‘Ten truths a supervisor will never tell you’: some thoughts

Tara Brabazon’s ‘Ten truths a supervisor will never tell you‘ (Times Higher Education, 11-17 July 2013) will be of great interest to those thinking about committing to three or four years of doctoral study. Brabazon clearly writes from experience; but as disciplinary and institutional arrangements differ widely, that experience isn’t always applicable to other PhD programmes.  What I have to say comes from my own experience as a doctoral supervisor in English Literature in two UK institutions, the University of Wales Bangor (as was), and the University of Oxford.

(1) The key predictor of a supervisor’s ability to guide a postgraduate to completion is a good record of having done so’, begins Brabazon.  A commenter on the THE website has already pointed out the problem with this ‘truth’: an institution that embodied it would never allow newly appointed academics to supervise; the established successful supervisors would have a monopoly on supervision, until they died out. (One imagines them being kept on life support mechanisms, until the expense of 24-hour medical care bankrupts the entire doctoral programme.)

Of course some institutions might allow newly appointed lecturers to gain supervisory experience by co-supervising, though Brabazon warns against this in her 6th ‘truth’, ‘Be wary of co-supervisors’, and has particular concerns about ‘the overconfident but inexperienced co-supervisor’ who hijacks the process.

What truths lie beneath this one?

(i) Education is a life-long process; even the ‘experienced’ supervisor is, or ought to be, learning about the supervisory process. Experience can be experience of different kinds of project, of different kinds of supervisee, in different institutional frameworks. So the inexperience of the new supervisor shouldn’t be seen as an obstacle.  What’s important, whether the supervisor is experienced or not, is that the department has robust additional arrangements, such as formal transfer of status interviews, or a supervisory committee that meets periodically to assess your progress.

(ii) An ‘inexperienced’ doctoral supervisor may have extensive experience of supervising final-year undergraduate theses and Masters-level dissertations. He or she will have experience of being supervised, and in most cases of undertaking further large-scale projects.  And, because of the research councils, he or she will be operating within an institutional framework that is very much focused on completion rates.

(2) You choose the supervisor. Do not let the institution overrule your choice’.  I’d agree that it’s important to research the institution properly.  Find out whether the department have appropriate expertise in your area.  Having identified one or more suitable supervisors, before applying, approach them with an outline proposal. (Whether they reply, and how helpful their reply is, might tell you something about their workloads.)  Some application forms (e.g., the one at Oxford) might let you suggest a supervisor.

But after that, there are good institutional reasons why the final choice should remain with the admitting department. An overloaded supervisor will struggle to be a good supervisor, no matter how well qualified he or she is.  Departments may also know which members of staff have good track records at timely completion, and may know that X, Y, or Z has a sabbatical coming up.

Of course if the supervisor you are allocated does not seem able to supervise you adequately, you should approach the department to discuss your options.

* * *

There’s more to say on this, especially about no.9 (‘Weekly supervisory meetings are the best pattern’), but I’ll save those for a future post.

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