Community Acuity (3): taking the ‘super’ out of supervisor

‘Community Acuity’ blog posts are from supervisors, to supervisors. They share the thoughts, experiences and reflection of the highs and the challenges of supervising doctoral students. 

This post is by Tamara Hervey, Jean Monnet Professor of European Union Law, University of Sheffield. Tamara’s own blog is here.

I don’t recall too much about being a PhD student. It was a wild, unstructured experience which, although fun at the time, in hindsight was not a good preparation for life as an academic. One thing I do recall, though, is my cousin’s drawing of her PhD supervisor (I couldn’t find it so please accept the above image instead) . He is a geeky superhero, trying his best to save the (PhD) world in which he lives, but obviously totally ill-equipped for the expectations bestowed upon him.

They say that PhD supervisors fall into two camps: those who replicate their own experience, and those who do the polar opposite. If this is true, I am definitely in the latter camp. I have long felt that my primary role as supervisor is to impose structure: over research design, methods, content, and above all over the time that spreads out so beguilingly at the start of the three (often four) year process of getting those magic letters that (potentially) open the door to an academic career.

Perhaps reacting against my own experience, and certainly thinking about its deficiencies, I’ve taken the approach that imposing structure is the most valuable input that I have to give my supervisees. The world of a PhD comes as empty as a new Minecraft landscape. There is a broad idea and outlines of terrain, but it is essentially formless. At no other time in your education will you have experienced such open spaces. Particularly in Arts, Humanities and the Social Sciences, as Patrick Dunleavy puts it, ‘you write the question, you provide the answer’. But you can’t successfully live in your PhD world, unless you build some structures into it. No one else is going to do that for you. (Sure, there might be an annual form to fill in, a confirmation review to get through, some methods classes to attend. These are barely scratches in the sand.)

My former PhD students (of whom there are now a round dozen) would tell you that I need to know what they plan to do, when, where they are, and how they are getting on with their ‘building projects’ (the blocks of research and writing that will make up the end product) against their self-set plans. I even have a script, of sorts, for the opening PhD supervision session, in which I explain that this is the way I am, and if they aren’t going to be able to cope with that type of oversight, they need a different supervisor.

But lately I’ve been wondering if this really is a good way to think about what makes for good PhD supervision.

PhD students don’t need ‘super’visors. They definitely don’t need someone who presents as having superhuman characteristics, and special powers, who appears to be able to leap over the metaphorical tall buildings of which higher education in the 21st century seems to be built.  As one former PhD student put it, to the most amazing member of professional services staff who did more for that student than I ever could: ‘I find it so hard to tell Tammy that I haven’t done the one thing I was supposed to do, when she has done 20 things since we last met’. It should be no part of the supervisor’s role to fill their student with a sense of their own inadequacy.

If we take out the ‘super’, what is left?  The rest of the word ‘supervise’ comes from the Latin ‘videre’ – ‘to look at’.  PhD students might sometimes need someone to look at them, to have them in their sights.  That’s where I think my reaction against a ‘benign neglect’ model is right.  It’s pretty lonely being a PhD student: having someone notice and pay some attention to what you are building can help.  PhD students might very occasionally need someone to go further than looking at what they are building: they might need someone to protect them or stand up for their project.

When I talked with my cousin about writing this blog, she reminded me that PhD students need supervisors who are prepared to go into battle for them, tell the world how amazing they are, and, in so doing, help them to find a job.  But generally PhD students need to be learning how to protect, and do battle, themselves.  Some modelling of how to do that might help.  The chance to talk through what is hindering their progress, as well as what excites them about their subject, and how very ordinary both those things are, could be very useful.

But in the end, the most important thing PhD students need is the habit of reflection. The higher education world they will inhabit won’t be the same as ours. We can’t tell them what they will need to build to save it. We can only equip them with the ability to understand it, so they can make themselves a home there.

Superheros are not renowned for their reflective qualities: they are more about doing than about thinking. It’s time to take the ‘super’ out of supervisor.

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