PhDs: ‘toxic’ supervisors and ‘students from hell’

How should universities handle breakdowns in PhD student-supervisor relationships?

April 7, 2016
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Sparring partners: student-supervisor relationships can come ‘unstuck’

The supervisor-PhD student relationship can often be hugely rewarding for both parties, leading to groundbreaking research, years of fruitful academic collaboration and lifelong friendships.

But what happens when these relationships instead end in bitter acrimony?

While horror stories of “toxic supervisors” or “students from hell” are fairly rare in academia, most academics have heard tales of when the mentor-student relationship has failed spectacularly, leading to mutual loathing coupled with a change of supervisor.

It might be the story of how a PhD student was reduced to tears on a weekly basis after yet another brutal examination of their work or the young scientist left floundering for months because of a lack of support from their supervisor.

Tales of brash but work-shy PhD candidates who expect their supervisor to do the lion’s share of their thesis, leading to a flurry of complaints, have also circulated in academic circles.

Such problem relationships were recently addressed in a talk by Jean Grier, investigations manager and research and projects officer for the vice-principals at the University of Edinburgh, at the Association of University Administrators’ annual conference in Leeds last month, titled “'The Student from Hell' meets the 'Toxic Supervisor': Managing Student/Supervisor Relationship Breakdowns”.

Universities need to assess what mechanisms and training they have in place to guard against the small number of cases where these strained relationships develop, Ms Grier told Times Higher Education.

“The PhD student-supervisor relationship is a uniquely intense professional relationship that often works extremely well, but can come disastrously unstuck,” she continued.

Institutions should regularly examine whether staff have the skills and training in supervisory processes and whether monitoring schemes are working, Ms Grier said.

She added: “For instance, do institutions learn from failed supervisions, and how do they brief other staff from what they have learned?"

Supervisors might also usefully consider to what extent “bad behaviour” by students is caused by stress or other mental health-related issues, she said.

“Development of ‘fitness to study’ procedures could be useful and is on the increase, potentially enabling an institution to put a break in place for a student…It might be better for all parties if supervisors agreed a break in study for a student, rather than going down the disciplinary route,” she added.

‘Benign neglect’ and interrogations

While the ultimate aim is to support the student through to successful completion, sadly this is not always possible, Ms Grier continued. “Institutions have a responsibility too towards their staff, who often go well beyond what should be necessary to support a student who is struggling with their postgraduate studies,” Ms Grier said.

Recognising the fact that some academics are just not suited to the demands of supervising PhD students might also help to eliminate tales of “toxic supervisors”, believes Gina Wisker, professor of higher education and contemporary literature at the University of Brighton.

“Some academics are just not the right people to be supervisors,” said Professor Wisker, who has researched the issue of PhD dropout.

Those academics keen on the idea of a “benign neglect” of students can often be the subject of complaints, Professor Wisker added.

“These supervisors want to develop the independence of PhD students and simply ‘let them get on with it’, but this approach needs to be properly structured,” she continued, saying that doctoral candidates often need a lot of support before they can begin to operate effectively as independent researchers.

Problems can also arise when supervisors start to challenge the ideas of their students, who may be unused to this level of interrogation, Professor Wisker said. However, while these robust exchanges can be the cause of complaints, they are essential to the doctoral process, she added.

 “I asked a PhD student recently what was their contribution to knowledge – that’s a tough question, but you have to be able to rise to that challenge as people will ask you this,” she said. “People might see these exchanges as abrasive, but a relationship should evolve over time in which intellectual near-equals can respond to each other’s thinking."

Dealing with difficult students is part of the supervisor’s role, but they should also admit that even the most intelligent individuals might not be cut out for a PhD. “Some people peak at master’s level,” Professor Wisker said. “They can be very successful academically and professionally, but some people find it very difficult to theorise their ideas – some just cannot do that."

“Some candidates, particularly mid-career professionals, are also not used to long hours reading journals and books – this is what can stop even the brightest of people,” she added.

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