PhD supervision: give and you shall receive

Terrible tales attest that some see this activity as a nuisance or worse, rather than as something that can benefit supervisor as much as student, says John Gill

June 1, 2017
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Have you ever supervised a PhD? If you have, it’s likely that you’ve supervised more than one. And no doubt the relationships with your supervisees have all differed – up to a point.

But is it also possible that, deep down, they have all fallen into broadly the same bracket? If you’re a scientist, perhaps those students have more than anything been a source of cheap labour for your lab; if you’re in the humanities, maybe they’ve felt like a distraction from things you’d rather be doing; or perhaps, first and foremost, they have offered you a vision of your younger self – colleagues with fresh ideas, energy and enthusiasm who you have gladly nurtured.

If the last is true, then your PhD students are among the lucky ones, because as the contributors to our cover story make clear, things can go badly wrong in this most sensitive academic relationship.

The horror stories they tell range from the negligent to the malevolent, from supervisors who seem just not to care to darker tales of malpractice that universities have failed to remedy.

In the spirit of offering light to drive these monsters back under the bed, we also hear from two senior academics – one in the US and one in the UK, one from the humanities and one from the lab sciences – who offer advice about how supervisors can achieve the best results all round.

A point worth making is that PhD supervision differs to a large extent depending on the discipline.

Take the lab sciences: the suggestion that PhDs are cheap labour may make you uncomfortable, or you may think it is simply stating the obvious. Either way, there is a clear motivation to take on more doctoral students than can realistically be given personal supervision in the way that many might expect.

Again, you might consider this an injustice for young people hoping to learn at the knee of a master (and paying handsomely for the privilege), or you may consider it the way that academia has always identified those capable of standing on their own two feet as independent researchers.

In the humanities or the social sciences, there’s less obvious reason for researchers to sign up for multiple supervisions, but plenty of motivation for universities to chase as many fee-paying students as possible.

In this scenario, over-recruitment can easily become a problem, too, with PhDs either bundled on in-demand researchers in unmanageable numbers, or pieced off to unsuitable supervisors.

For those inclined to write off the horror stories in our cover feature, it would be a mistake to dismiss them as so unrepresentative as to be irrelevant. Anecdotal it may be, but the number of article pitches we receive on disastrous PhD supervision suggest that this is a very real issue. As an addendum to that, it’s worth also saying that when we do run articles on the trials and tribulations of poorly managed PhDs, they are always among the most-read and shared pieces we publish.

The supervision of a young researcher will always rely on a certain amount of selflessness, but when it works properly, the relationship should also benefit the supervisor.

As Susan Bassnett, professor of comparative literature at the universities of Warwick and Glasgow, puts it in our cover story, this is about engaging with the brightest minds of younger generations.

It’s a point that is echoed elsewhere in our features pages, by the superstar university president Jean-Lou Chameau, who has run several of the world’s most prestigious institutions.

Academia, he says in an interview ahead of his retirement, is “a life where you are constantly engaged with younger people”, adding that this should be seen as fuel for scholars’ own success, providing “a dynamism which becomes part of you”.

In one of Times Higher Education ’s most-read articles of recent years (“10 truths a PhD supervisor will never tell you”), Tara Brabazon, dean of graduate research at Flinders University, had some pithier advice about how to fulfil your side of the bargain: read your supervisee’s writing; attend supervisory meetings; and don’t be a selfish, career-obsessed bastard.

john.gill@timeshighereducation.com

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