So… despite my good intentions to keep up a steady stream of weekly posts for this blog, life has intervened. A close family member has been seriously ill, and suddenly I was pitched back into the intensively stressful and time-consuming role of carer. The whole business has been quite traumatic for me, and it has made it difficult for me to concentrate on my work as well as meaning I had to take some time out.
For doctoral researchers, many of whom will be doing their research over 5, 6 or even 7 years (sometimes more!), it is almost inevitable that life will intervene. In just the last few years, my PhD and EdD students have been through experiences such as:
- being left homeless for several months when a house purchase fell through
- suffering a serious illness themselves
- dealing with a diagnosis of dyslexia for a child
- having parents seriously ill and in need of family care
- coping with a bereavement
- and, of course, having babies.
Generally, the imminent arrival of new offspring is something I get to hear about well in advance. But in my experience, all too often students keep quiet about what is going on in some of these other circumstances. One notices that promised written work is not coming in – or is so ‘skimpy’ that, clearly, little work has been done. When I ask if there is a problem, the reply often comes back that ‘x is going on, but it will be over soon’, or that ‘things are difficult but I want to soldier on’. Also in my experience, this approach to such problems is generally unhelpful, especially for part-time students with big day-jobs taking up much of the rest of their lives.One of the pastoral responsibilities of the supervisor is to notice when work-rates drop, ask what is going on, and offer realistic solutions to the student. Often this will be to take a suspension – even it is only for a month to get over a particular crisis or bottle-neck, perhaps sometimes for longer. Students are often fearful of taking this break – but not only does it stop the ‘clock ticking’ in terms of their registration, it also gives them permission to give themselves a break from the feelings of guilt and failure that can quickly build up when ‘soldiering on’ isn’t actually realistic.I also think it’s important to keep in touch with students while they are on a break. I occasionally send a short, friendly email to see how they are doing – and this is particularly important around the time that they have planned to come back. Then there is the question of getting them back in the swing of things when they do return – it’s helpful to negotiate through with them what some of the early tasks will be on their return, so they can try to build their confidence up quickly rather than feeling they have now lost the plot. So… life sometimes intervenes, as it has done for me recently. What are your experiences, as a supervisor, of dealing with these situations? Or as a research student, of encountering them? How can supervisors be most helpful?