THE Scholarly Web

Weekly transmissions from the blogosphere

September 1, 2011

It is often argued that students are consumers and that they will invoke their consumer rights with greater force as tuition fees rise.

But for the doctoral student, at least, this is only half true, according to Sarah-Louise Quinnell, founder of the Networked Researcher blog and a trainer on the King's College London researcher development programme.

Dr Quinnell discusses the relevance of consumerism to doctoral candidates in a guest post on The Thesis Whisperer blog. "When you pay your fees," she writes, "you are paying for the opportunity to gain the degree and for the whole environment which supports this - good administration, desk space, computers - as well as supervision.

"These other, more tangible, ingredients are certainly things you can directly relate to fees. You pay, so you should have appropriate space to be able to do your work and resources such as libraries, journal collection access and so on.

"In my view you must be forceful about getting the infrastructure you need - relentlessly so in some departments, as provisions for PhD students seem to be an afterthought."

But Dr Quinnell does not think doctoral students should embrace the consumer revolution unquestioningly. "Are you really the 'customer' of your supervisor?" she asks. "Can you apply the same logic of 'user pays' to this relationship? No, I don't think you can. I worked in retail for 10 years. People came in, chose what they wanted and bought it. If it met with the purpose, they kept it; if not, they brought it back.

"A customer can choose between products, they can do research beforehand, try different things to see how they 'fit'. The same can't quite be said for education."

The student-supervisor relationship, she says, is built on experience and respect - things that have value, but not in a monetary sense. Arguing that with supervisors it is not always possible to tell in advance whether they are going to be the "right fit", she describes her own experience with two different mentors.

"I had one supervisor I didn't work well with and another I did. Number one had a very definitive [sic] idea of what I should be doing, whereas number two was happy for me to do what I wanted and would only be critical if they felt I could do it better, or if I was about to make some horrendous mistake. This worked for me."

The upshot, she writes, is that "as a PhD student, you are not buying the finished product; you are trying to develop the finished product. You do this development with the aid and guidance of a supervisor...reliant on the superior knowledge and judgement of your supervisor to get there."

This undermines the idea of a simple transaction - that a student pays and the academic delivers - and leads her to conclude that rather than demanding more, doctoral students who are dissatisfied with their supervisor should seek out an alternative mentor. "You can't change your supervisor's style just because you are paying for your education - but you can change supervisors," she writes.

"So, if you do feel the need to continuously assert yourself with your supervisor...maybe it's time to think about a divorce?"

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