After my blog post ’10 ways to annoy your supervisors’ I was contacted by a doctoral student who felt that an accompanying view from the other side could, and should, be expressed. I’m delighted to post her response. I’m particularly pleased by her direct challenge to my point about asking for permission before talking to others. I agree with her, as well as with my original point (yup, I’m human, so I can live quite comfortably with contradictions).
As you’ll see, my posts tend to be quite frank. The point is to spur discussion, debate and thinking (not to spout unquestionable truths). So thank you Verity Quill, for engaging with the post in exactly the way I hoped!
By Verity Quill, PhD (elect)
I just read Nick Hopwood’s discussion about ‘How to annoy your Supervisor”. Well, it takes two to tango, as they say in the old country, so I thought it was worthwhile assembling some of the experiences of my fellow students and I into a collection of good natured snippets of Advice to Supervisors. Note that these remarks are based on the combined experiences of people I know. They are not intended to alienate my own quite beloved supervisors, about whom I am generally NOT talking about here. Smooches to you, girls.
I have even been able to arrange my list using almost the same headers as Nick used for his list of ways to annoy supervisors. Just to needle him. So if you were ever wondering how to lose the attention of your student, how to confuse or depress them, dumb them down or how in general, to be a crappy supervisor, here are ten top tips to start you off.
Yes we have had supervisors go off the radar too. Supervisors can get ill, depressed, overworked, they go on walkabout or have sudden carer’s duties, and they may not have made an arrangement with students before they went. These are all reasonable reasons to disappear. But you can disappear without any of that, just by going a very long time not answering emails. A student may go on requesting meeting times, sending work, or posing questions by email without reply, for weeks or sometimes months. See how long yours can go!
2. Mess me around with dates and deadlines
Yes, you might not always be able to meet when planned, and yes sometimes work will take longer than expected: unexpected other-things-in-life can’t be ruled out. But as a rule, students still expect you to be there when you agreed to meet. The key for you to remember here is that you are the supervisor, so you call the shots. Geoff’s supervisor was a master at this. Geoff learnt from experience that when his supervisor arrived to a meeting late, she would still need to get to her next meeting on time. She would rush through the supervision. Geoff picked up on her brevity: he asked fewer questions and agreed with ideas to save time, figuring he would be able to work it out later. Voila! A confused student! More fool Geoff, ay? Meanwhile Molly had a supervisor who she hardly ever saw, because he would double book himself and then when she came to his office, ask her to make a new time, or he would not be there at all. The message she took away was, “I am not interested in your work”. After months of not being able to see her supervisor, she was suitably depressed and unsure of the value of her project. Careful though, some students in this situation will find it easier (and interesting) to discuss their ideas with other academics, see Tip 10 below.
3. Agree to things that you know aren’t realistic
If a student asks you how long you need to read 8,000 words, and you say a fortnight, they’ll believe you. If you know you have 240 essays to mark in the next fortnight and your wife is going to the Hebrides for a conference, leaving you and the kids, then it wasn’t a good idea to also schedule in a meeting to discuss those 8,000 words. But it sets you up perfectly to try Tip 4.
4. Don’t read what I have sent till we meet
Your student Joe sends you a piece of writing (draft chapter, etc.) and you meet to discuss it a fortnight later. You haven’t read the writing, but Joe sits quietly in the office while you read it and give feedback on the spot. You have finally found the perfect way to manage all the conflicting tasks in your day! And probably, Joe is congratulating himself on finding a way to get feedback from you, because he knows if he reschedules, you will have still not read it the next meeting either. Or maybe he is grinding his teeth and thinking about what you could have said if you had had time to think about his work.
5. Take a very long time to give feedback
If you play it right you can really freak your student out by forgetting about feedback deadlines. As the clock ticked on his scholarship, Harold sent his full PhD to his supervisor to read. Four months later, the supervisor hadn’t finished reading it. Given the nod by her supervisors, Jenny submitted her Intention to Submit form setting the big date for a month later. One supervisor was still “just finishing” reading her final draft. A fortnight later, three months after receiving the draft, he provided an hour of insightful, sit-down feedback involving theoretical and methodological implications, some of which Jenny incorporated into her final submission. Her supervisor was surprised when she submitted on time, rather than read that new author he recommended.
