Researcher, coach, mentor: the task of the PhD supervisor

Good PhD supervision is life-changing – and not only for the few who succeed in making it as researchers

April 18, 2019
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A staggering statistic about doctoral education, published by the Royal Society, suggests that just 3.5 per cent of science PhDs in the UK move on to permanent research posts.

The stat is a little old now, appearing in a 2010 report, and there has been some debate since about its accuracy – although the suggested upwards revision was only by a few percentage points.

Nevertheless, the rate of attrition from a doctorate to a career in academia is astonishingly high.

There is an argument that this brutal filtering process ensures that only the best rise to run labs, and that those without the necessary attributes are done a favour when they are siphoned off elsewhere.

But there is no doubt that the majority of PhD students harbour ambitions to make it as researchers, and that doctoral training has in the past given little time or attention to the alternatives.

Perhaps this is now changing. In our cover story, we ask six experienced PhD supervisors for their reflections and advice about how best to fulfil the role, and most, in different ways, reflect on their responsibility to develop doctoral students for a life full of possibilities, rather than just one.

For Philip Moriarty, the fundamental responsibility is still to nurture independence such that the doctoral candidate ceases to be a student and becomes a peer.

Doing this effectively, he suggests, requires complete honesty: “In physics we’ve become rather more open with PhD applicants in recent years about their chances of ultimately securing an academic position, should that be their goal,” he writes. “Let’s go one step further and be entirely upfront about the level of independence and self-direction involved in a PhD.”

Another of our contributors, Clare Kelly, also acknowledges that there will be times when “a gap remains between expectations and student progress”, advising that in such cases “stepping off the PhD track can often be a sensible option, and should be thought of as goal adjustment, not defeat”.

A third, Jennifer Schnellmann, points out that such pragmatism is essential when PhD dropout rates are approaching 50 per cent in some disciplines in the US. But she also suggests that it is incumbent on supervisors to think more flexibly about their charges' possible futures.

“In a time of immense innovation, fresh thoughts about employment trajectories should be equally novel,” she argues. “A student who ends up working outside academia should not be regarded by their supervisor as a failed self-cloning experiment. A PhD teaches students how to think, but we can broaden the scope of our mentoring to augment research skills with practical talents that build resilience and hone the interpersonal intelligence that is valuable in a wide range of careers.”

None of which is to suggest that the primary role of a PhD supervisor – preparing young researchers for a life furthering the boundaries of knowledge – is in any way diminished.

The lifelong impact that experienced academics can have on those just starting out was vividly described in our opinion pages last week by Alix Dietzel, who reflected on the personal legacy of the late David Held, professor of politics and international relations, who examined her PhD thesis. His support, kindness and engagement with her research – which began but by no means ended on the day of her PhD viva – had such an effect on her, she wrote, that “I honestly don’t know where I’d be if we hadn’t met. What David did for me, and for my career, can never be repaid. He built up my confidence, encouraging me to believe in myself not just as a scholar but as a person. He was truly a mentor in every sense of the word.”

There is no doubt that PhD supervision can be a tough gig. And yes, supporting a talented early career academic emerging from doctoral chrysalis post viva is different from supervising a spectrum of candidates including those without the necessary spark or application to grow wings. But as an academic eulogy – and reminder of what it’s all about – it doesn’t get much better than that.

john.gill@timeshighereducation.com

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