Should you be friends with your PhD students?

Blurring the lines between supervisor and friend can cause difficulties for academics and students alike, says study by Finnish researchers

November 26, 2015
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Devoted: some students wanted ‘supervisors to be concerned about them…in both personal and work-related ways’

Mentor, guru, academic champion and protector  – doctoral supervisors often assume many vital roles for their PhD students.

But should they also become friends with their charges? Some will view friendship as an inevitable by-product of working closely with an individual on a topic of mutual interest for three or more years.

Others will see it as not only natural but essential to the intimate supervisor-student dynamic in which new ideas can be shared without inhibition or fear of ridicule. The alternative – maintaining an awkward, frosty professional cordiality for years – would be unthinkable, many believe.

However, blurring the lines between the roles of supervisor and friend can cause problems, according to a new paper by Erika Löfström and Kirsi Pyhältö, from the University of Helsinki’s Centre for Research and Development of Higher Education, in press for the International Journal of Science Education.

Drawing on interviews with 15 PhD supervisors and students in natural sciences, the Finnish researchers found that many academics had found friendships with students fraught with difficulties, time-consuming and often unhelpful to both mentor and mentee.

“Some [PhD students] expect friendship, and that’s a critical, difficult thing,” explained one supervisor quoted in the paper, aptly titled: “‘I don’t even have time to be their friend!’: ethical dilemmas in PhD supervision in the hard sciences”.

That supervisor outlined how students often felt aggrieved that they did not receive large amounts of personal support, which led to “feelings of unfair treatment and all sorts of nasty things”. But a hard-nosed approach was required because “being a therapist and a close friend to your supervisee just isn’t appropriate”.

Tough love and high expectations

“If someone comes in and cries, for instance about difficulties in their private life, however cruel it may sound, after a week I have to say that this belongs [elsewhere] and I will not listen to it for years,” said the supervisor.

However, PhD students had different expectations of supervision from those overseeing their doctoral studies, who were juggling numerous other commitments aside from their doctoral candidates, researchers found.

“Doctoral students…hoped for and expected their supervisors to be concerned about them as persons in both personal and work-related ways,” the study concludes.

That clash in expectations “could cause misunderstandings and discouraging experiences” among students, it says.

“It would not have taken that much from the supervisor to ask once in a while: ‘how’s it going?,’” reported one PhD student quoted in the report.

“Nothing more…but it was like there was no time for that,” the student continued, who added that they “hoped…supervisors would have engaged more in what I was really doing and be more interested in that”.

However, negotiating the line between friendship and pastoral support from supervisors can be tricky, the report says.

For instance, some students said that they found it “difficult to ask for pastoral support as this may be seen as entering a more personal level of communication not appropriate in the supervision relationship”, the report says.

Meanwhile, some academics said that it was important to have a “hands-off” approach to mentoring – withholding support in some cases – to encourage their PhD students to develop as independent young researchers, even if this is perceived as “neglect”.

However, some students did not perceive this apparent lack of support as helpful, with one PhD candidate quoted in the report stating that they felt discouraged by having to attend an international conference without their supervisor.

“When you are alone in those situations as a novice, and you are not able to fend for yourself, or…describe your viewpoints, then you are left with a bad taste in your mouth,” they stated.

“I suppose you learn, but they have not been encouraging situations at all,” they added.

Supervisors should do more to establish a shared understanding with their PhD students on the amount of support that will be available during their studies, the study advises.

“Articulating expectations, commitments, responsibilities and challenges is a necessary step in the direction of solving the issues,” it concludes.

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