The ‘It’s Time’ talk

I’m back after a refreshing, but short vacation :-) Of course I am enough of a research nerd that I spent three of those vacation days doing an excellent workshop on writing for the general public at my Alma Mater, which I will share in the coming weeks.

But first I have to get to my backlog of requests! This one is about a complex supervisor / student relationship issue: what happens if you think your thesis is ready to submit but your supervisor doesn’t?

If you read my university homepage you will see that part of my job involves consulting with PhD students about ‘administrative matters’. This is a broad brief; basically it means that I see PhD students who are in distress for various reasons.

Usually I am able to direct them to another university service area better equipped to help. But PhD students are very resourceful people – often I can give them a bit of a pep talk and they end up solving the problem themselves.

One of the pep talks in my repertoire is the “It’s Time” talk. By this I mean – it’s time to have that difficult conversation with your supervisor about scholarly independence. Let me explain.

Over the last six months I have had consults with quite a few students who were arguing with their supervisors about whether or not the PhD was ready for examination. All these students, I might add, were physically and emotionally exhausted. Some were in tears as they me they just couldn’t carry on.

These students have extreme reactions to a problem which confronts all research students: how to become a fully independent scholar.

Now when I started this blog I promised myself I would be careful about how I approach the issues around student / supervisor relationships.  it’s a particularly fraught area. If you don’t believe me scan this archive of papers from the Quality in Post graduate Research conferences and see how many there are about supervision problems.

Loads.

One of the reasons that the relationships can be so fraught is that there’s a paradox at the heart of research supervision. The stated intent of the PhD process is to train novices to become ‘independent scholars’. Further, these are novice scholars are supposed to be engaged in making ‘new knowledge’. This puts all supervisors in a difficult position.

There should come a point, sooner or later in this process, where you know more than your supervisor about your topic. If you think about it – this is in the finest tradition of teaching.  The great privilege of research supervision is that a teacher gets to step back knowing that the student has surpassed them and will go on to do Great Things.

If the process has worked you will be in the best position to judge the quality of your work and be able to tell your supervisor it is ready – and they will agree. The supervisor has helped you to develop what they already have – an internal critic. This internal critic you have formed while doing a PhD will be your friend for life – it is the essence of scholarly independence and will enable you to do the job of an academic.

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A caveat. Your thesis being ‘ready’ does not mean that it is perfect. Perfect is, as my dear husband says, the enemy of Good. Perfect is also the enemy of done. I think perfectionism is rife in the PhD scholar community because, well – we are high achievers.

But that’s a post for another time.

Of course, if your supervisor’s internal critic and your internal critic disagree everything should come to a screaming halt. The supervisors I meet take their responsibility for overseeing student welfare extremely seriously. Heck – they may even be your friend by this point.

Although the supervisor may give many reasons for withholding their permission to submit, it usually boils down to one:  they don’t want you to fail or have a horrible year of making substantial revisions. They see flaws in your work which make them think this will happen.

This is why I advise students to swallow their pride and make the revisions that are being asked for. However some of the tearful students reject this advice. Some have already accepted the possibility of revisions or failure and tell me they would rather take a chance on examination. Other students violently disagreed with the changes being suggested by the supervisor, arguing the thesis would be worse if they made them.

Part of my ‘It’s Time’ pep talk is to point out the paradoxical nature of research supervision and the complex issue of scholarly independence.

Developing empathy with the supervisor, rather than seeing them as the problem, enables you to go back and have an honest conversation about the risks you are prepared to take. Supervisors can be relieved to hear that you are willing take responsibility for the work and its flaws. Often this is enough for the examination process to begin.

In rare cases however the It’s Time talk doesn’t work. If you profoundly disagree with your supervisor about the final changes, perhaps a second opinion is called for. It surprises me how often students think they can’t ask for another person to read the thesis when they are in this situation. Hopefully you have a second supervisor or another person in the department who can act as a circuit breaker.

It’s best to try to negotiate with your supervisor about who this third reader will be so that you can both be comfortable with their advice. You will need to be prepared for this person to tell you to put your ego back on the shelf and make the changes, because, I’m sorry to tell you – this is what usually happens. Remember: you might be stubborn rather than right.

So – in the end there are no easy answers. I can only highlight the complexity of the issue and encourage honest communication. Perhaps others will have experiences to share?

3 thoughts on “The ‘It’s Time’ talk

  1. Great common sense, Inger. There is so much as stake for the student that things can sometimes get out of proportion, and it is a tension point for many supervisor-student pairs. I have heard only two stories (one of which will be in my thesis) of students who were being prevented from submitting by supervisors for less-than-professional reasons. In both cases, after a ‘circuit-breaker’ was introduced (in one case the HoD, who uncovered the situation after the student burst into tears when casually asked how it was going) the examination went smoothly – apparently the thesis was ready but the supervisor wasn’t!

  2. this was an excellent and timely read, thanks. i’m a mature student and can be very stubborn and fixed at times, so i know that i will find it very difficult to swallow my pride and make revisions i don’t think should be made. hopefully i will remember this post when the time comes!

  3. Hi Inger,
    I know you wrote this post three years ago but I am very interested in following up more info from the archive of papers from the Quality in Post graduate Research conferences. However, the link doesn’t appear to work anymore; are you able to point me in the right direction to chase this up? Many thanks :)

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