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Probation period for PhD supervisors ‘could prevent exploitation’

Written by: Pola Lem
Published on: 14 Dec 2021

Person practices on a trampoline under the instruction of a coach to illustrate Probation period for PhD supervisors ‘could prevent exploitation’

Source: Getty

Institutions could head off abusive academic relationships by establishing a probation period for faculty members who oversee PhD students, an academic studying the issue has suggested.

Perhaps few people have more influence over the future success – or failure – of young academics than a PhD supervisor. The relationship between a supervisor and a PhD candidate is one that lasts years, and when it goes wrong, it can upend a student’s mental health and even derail their career.

So it stands to reason that PhD students should be entitled to test their relationship with supervisors before committing to it, according to Michelle Wing Tung Cheng, a researcher at the Education University of Hong Kong who recently completed a study into students’ experiences of academic exploitation.

Currently, she said, it is commonplace for universities to test doctoral students to assess whether they are cut out for the gruelling demands of a doctorate, often requiring them to undergo a “candidature period”. But Dr Cheng was unaware of any institutions that do the opposite, asking PhD supervisors to prove themselves worthy of overseeing their students.

“Most institutions have a student handbook, providing students with the graduation guidelines and their duties as a supervisee. Yet, information regarding their rights as a supervisee, how supervisor and supervisee relationships should be [and] what they could do if they experience ‘exploitative supervision’ is barely mentioned,” she said.

In extreme cases, a poor match means that young scholars are subjected to abuse – from being asked to perform tasks unrelated to their role, such as liking a supervisor’s posts on social media or sorting out personal expenses, to feeling under pressure to commit academic misconduct at their supervisor’s behest.

For instance, Dr Cheng said, “lots of people have to write their supervisor’s name on a paper where their supervisor didn’t really contribute at all”, but students do not resist because “they’re worried about the consequences”.

She said that despite being small in scope, her study had struck a chord with researchers, illustrating that “a lot of them are very powerless in the sense they are not brave enough [to speak out] or don’t feel like they [can] stand up for themselves”.

Dr Cheng and her co-author, Man-Lai Leung, also a researcher at EDUHK, called on universities to clearly define the rights of PhD students, setting out “essential terms” such as maximum working hours, holiday arrangements and the sequence in which authors are listed in a journal paper.

But they also claim that poor relationships could be avoided entirely by providing a “proper period of probation” to check whether student and mentor are well suited to one another and making it easier for students to change their supervisor “at an earlier stage” if necessary.

“As a doctoral journey is very long, being able to work closely with the supervisor for a certain period before confirming the supervisor-supervisee relationship would be ideal,” said Dr Cheng. “Both supervisor and supervisee should be assessed on an equal par.”