a willingness to accept uncertainty and make oneself vulnerable in the face of insecurity


Trust is often mentioned as an important part of ‘good’ supervision relationships but the literature is fairly vague on what we mean by ’trust’. I like to work with this definition of Trust: “Willingness to accept uncertainly and make oneself vulnerable in the face of insecurity” (Hope-Hailey et al., 2012) because I feel it describes a dynamic of experiencing challenge and seeking support, and it also acknowledges that doctoral students work with unknowns very frequently.

How likely a student is to trust their supervisor(s) enough to discuss a worry, or show a ‘weakness’, is a function of how much they trust that supervisor. We can also think of the uncertainties and ‘vulnerabilities’ of the PhD as opportunities for trust to develop. With each new challenge a student faces, how does the relationship strengthen or diminish?

It’s useful to understand the vulnerabilities students can experience in the doctorate, in order to understand how supervisors might best respond to them. This is a part 1 of 2, looking at what uncertainty and vulnerability might look like from the student perspective. I present some vulnerabilities from the supervisor perspective separately here.

To take action to make oneself visibly vulnerable by reaching out for support is a hard thing to do for anyone. When we feel challenged, or exposed, or embarrassed, we want to protect ourselves from that shame and embarrassment. Frequently I do coaching work with students who have gone into in ‘hiding’ mode. They feel challenged, exposed, embarrassed, humiliated etc., and so they protect themselves by avoiding what they see as the immediate source of the challenge and embarrassment. This may be direct avoidance of a supervisor or research group, or it may be avoiding or delaying on the more exposing aspects of PhD life e.g. sharing writing, presenting data, group meetings.

I get phone calls from supervisors too, asking how they can persuade a student in ‘hiding mode’ to get back in touch. I don’t think it’s always the supervisorad hominem that they’re avoiding — loads of great supervisors who care very much about their students’ development also find themselves ‘avoided’.

So what causes these feelings of uncertainly and embarrassment — some clues from my research data are presented in brief below:

Higher learning, and research, involves ‘not knowing’ things. Doctoral study is a learning experience and learning involves a process of ‘not knowing’ and of feeling insecure. Research work is inherently risky, and the processes of becoming ‘doctoral’ are uncertain and often are ill-defined if discussed at all. Students miss the familiar numerical feedback they are used to and find it difficult to monitor how well they are doing. Especially in cultures where feedback is absent, not useful, or even humiliating. Not understanding if your work was ‘good enough’ or if you are ‘on track’ is a key uncertainty.

Unmet expectations for the doctorate, and for supervision. Most participants reported that the doctorate was not what they had expected it to be when they started. Students found that the study strategies they employed in their previous experiences of work or study, did not work well for the this bigger, longer, and less defined project. See this post about discussing and agreeing expectations. Feeling like you ‘don’t know what you’re doing’ is paralysing.

Students have the most to lose. The doctorate is an ‘all or nothing’ degree and students worry about failing the doctorate and ‘leaving with nothing’. They felt that fear of failure made them easily manipulated because they had to do ‘whatever it took’ to complete the doctorate. Students typically discuss having a ‘failed PhD on my CV for life’.

Financial worries. Delayed employment, the absence of higher earnings for doctoral graduates over Masters graduates, delayed pension contributions, refused mortgages, taking an ‘effective pay cut’ to study, having to give up part-time work, delayed repayments on student loans, and funding the final stages of PhD study on credit cards — are all financial losses that negatively influence motivation for completing the PhD.

Clarity, and fairness in supervision. A commonly expressed trust breaker is non-responsive supervisors who were too busy with their own work, or with other, more favoured, students. Conflicting guidance and agendas from multiple supervisors was the most reported supervision difficulty. Students cite instances of: difficult project meetings, confusion about project direction and focus, difficulty integrating literatures, getting contradictory feedback, in-fighting, intimidation of co-supervisors, ‘playing politics’, and using the student as a ‘bargaining chip’. Harsh feedback and critique, being ‘made to cry’ in meetings ad hominem criticism, academic rudeness, and bullying.

Processes for escalating supervision complaints. A key vulnerability for students is how to seek support to resolve supervision tensions or making a complaint about supervision. Negative experiences of trying to get support from other academic staff tend to be more common than positive ones. This takes various forms: broken confidences, ‘fobbing off’, or ‘blaming the student’ and performance managing them. Students feel that systems will ‘always protect the supervisor’.

These ideas are presented for your reflection. What could we do as supervisors to make students feel OK to show and work with their uncertainties? Is it as easy as a conversation at the start of the doctorate in which we say “if it goes wrong it’s OK, talk to me” Is it about making sure the student knows you’re on the same side as them, not an opponent? Is it about recognising when the life buoy of reassurance is needed more than the criticality associated with research and research careers? And what about thinking of the financial impact of delay in the PhD — the student will carry that personal financial debt.

How likely a student is to trust their supervisor(s) enough to discuss a worry, or show a ‘weakness’, is a function of how much they trust that supervisor. Their own ‘predisposition to trust’ will be a factor in that decision making process, but how you have previously reacted towards them, the clarity of what’s needed, fairness and equity, and the quality of the feedback and guidance, are all big factors.

Trust is slow to build, and quick to break.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: