Happy days: Why PhD students need a helping hand from their supervisors

For most students, having a supportive supervisor is crucial to their chances of successfully completing a PhD. But tales of woe remain commonplace – despite reforms.
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The Independent Online

Laura began a PhD in Chinese cultural studies in 2003, but within months realized that something was wrong. "After six months, I became worried. I had only met my supervisor once, and I seemed to have no plan or sense of direction," she says. "Although my department had seemed delighted to accept me as a PhD student – even awarding me a studentship – it soon became clear that my supervisors knew nothing about my subject. I began to realize that the only reason my department had taken me on was to broaden their research profile."

Things deteriorated rapidly. Her supervisor showed no interest in her work, and communication broke down completely. Despite repeated complaints to her department, nothing was done to resolve the situation.

Eventually, four years into her PhD, Laura finally found two supervisors from another department within her university who were prepared to take her on. Although her PhD is finally on track, she is bitter about her experience. "It makes me so angry," she says. "Supervisors are in such a position of power that students are afraid to stand up to them. It's as if they're untouchable, above the law."

Laura's experience is not unique. Tales of PhD woe are ten-a-penny among graduate students – and the vast majority of these involve problems with supervisors. Last year, more than a third of complaints received by the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, the body that handles individual complaints against Higher Education Institutions, were from postgraduate students.

One of the main problems is that for many PhD students, the supervisor-supervisee relationship is pivotal to the successful completion of their PhD.

This was confirmed by last year's Postgraduate Research Experience Survey (PRES), the first national survey of postgraduate students. It found that the vast majority of postgraduates – more than 95 per cent – rated supervision as the single most important factor affecting their research experience and their ability to finish their PhDs on time.

As Derek S. Pugh of the Open University, co-author of How to Get a PhD, says, supervision can make or break a PhD. "Mostly the system works well and poor supervision is the exception rather than the norm," he says. "But when it does break down, it can go disastrously wrong and have serious consequences."

David, a former PhD student, knows just how detrimental a poor supervisor can be. He began a PhD in 2006 but quit after a year. "I knew straightaway that there was a problem with my supervisor," he says. "I thought it was odd that I had no contact with him before starting the PhD, and when I arrived my suspicions were confirmed. He was never around, and there were never any opportunities for regular supervisions. Even though I was working on a prestigious project, it was just myself and an inexperienced postdoc in the lab and I had no direction or support."

Things came to a head during David's first year review, when his supervisor told him that he wasn't cut out for a PhD and accused him of faking results. Although David complained to his head of department who did take his side, he decided eventually to drop out.

"Because of funding, I was tied to the project, so I couldn't change my supervisor," he says. "My biggest gripe with him was that he was accepted me on to this programme knowing I had no background in the specific field and yet offered so little support."

It's not all bad news though. Despite stories such as David and Laura's, things are changing in the field of postgraduate supervision.

"There have been real changes in the past decade or so," says Professor Chris Park, director of the Graduate School at Lancaster University.

"While traditionally in the UK, the 'secret garden' model – whereby supervisor and supervisee worked together, out of sight – was the norm, now the system is becoming more transparent and accountable."

One reason why universities may have become more accountable is that in the late 1990s a series of court cases were taken by PhD students against their institutions. Kevin Wilkinson took legal proceedings against Aston University for not providing him with a supervisor when he arrived to do a PhD in 1997. Similarly, one-time PhD student Neil McDougal brought a case against the University of Bath over poor postgraduate supervision. Cases like these have meant that universities have had to pull up their socks and become more responsive to their research students.

One of the main changes that has taken place in recent years has been reform of the supervisory structure itself. Nowadays, most students signing up for a PhD will be assigned at least two supervisors, typically a main supervisor and co-supervisor. Supervisory teams are also common.

Although some believe that this system generates its own problems, it does ensure that PhD students have access to a broader range of supervisory advice and support and have a fall-back plan if their relationship with their principal supervisor goes wrong.

Huge steps have also been taken in supervisor training. For years, PhD supervisors were expected to get on with the job with little training or support in how to manage or direct PhD students. Now most universities require their staff to do courses in research student supervision.

University College London (UCL) is one institution that has embraced changes in their policy of research student supervision. PhD students at UCL are assigned a primary and secondary supervisor, and all students are required to keep an electronic log-book which has to be validated by their supervisor.

The university has also capped the number of students PhD supervisors are permitted to supervise, with academics being limited to six full-time doctorate students. According to Professor Michael Worton, vice-provost of UCL, these changes are hugely important – and not just for the PhD students.

"Our main focus is to ensure that our PhD students have the best possible research experience, but having a clear and transparent system in place also has enormous benefits for the supervisors," he says.

"The relationship between supervisor and PhD student can potentially be one of the most rewarding academic partnerships. Working with PhD students helps keep academics invigorated and in touch with new developments in their research field. PhDs are our colleagues of the future."

Corrinne Burns is a PhD student who has an excellent relationship with her supervisor. She is in the second year of a PhD researching anti-malarial drugs in plants at De Montfort University.

She starts each day with a cup of tea with her supervisor and at the end of each month has an official meeting with him.

"My supervisor is always very approachable and supportive and treats me like a colleague," she says. "Having such regular contact also helps to keep the project on track and makes all the difference."

But what are the options for students whose supervisor experience is not so positive? "If you are having problems with your supervisor, try to deal with the problem locally," says Chris Park. "First, approach the head of department. If that doesn't yield results, the next port of call should be someone at an institutional level such as the dean of graduate studies. Failing that, you can move outside your institution and make an official complaint to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator."

The main thing, Park stresses, is that anxious PhD students should not suffer in silence and should look for help.

"There are plenty of mechanisms now in place to help them. It's up to students themselves to take the initiative and make sure they take advantage of the support that's available."

How to manage your supervisor

Go to your tutorial with a list of topics for discussion

Help your supervisor give you better feedback on your work by always asking supplementary questions to make sure that you understand fully what you have to do.

Ensure that every time you leave a tutorial you have agreed and noted a date for the next one. Be punctilious in meeting appointments and deadlines so that your supervisor will be too.

Criticism is part and parcel of the PhD experience, but it should be constructive.

Ensure that you are clear about what is being criticised and how to put it right. If in doubt, ask your supervisor to clarify. Never leave a tutorial without fully understanding what is expected of you.

Avoid inappropriate personal relationships with your supervisor.

Be enthusiastic! Remind them of why your work is important. Your enthusiasm for your subject will rub off!

Keep a log and a written summary of your tutorial and send it to your supervisor – it will help to keep both parties on track.

From 'How to Get a PhD', co-authored by Derek S. Pugh