I should start this post by saying very clearly that what follows is by no means a comment on the many fantastic students I work with and have worked with. I should also be clear that this does not reflect official policy of UTS: it reflects my personal views and is deliberately provocative at times.
The title is a little flippant: this isn’t just about (not) annoying your supervisors, but about the broader and crucial issue of maintaining health supervisory relationships, and making the most out of what supervision has to offer. As you’ll see if you read on, successful doctoral candidature is also about being part of a wider institution and realising that doctoral education and support is much more than supervision.
This is written from the voice of your supervisor, and some points may be more relevant in social sciences and humanities, but most should be worth thinking about for all students.
This might sound obvious, but it happens quite a lot. Students, maybe because they are worried, or feel they haven’t been productive enough, can drop into radio silence. Chasing up disappearing doctoral students isn’t particularly pleasurable, and more importantly is a worrying sign. I’m not dismissing important and real issues around anxiety, and of course there are often good reasons why you might find it hard to keep up your work, or might lose confidence. Accessing counselling support services should never be discounted as an option. But going invisible / silent doesn’t do anything for your supervisory relationship and you should stay in regular communication with me.
2. Mess me around with dates and deadlines
Yes, you might not always be able to meet when we planned, and yes sometimes your work will take longer than expected: unexpected other things in life can’t be ruled out. But as a rule, turn up when we agree to meet, and provide me with your work by the deadline we agree. If you are late, this can compromise my ability to give your work the time and attention it deserves. Equally: I have to make a firm commitment not to change meeting dates and to give feedback in a timely manner. It’s about mutual respect as much as anything else.
3. Continue to work on texts that I’m reading for feedback
This really is annoying: you send in a piece of writing (draft chapter, etc) and we meet a week later. Meanwhile you’ve been working on the same text, and arrive by telling me that the text I’ve spent considerable time reading and preparing to discuss, is no longer the one you’re working on. Grrr! Make sure you have something else to work on while I’m reading particular pieces of writing.
4. Assume I’m your default source of support
As your supervisor I’m an important port of call for many sorts of help, support, advice, and guidance. But NOT all sorts of help, support, advice and guidance. You have librarians, administrators, IT support, peers, friends, family, other academics etc as alternatives. Good students consider who is best to ask for help (I’ve published about this kind of relational agency). Asking me stuff that others could have helped you with is irritating and unproductive. Help keep our meetings focused on the stuff that I can bring most value to.
5. Ask for help before trying to address something yourself
Related to point 4, but slightly different. This is doctoral study: high-level stuff where learning independence is a key factor. If you come to me with a ‘problem’ and want me to offer a solution before you’ve really tried out a number of things yourself, chances are I’ll say (yep, you guessed): “go and try out a few things yourself and reflect on how they go, then we can have a better discussion about how to proceed”.
6. Agree to things that you know aren’t realistic
One of several points relating to clear, honest, shared expectations. If I say “when can you have a draft of your methodology written by?” and you say “one month”, then make sure that that is realistic. If you know you’ve got to look after the kids in school holidays, or have visits from demanding relatives, or a crazy month in your job, don’t be scared to tell me. I have to respect your other commitments just as I expect you to respect mine. I’d rather we negotiated a reasonable timeframe up front, than you agreeing to something unrealistic and then messing me around later (see point 2).
7. Leave the supervision with no idea what I was talking about
Yes, I admit: I’m not always as clear as I’d like to be when giving suggestions to students I work with. I’m as guilty as the next person of being cryptic at times. I need you to help manage this. Don’t sit there nodding and writing notes in a supervision, as if you understand everything I’m saying, and then come back a month later and say “sorry, I didn’t do anything on that chapter because I didn’t really understand what you wanted me to do”. If say “It needs more voice” and you have no idea or are unsure what that means, then speak up! You’re not supposed to be psychic. But you are supposed to be an active partner in supervisions and to play an active role in reaching shared understandings of next steps.
8. Agree with everything I say
One of my biggest fears is that as a supervisor I lead you into doing your doctorate the way I would have done it. I worry a lot if a consistent pattern emerges when you acquiesce to everything I suggest and don’t contest any of my ideas. This is your PhD, your name is going on the certificate. Show you’re becoming a scholar worthy of the title ‘Dr’ by being ready to disagree with me. You’re going to have to disagree with much scarier people in future, and stand up for your decisions, so get used to it.
9. Talk to other academics without discussing with me first
As with any workplace, academic institutions are not free of politics. I very much encourage and support you to interact with and get support from as a wide a range of academic colleagues as is appropriate. But it’s much better to talk to me about this before going and knocking on others’ doors. I can then guide you as to who might be helpful (and guide you away from others who might throw a spanner in the works for whatever reason). I might also broker an introduction. Some supervisors might have, er, shall we say tense relations with some of their colleagues, so a bit of openness about reaching out isn’t a bad idea.
10. Expect me to know your field as well as you do
Simple truth: if I don’t know your field when we start, I certainly won’t by the time you’re getting close to finishing. I haven’t read everything you have. I don’t know your data as well as you do. You’re (becoming) the expert in that area. So think about what that means for how to make the most of your relationship with me as your supervisor.
Obviously, this isn’t the 10 commandments: they’re deliberately frank, flippant and perhaps provocative. These rules might not apply in your context, but I’m guessing the chances are something related to each point is relevant in some way to how you work with your supervisor.
Reference to the paper I published on wider relationships and relational agency:
Hopwood, N. (2010). A sociocultural view of doctoral students’ relationships and agency. Studies in Continuing Education, 33(2), 103-117.