6. Make untimely suggestions
On that topic, a classic move you could try is to continuously suggest new areas of study. Of course, we all know that at some point the PhD has to finish. The manuscript must be submitted. A line must be drawn, and those deeper and broader understandings must begin to flower in the garden outside the PhD enclosure. But as your student prepares their final draft, pretend the world worked differently. Hiding the twinkle in your eye, insist that she must incorporate X’s theory of the world, and needs to read their seminal work on the topic. Hoop-lah! Confidence, gone!
7. Expect my PhD not to change
One day way back when, I came to your office and pitched a PhD, and you said, okay, let’s do it. Since then, I’ve been reading and thinking, trying ideas, failing and learning. That’s good, isn’t it? Now, my PhD is different. If you don’t recognise it, see point 8.
8. Leave the supervision with no idea what I was talking about
It can be really hard to describe what I’m trying to say, because my ideas are still forming about it. Meanwhile, because you’ve read all kinds of stuff I haven’t, half the time I’ll say something that reminds you of X. Please don’t therefore assume that I am talking about X, and forget to listen to what I’m saying. So here’s how it works. We’re sitting in your office, and I’m telling you about how this new idea fits in with my other ideas. You get a glazed look on your face and start fidgeting. When I finish explaining, you comment that it won’t work because of a series of factors, which don’t seem connected. I am surprised, but decide to listen and wait for them to connect to what I was talking about. Sadly, I never see how they connect, and then the time is up, so I agree to think about it. Let’s rewind and run that again. I was talking about my messy ideas, let’s call them M. You listened, and probably quite rightly, noticed some of the early part sounded a bit like X. You started thinking about X. The next parts of M didn’t sound like X at all, which got you worried. You started thinking about how common it is for people to misunderstand X, and began to fidget and prepare your discussion of the problems with misunderstanding X as I continued to talk about M. You remember a really easy way to explain the problem with Example Y. I finish. You start talking about Y. I don’t know why you are talking about Y, and you don’t know what M was about because you got distracted by X.
9. Expect me to agree with everything you say
Your student wants to explore governmentality in their data, and you don’t see the value. What’s more, the methods they want to use aren’t like your previous work in that field. Here’s what you could do next: tell your student not to follow that path as it will lead to uninteresting research. Or you could ask your student to put together a clear argument for their new direction. Ask for 2,000 words. This is an important moment as your student may be learning to think for themselves. Jeffery told his supervisor he was considering an ethnographic approach. His supervisor told him ethnography was positivisist, and she pointed out that Jeffery’s work was not ethnographic as he would not be undertaking participant observation. Jeffery found evidence to support a move from traditional forms of ethnography to more social constructionist approaches, and submitted 2,000 words on how he could undertake participant observation. Both supervisor and student learnt more about ethnography, and eventually negotiated a middle path for its application in Jeffery’s research. But wait! You want to discourage originality in your student, so best you follow my first suggestion: steer them back towards what you would have done. When they disagree, insist that they don’t understand the literature.
10. Try to protect me from other academics
NB. Nick here: please note how this goes against my original point on this issue, and to a large degree, I stand correctly corrected!
This can work in a few ways. I have seen supervisors who, when their student makes a public presentation, the supervisor answers questions from the floor. Good idea! If you answer ahead of the student, it says they don’t know, to everyone in the room, including the student. The student is there to answer questions, might have prepared themselves, and maybe they could answer perfectly well. If they falter, then stepping in could be kind, and normally one is of course a very kind supervisor, but that is not the point of today’s lecture. At the other end of the scale, I hear that some supervisors want their students not to talk to other academics without consulting their supervisor first, to avoid political mishaps. This sounds like excellent advice for the production of damp students, still curled inside their cocoons: perfect for our purposes. You wouldn’t want a student like Valerie: she spoke to many academics in her vicinity while doing her PhD; she met them while attending their presentations, or in the hall. She had long conversations with them over coffee or short exchanges in passing. Their ideas, including their criticism, were inspirational and strengthened her work. Describing her research to them made her more confident and clarified her ideas. If you are working on particularly ground-breaking or competitive research, sure, then maybe secrets are important and boundaries are valuable. Otherwise, the point is to develop students who are able to speak and think for themselves, who have collegial connections into the academy after submission (enhancing their job prospects), who understand the politics of academia, and who are producing strong, well examined ideas, so share your understanding of the political landscape out there, and then encourage them to network and share their ideas. But if you want vulnerable, unadventurous students, better keep them safe from other people’s ideas.
So that’s my ten tips for how to confuse, deflate, alienate and dumb-down your students. These methods are field tested (though results may vary). Good luck and enjoy!