Tag Archives: doctoral

Brabazon’s ‘Ten truths …’: thoughts on no.9

Of all the ‘truths’ in Tara Brabazon’s ‘Ten truths a supervisor will never tell you‘, the one that surprised me the most was no.9: ‘Weekly supervisory meetings are the best pattern.’ I know that my colleagues in Chemistry, and no doubt in other laboratory-based subjects, meet weekly with their supervisees, and see them frequently between those meetings.  But is this a good pattern for the humanities, specifically for English Literature?

I’m not sure it’s a viable pattern.  The Oxford English Faculty handbook currently states that candidates ‘may expect that their supervisor will provide at least two extensive supervision meetings in each term’, and that the candidate will provide a substantial piece of writing towards the thesis each term.  In Oxford, someone in my kind of post — a ‘University Lecturer’ in English — has a normal supervisory load of 6 PhD students, as well as having undergraduate lectures and tutorials to deliver, and usually some involvement in the M.St.  Weekly meetings would represent a significant increase in contact hours.  What would have to give?  Not my own research — there’s never time to do that in term — but more likely the extras such as convening a research seminar.

Even if extra hours were discovered in the working day that would allow weekly meetings, would such a pattern actually be desirable? To hold weekly meetings would be to keep a graduate student in an essentially undergraduate pattern of teaching.  I have some experience of this pattern, acting a supervisor to American doctoral students who have been in Oxford looking after JYA undergraduates.  The meetings reassured me that the doctoral students — both focused and industrious researchers — were putting in the hours in the library, but the written work presented for each meeting tended to be lists and brief notes.  My real concern is that a weekly periodicity might discourage exploratory reading and the kinds of discovery that come serendipitously.  I’m sure my doctoral students could manage to write weekly essays of, say, 3000 words; but I suspect that if they did so they might fall into relatively mechanical ways of doing it; and that even if the material varied from week to week, the argument or the method would remain substantially the same.

Brabazon justifies weekly supervisions by saying that some postgraduates ‘lack time-management skills and would prefer to be partying, facebooking or tweeting, rather than reading, thinking and writing.’  I’m inclined to think if they’re so completely absorbed in those vices as to be unable to produce written work (or other substantial evidence of progress) every month or so, they shouldn’t be doing postgraduate research.  (My own guess is that postgraduates are far more likely to get distracted from their theses by diligent teaching preparation or by finding new, shinier and more exciting topics; this second one is the bad side of exploratory reading.) Maybe if there’s a crisis a postgraduate will need to be put onto the intensive care regime of weekly meetings; but I wouldn’t see it as a desirable norm.  Postgraduate study should foster time-management skills and scholarly independence; in the Humanities weekly meetings could do the opposite.  A good supervisor will be there for an extra meeting if there’s some sort of crisis in the project, or a practical difficulty with obtaining texts; but he/she will also allow the student space to develop the project and his/her thinking.

‘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.

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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.