PhD to postdoc no sweat, or posthoc regret?

I work a lot with stuck and panicking PhD researchers near the end of their time here, and from them I have some intel to share. Bear in mind then that what follows doesn’t represent an ever so typical experience, but it does represent an important and keenly felt negative experience. One we can all learn from as colleagues in researcher development: be your role full time academic superhero and supervisor, or like mine, a specialist learning and development role, I think this will be relevant to you.

Those panicking, probably sad, and usually angry people express some common regrets. They may feel they wasted time, had their time wasted, got lost in the middle or just weren’t as productive as they might have been — they feel that it’s not like them to underperform, it’s out of character, they couldn’t see it coming, it’s been one long and confusing experience.

The biggest post hoc wish I hear, and I hear it all the time, is expressed something like “I spent ages not really sure what was meant to be happening, and I should have said something sooner but I was too embarrassed, too ashamed.

For these lost and disengaged people there is an expectation gap.The thing they thought they’d come here to do, turned out to be something else, something they didn’t recognise. The tools of study and hard work they’d spent years honing, suddenly didn’t work any more — not on this bigger, more complex project for which they were taking the lion’s share of the responsibility. From the available data they had about how to do university study, they were not able to make an accurate prediction about what the PhD would involve.

Had they opted for a graduate job, their first and basic understanding of what they were signing up for would have been informed by a job description and a contract of employment. That’s not a very common practice in PhD study. Think then, how does a student you accept on to a PhD place understand their role here? How do they know what to expect? And what you, the university*, and other parties (funders etc), expect of them?

‘Fine’ you might say, ‘but surely they find out pretty quickly when they get here’. Well, of the people who find me because they’re stuck and fed up, only about 10% can recall having a conversation with their supervisor in the early stages, about what a PhD would be like, what they were expected to do, what responsibilities they had, and how to work together. And just over 70% of them tell me (sometimes in strong language) that the PhD was really, really, not what they expected. See data below:

“I do not know where I stand with him. I am baffled on a daily basis by this relationship. I mean, is he my dad? Is he my prosecutor? Why does he want to criticise me, and then invite me out for drinks with the group? I don’t need a friend, I need to know what I’m doing.”

“I’m angry because I don’t know how this works and that to me is scary. I mean, I don’t know the rules I’m playing by, and when I feel out of control it’s unbearable. This is a hard time in my life, nothing is constant, and I feel like I just want one fact I can pin down, one solid anchor.”

Students, show up with a basic trust for you as an expert in your field, and as a member of staff in a university. If you don’t say what you expect of them, they (as do we all) will proceed via a set of rules of engagement that has worked for them before. If you don’t advise them something is not working, needs doing differently, or isn’t ok, they (like all of us), will tend to assume they are doing just fine.

Sooner or later they find out it wasn’t ok: their data isn’t publishable, their thesis can’t be completed on time, they aren’t going to be working with you here after the PhD etc — and they feel let down, confused and angry, and the relationship with you deteriorates.

Collated below are some points of tension I think it would stand you in good stead to have conversations with your students about:

  • Responsibilities & roles what’s different for a PhD*?
  • Multiple supervisors, what is the role of each? Who makes sure everyone is on the loop?
  • What are the work hours, leave entitlement, number of development days?
  • Communication with you: when, how, how often?
  • Replies by email – how long is reasonable for either of you to wait?
  • Feedback on writing – how long is reasonable for a page, 10 pages, a chapter?
  • Confidentiality of meetings? Who knows what’s said, where do the notes go?
  • Boundaries? What don’t you do?
  • Organisation of supervision sessions, do you request meetings, or do they?
  • Preparation for supervision sessions, do you do that, or do they? Who sets the agenda, who leads the meeting?
  • After supervision sessions, who writes the notes and follows up on them?
  • What to do if they get in a situation and they don’t know what to do.
  • What to do if they haven’t made any progress since you saw them.
  • What to do if something goes wrong or they make a mistake.
  • Who is the PGR tutor for your Dept.?
  • Attending conferences, when, how many, what’s the process?
  • Papers, who writes them, and when, for where?
  • What happens at the end of the PhD? Is it 3 or 4 years? What are the consequences of going over time?
  • Writing the thesis, when to start, why, what happens if they leave it all till the end?
  • Afterwards can they expect a job with you? What’s the job market like?

And it might clue you into what motivates them to discuss:

  • What brought them here to do this PhD?
  • Their wish list for the first 6 months? Is it realistic?
  • And hopes/worries for the PhD?
  • What’s the first thing they feel they need to know to go and make progress?
  • What do they expect to have achieved by the next time you meet?

A time investment at the start, yes, but a good investment and a time saving overall.

There’s a video version of these messages here.

And while we’re at it, if you’d like to check what your university expects of you as a supervisor, do go ahead and locate your institutional policies e.g. the supervisor statement of expectations, code of practice for research degrees (they may come under different names in different institutions).

My esteemed colleague Dr Anne Lee is an independent academic development and supervision consultant. She has written books on good supervision, and has agreed to share an expectation setting tool with you to enable productive dialogue for new students and supervisors. Find it here.

3 Replies to “PhD to postdoc no sweat, or posthoc regret?”

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