This is an anonymous post from a ‘failed’ PGR, now working in researcher development at a UK University. Part of their role is supporting supervisors and PGRs navigating the process and complexities of a supervisor/supervisee relationship.
When it comes to my ‘failure’ as a PGR it is difficult to know where to start. Partly because, as indicated by the quotation marks, I do not actually see myself as a failure. Yes I did three years of a part-time PhD. Yes I didn’t complete. But that does not represent failure – just the product of a very difficult circumstance.
When I was a PhD student my supervision experience was bad. Fresh out of my Masters, I started my PhD bright-eyed, bushy tailed and incredibly naïve. It did not occur to me not to trust my supervisor. Why would they have anything but my best interests at heart? But they didn’t. There were many things involved in my supervision, including bullying and duplicity, which are too complex to go in to, in a short blog post. And to be honest, they are also redundant points now.
What is useful to share is what I have learnt about supervision from my negative experience, and what I can teach supervisors and the institutions they represent.
We all know the rhetoric that we learn most from failure – well, I would say that I learnt most of what there is to know about supervision from having a bad supervisory relationship. And that in my opinion makes me ideally placed to carry out part of my current role in University Professional Services – training new supervisors and providing training and support to students on managing the supervision process.
So what advice do I give to supervisors? How does this help me to support them in creating open, trusting and caring supervisory relationships? Here is a start.
Set expectations clearly and openly from the start. Always be honest about your intentions and goals, both as a researcher and a supervisor. If you collaborate, whether that be on experiments or publications, be clear about the boundaries, roles and expectations from the start. There are a variety of tools you can use for this, I always recommend:
- Vitae’s advice on Establishing the Supervisory Relationships, which outlines a few topics of discussion to set expectations
- ThinkWell’s template on Expectations in Research Supervision, which can be filled in by supervisors and students as the starting point for discussion
Be up front about critique – yes, criticism hurts and it is hard to give. We all pretend it does not but it is, in the end an emotional process. But your students need to hear what’s wrong with their work – directly, but kindly.
- Vitae’s advice on Giving Feedback, which introduces some useful feedback models
- Professor Parkinson for The Supervision Whisperers on Critical Review, which provides advice on getting the balance of critique just right
- Professor Susan Carter for Doctoral Writing SIG on Doctoral Writing and Supervisor Feedback: What’s the Game Plan?, which advises on how to keep an open dialogue around supervision and feedback
- Cassily Charles for The Thesis Whisperer Are You on the Same Page as Your Supervisor, which discussed how our approaches to writing impact on our approaches to feedback
It can be difficult to talk about mental health, but as a supervisor you’re most likely to notice when your student is struggling mentally rather than academically. Do not be afraid to ask them if they are ok, create a safe space for them to admit they’re not and signpost them to services. Encourage them to take a break. You do not have to be a counsellor; you just need to be a human. You could upskill yourself by:
- Attending Mental Health First Aid training, which introduces the skills to recognise a range of mental health problems and how to signpost to appropriate support
- The Supervising PhDs resources on Supervising Stressed Students, which can help you recognise the signs of stress in others
- Dr Caitlin Kight on Challenging or Toxic?, which includes activities to think about the difference between challenging and toxic situations in supervision
Empower your students to challenge you. One of the goals of a research degree is as a training ground to be an independent scholar. Teach and empower your students to be able to challenge your ideas and perspective, and to argue and defend their own. Why not share with them the SupervisingPhDs’ difficult conversation planner or The Thesis Whisperer’s breakdown of assertive communication?
My ultimate piece of advice for supervisors is to teach your students to trust themselves as must as they trust you – if not more. My supervisory relationship made me question everything about myself, and every tiny decision I made – in both my research and my personal life. Because I trusted my supervisor and they betrayed me, I stopped trusting my own judgement and myself.
My advice for institutions is to create structures that celebrate good supervisory practice, and requires supervisors to undergo regular, mandatory training. And where there are issues:
- Make better spaces for PGRs to come forward about bad supervisory practices
- Value their experience and perspective
- Make it easier to change supervisors
- And put proper sanctions in place so those ‘notorious’ supervisors do not keep getting to recruit students
Your completion rates will go up if you do, and your students will graduate happier, healthier and better researchers.