start to their enrolment, they are unlikely to finish in three years.

3. Weekly meetings

Most supervisors see their students fortnightly. Weekly meetings are always my aim. It stops mischief developing and ensures that each week students are triggered to do some work (at least) the day before our session. If students miss a meeting then they know that they will get an email from me asking where they were. Most of us who supervise also have schedules filled with undergraduate teaching, requiring rigorous clock watching throughout the semester. Postgraduates must be fitted into an undergraduate timetable rather than lectures and seminars slotted around doctoral priorities. Although our PhD students may wish for hours of discussion about life, Althusser’s rise, fall and rise, or the attractive new MA student who reads Gramsci in the coffee shop, we have lectures to deliver, seminars to run and papers to mark.

These commitments mean that the weekly doctoral meeting is important and undergraduates must not interrupt this time. This separation of academic functions is tough to enforce because most of us who teach large first-year courses know that new students require a range of support structures unrecognised in a typical university workload model. The key is finding the balance to make sure that the supervision is completed with professionalism and care and that the undergraduates are taught with enthusiasm and energy.

4. Be consistent

I became a better teacher and supervisor when I learnt the benefit of patience. If PhD students are having a meltdown – and thankfully there have been only a few of these in my supervisory career – I have learnt to breathe, remain silent, disengage emotion and think about the completion of the project, not any short-term point scoring. Every sentence, comment or action must be tethered to the submission of the doctorate. If nagging, whining and complaining at/to/about a supervisor eases postgraduate stress, then the personal discomfort is a small professional burden to carry.

5. Expect written work

One way to keep students focused on their project rather than themselves is to insist that weekly written work is produced and submitted to the supervisor. I do not care if it is three paragraphs, a review of their reading or a draft chapter. The key is to create an expectation of and for writing. This is important in many disciplines, but particularly in the humanities. These theses are increasingly judged by the quality of the prose and examiners are (quite rightly) exacting and demanding. One of my former postgraduates was given “minor corrections” for one typographical error in a 100,000-word doctorate. This is not an urban myth. It happened.

All of us, including postgraduates, learn to write by writing. With the weekly exchange of papers, I have many more opportunities to find errors and teach students how to edit their paragraphs. This process also functions well because students discover analytical and research problems much earlier in the candidature.

One of my oft-quoted mantras (and I can hear my postgraduates groaning as I type the words) is to “put the problem into the work”. If there is an analytical difficulty, then do not hide or bury the thought: open up the idea, push and probe it and determine why the challenge, difficulty or contradiction exists. A student’s best chapter is often produced when writing through – rather than around - academic problems.

6. Be clear in outlining student responsibilities

Students are increasingly aware of the economic value of their completion to the university. Such knowledge creates a culture of blame and retribution. They pinpoint the weaknesses in “the system” and if given an opportunity will offer an excuse about why the interview was not conducted, the book unread or the chapter unfinished.

I often remind them that being given the opportunity to complete PhDs – with or without a scholarship – is a great gift. While they may complain about “the system”, they need to focus on their responsibilities and complete the thesis. Their career is not helped by delaying a submission, suspension or withdrawal. Remembering their responsibilities to their future, the university and the discipline stops small problems festering into candidature-threatening lesions and maintains the connection with their career goals rather than administrative minutiae.

7. Work hard in the summer

The moment that the undergraduate teaching is finished for the academic year, I provide a summer timetable for the postgraduates. I put all their meetings in one day and ask that they focus on delivering chapters at speed. The cost of this system to supervisors is often our annual leave. But the benefit of this decision is that students can catch up in July, August and September when the university and library are quiet. I also make a point of being available until the day of the Christmas shutdown. Students generate considered research in this period when my attention is fully placed on them and undergraduates are off campus.

8. Intervene early if situations change or your supervisory radar is picking up a problem

If the relationship is not working, then change the relationship. Alter the rules overtly and clearly. A decade ago, I supervised two students who were romantically involved in a volatile and unstable relationship. You know the end of this story. In the final year of their PhDs, they ended a six-year liaison. Unfortunately, I was uncomfortably wedged into this situation. It was almost as if, as they were dividing the furniture and CDs, they were vying for ownership of my time.

