Learn to manage your supervisor

In a recent guest post on the Thesis Whisperer blog, an anonymous PhD student tells How I broke up with my supervisor.  They recount how their doctoral experience was marred by a supervisor’s focus on meeting deadlines for finishing rather than on the intellectual and professional journey of a developing researcher.  Fortunately (though it probably didn’t feel like it at the time), this student’s supervisor ‘dumped’ them, and they seem to be regaining their confidence and motivation in a new supervisory relationship.

There are various reasons why a supervisory relationship may not work out – from incompatible differences that may emerge in theoretical positions to simply an incompatibility of styles.  What didn’t work for that PhD student may have been just what another one needed.  I think the key to ensuring that it doesn’t end in tragedy is for students to think about managing their supervisor from the start.

I don’t want to claim that this is easy, given the huge imbalance in power relations that favour the supervisor.  I have seen a few students become increasingly demoralised with their supervision whilst feeling utterly powerless to change the situation.  But the motto ‘start as you mean to go on’ is a good one in any relationship, and I want to suggest that students can find ways to manage the supervision process more successfully from Day One.

When I have a new doctoral student starting to work with me, I always tell them to read something before we meet: the first chapter of Rowena Murray’s book How To Write a Thesis, especially the section on ‘your first meeting with your supervisor’.  Murray recommends having an explicit discussion about roles, and about the style of supervision and types of feedback that both supervisor and student expect to give and receive.  They may not match exactly, but this is a basis for negotiation of expectations from both sides.  One of the things I try to express to each student is that I expect the relationship to change as their doctorate progresses.  So I make it clear that we will revisit this discussion regularly, and that I want the student to be honest in letting me know how useful (or not) supervision is for them, and when/how they want it to change tack.

One of the most useful things about Murray’s advice is that it puts the student a little bit in the driving seat even at the very start.  It means they come to that first meeting having reflected on the doctoral process and how they think (or hope) the supervisory relationship will fit into that.  It suggests questions for them to put to their supervisor, rather than just being ‘told’ stuff.  This is a good basis for ‘starting as you mean to go on’.  It then makes sense for me to ask the student to send their agenda in advance of all supervision meetings.  I also encourage them to send some ‘freewriting’ or ‘generative writing’ (also ideas from Murray’s book) about their doctoral journey as well as the formal piece of writing I usually expect.  I find these informal pieces often touch on some of the most profound issues that arise from the formal writing students have done, and make our intellectual discussions much richer.

But not every supervisory relationship has worked out for me and the student.  Sometimes it just doesn’t, and parting company (and finding a more compatible supervisor for them) is the right thing to do.  No one should be made to feel at blame.  Students are often extremely reluctant to initiate this process, and often allow a poor supervisory relationship to go on unsatisfactorily for too long.  My advice is to seek help as soon as you think it isn’t working for you.  Try to raise it – politely and kindly – with your supervisor.  They may simply be unaware that you need them to approach things differently.  If that doesn’t work, there is always a postgraduate pastoral tutor or similar person who should be your first port of call, and who should support you in taking things further if necessary.  It’s your money, your energy, your passion in your subject, and your future that are at stake here.  Don’t let it go haywire without doing all you can to get it back on track – and to get a supervisor you can work with.

I hope I am a good supervisor, I try very hard – but of course, like Pat Thomson, I also find it the scariest part of my job, the place where I feel least secure.  Am I doing the right thing?  Have I hit the nail on the head or missed the point?  Did I ask the best questions?  There is so much at stake for the students…  I need them to tell me what I’m getting right and how I can do it better.

I’d be really interested to know others’ thoughts about managing the supervision process, from both students’ and supervisors’ points of view.  How can the relationship get going?  On what terms, and how implicit or explicit are they?  How can the unequal power relations in supervision be redressed, at least to some extent?  Do share your thoughts, experiences and comments.

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