PhD students’ relationships with their supervisors are pivotal; not
only in terms of producing a good thesis, but ensuring academic and
professional development. But while PhD
candidates’ work is regularly checked by supervisors, it is far less
common, to have formal checks made on the supervisors, with students
assessing their performance.
The imbalance of power in these relationships needs to be
acknowledged. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but only if supervisors
use their position and privilege to empower students. When they say and
do things that impede learning and advancement, it is an abuse of their
One of the main duties of the role, for example, is to provide
feedback on a student’s work. In my experience, this can range from
general comments to close editing of sentence constructions and grammar.
It can take the form of constructive feedback for improvement, or
demoralising sarcasm. I have experienced the full range, and it has had a
direct impact on my research. The most negatively couched feedback not
only hampered my progress, but left me wondering if I should be doing a
PhD at all.
Another vital aspect of supervision responsibility is to be, well,
responsible. Unanswered emails only increase the anxiety of a student
waiting for feedback on a discussion chapter. Unannounced departures for
conferences, holidays and research projects are frustrating,
particularly when they could have been discussed in advance.
A friend of mine had to deal with the sudden retirement of his
supervisor, whose replacement then left after just six months in the
role - he now has one who is on research leave with intermittent access
to the internet (or is perhaps just intermittent with his responses).
The tensions and discomfort are more keenly felt by students, I
suspect. We can’t simply turn away from an errant supervisor and go to
another, but we can’t talk freely about how we feel – this is akin to
bad-mouthing your boss.
I previously had to psych myself up for supervision meetings; the
barrage of criticism I faced often left me feeling stupid. But this kind
of thinking trapped me into becoming even more dependent on my
supervisor for words of affirmation that came too little and too late. I
constantly questioned whether I was good enough. After months of
anxiety and stress, and with advice from others who suffered at the
hands of the same supervisor, I made a decision to end the relationship.
Luckily I now have new supervisors who behave in more professional
and responsible ways. I don’t believe that there is a perfect
supervisor, but the ones I have are giving me the support that I need –
being responsive, pre-empting future tasks, and most importantly, making
me, a novice researcher, feel that I have a valuable contribution to
When students have horrible experiences with their supervisors, they
tend to share them in private conversations with friends or in social
media rants because there is often no formal channel to address them. My
university seems shy about putting in place performance measures of PhD
supervision, but is proactive about undergraduate students’ evaluations
of papers and lecturers. Is there an assumption that PhD students and
supervisors are mature enough to work out mutually satisfactory
As it stands, students are often left to manage tense relationships,
find informal alternatives to make up for bad or non-existent
supervision. Unless things become so strained that it is necessary to
change supervisors (as it was in my case), students tend to put up with
Maybe it’s because they think that’s the way a PhD is, or because
they can’t see any face-saving way to remedy the situation. But it’s
also because supervisors don’t appear to be accountable to anyone. When I
have raised this with the academic staff who support doctoral students,
I often get an evasive response – “It’s a tricky situation, isn’t it?” –
or just an empathetic nod of the head.
There’s huge pressure on universities to produce research in order to
prove their worth. If research is so important, then what about making a
little more effort to nurture researchers-to-be?
Universities should not only implement performance evaluations of
supervisors, but also cultivate safe spaces for doctoral students to
share their issues, and have access to support staff who will be able to
provide constructive advice and guide them towards workable strategies
We need to get rid of the false notion of low-maintenance supervision
relationships between consenting adults. These pairings are in fact
high maintenance, and fragile. Ignoring the issues will not defuse a
bomb that’s waiting to explode – one that could destroy promising