They came into meetings and spent the first 20 minutes whining and abusing the other person. I let this anger and emotion continue for two weeks. Then I sent an email changing the rules of the supervisory relationship, stating that the other person was not to be mentioned in our discussions. The next meeting was uncomfortable, but both students agreed to the new “rules”. They passed their examinations with minor corrections. If I had not renegotiated the relationship then almost certainly one of them would have left the programme.

9. Build a community

While the last point focused on separating candidates, this is the exception to my normal system. The main philosophy that guides the supervisory process is the building of community. Postgraduate education is the most isolated – and isolating – of educational activities. Writing a thesis in a specialised area can trigger despair, self-doubt and fear.

My aim – at its most basic – is to create a positive and creative environment for scholarship. My tactic for developing this practice is to create a team of scholars, reinforced through teaching, group meetings, peer reviewing and editing, mutual support and regular contact. Without loyalty, collective responsibility and mutual respect, none of my other supervisory imperatives would function.

While the first eight tips on my list are problem solving for moments of crisis, number nine is the positive strategy. The one advantage – and there are many – of supervising a troupe of students is that they look after each other and bond closely. If we as supervisors can build a community, then more senior postgraduates will be asked for advice and assistance. This drains the intensity from the supervisor/student relationship and assembles a group of people with whom they can talk and discuss difficulties.

10. Mentoring, modelling and mirroring

Building from number nine is my overarching strategy and method to manage PhD candidatures. My supervisory process is based on the three “Ms” – mentoring, modelling and mirroring. In chronological order, each is the primary function for a year of supervision.

For the first “difficult” year, generally involving transference from work to candidacy, or an honours or masters programme to a PhD, the students require mentoring and assistance in determining life goals and strategies. Time is spent teaching them about “meta-PhDs”: the rationale, ideologies, discourses and politics of a doctorate at a university and in a discipline. We do not ask, “what is a PhD”. Instead, I ask them to ponder “why” they enrolled in a PhD. The second year moves the students into modelling. The postgraduates become better teachers, writers and administrators. They are encouraged to speak in public and publish in journals. They model and test academic life to establish its match with their expectations.

In the final year, students mirror me. I grant them greater responsibility in their tutoring and administration and assist them in publishing independently. They also mentor and model the other postgraduates at earlier stages of the cycle. A “natural” progression to completion is established. Final-year students learn skills in peer tutoring and supervision to deploy in their own academic careers.

A student who had completed his PhD realised how the three Ms punctuated my supervision. After submitting, he told me that the most valuable lesson I had taught him had little to do with the doctoral thesis. Instead, I taught him how to supervise. He watched, helped, learnt and felt prepared to enter academic life.

These are my ten tips. But how did I use them to “manage” that supervisory hostage situation in the 12th week of semester? How did I get out of my office? First, I did not respond to the postgraduate’s anger or personal attacks. I focused on the project and her responsibility, remaining consistent. I told her that I needed a week to consider her views and used that time to renegotiate the supervisory roles and rules.

No name calling was permissible. Respect for other postgraduates was required. I agreed to increase her meeting time if her productivity improved, ensuring that she met her responsibilities. For every 500 words she wrote above 1,000 words in a week, she would receive another 30 minutes of time.

The longest meeting of her entire candidature was 30 minutes, but there were no further complaints because the length of her sessions was relational to performance. We worked hard during the summer to return her energy and faith in the project. Through these initiatives, she finished the doctorate in three years and is now ensconced into a successful research career, able to abide by deadlines and work well in a team.

With the debate about declining doctoral standards and the difficulties in bringing students to completion, we need to share the supervisory principles that have succeeded and failed. My methods are neither ideal nor perfect. If supervision teaches us anything, it is that we must never be complacent. We must continue to listen, read, write and think. Most importantly, we must respect and help our postgraduates. They are our academic future. How they are supervised will determine how they eventually supervise. Our strategies speak to the future.

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