How trying to help your supervisor probably isn’t helping, and what to do about it.

Thank you, Covid-19, for making an extremely complicated relationship even more complex. 

The PhD supervisor – supervisee relationship is inherently complex. In UK universities (and no doubt more widely) we think a lot about supervisor training, but relatively little about training PhD students how to manage their side of the relationship well. 

This means 50% of those involved in in this relationship are often left to guess how they should approach it (shout out to the lucky minority whose supervisors have discussed this with them, you can stop reading now). This can be profoundly disempowering and dispiriting: managing that uncertainty saps precious time and energy.

Pandemic impacts on doctoral researchers and supervision practices

Most doctoral students are under tremendous additional pressure at the moment as a consequence of Covid-19. I hear from researchers who:

  • are fundamentally rethinking planned empirical work that was scheduled to start around now
  • have had placements interrupted 
  • for a variety of reasons, are not able to be able to work in their living space and / or this new exclusively online-mode
  • are in financial difficulties
  • whose mental and physical health are being profoundly affected.

Despite these extraordinary challenges, what invariably comes through conversations is doctoral students’ acute awareness of the additional burdens on their supervisors at the moment and a determination not to add to that workload. That’s commendable, but it’s clear now that this isn’t a quick blip and we’ll all get back to ‘normal’ before we know it. Life is going to be some sort of weird for the foreseeable future. And given this…

You need to tell your supervisor what you need

If you need to hear this: your supervision needs are legitimate and, particularly in the absence of passing contact or engagement, supervisors can’t be expected to piece together a picture from multiple sources of how things are for you, and respond to that picture. You may need to be more assertive than you have in the past about asking for supervisor time and input. 

If you feel a bit of resistance when you read this, I hear you. It often feels hard to do, because it means expressing vulnerability in an academic culture that rarely seems to invite or expect it. 

But here’s the thing: if you don’t express it, how can your supervisor support you in it? 

It should be said that even if you express your need(s) clearly and assertively, it won’t always resolve the situation. Unfortunately, there are some flat-out terrible supervisors out there, but from my experience, they’re a minority. If you’re unlucky enough to have one of these, in another post I’ll talk more about ‘managing your supervisor’ strategies that might help. 

Oh great. So it’s all my responsibility?

Don’t misunderstand, I’m not suggesting all the responsibility lies with students, it belongs to both parties.

I’m just reflecting that I talk to a lot of students having really tough times, who are deliberately pulling back from supervisor contact, in the well-intentioned belief that they’re doing right by their supervisors. And a lot of frantically busy supervisors having really tough times, who freely admit that – much to their professional and personal frustration – under current circumstances, they’re in responsive rather than proactive mode.

But, and this is important, without exception, they all still want to hear from their students, particularly if they’re finding themselves unable to work, challenged, blocked or frustrated.

How can you move this forward?

If you’re feeling isolated, a bit lost, fed-up with your research, completely unclear how to proceed, you have the agency to act. It’s true that taking that first step in speaking authentically about how life is with you at a particular moment can feel really vulnerable. It can be hard to know where to start, and how to frame things.

Many students find comfort and a way forward in a bit of structure. If you start by systematically reflecting on how things have been since your last supervision, and writing it down, you’ll know you’ve got your own thoughts in order before you ask for time and input.

You can keep these reflections for your own reference or you might choose to send them to your supervisor ahead of the meeting. If the latter, please check with them how far in advance of a meeting they need to receive things to be sure they’ll have time to read them.

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