This is a post from our regular “Supervision Correspondent” Dr Sarah Louise Quinell. Sarah is now the managing editor of The Networked Researcher a blog supporting & promoting social media for research & researcher development.
Firstly, all academics are a little bit eccentric, even if they don’t like to admit it. You have to be really – for working in an incredibly pressurised environment where you get very little recognition, unless you make a mistake. Having to publish or perish, teach, supervise, get grants etc and continually have to find creative ways to save money… it is enough to drive anyone over the edge.
However, there is good crazy and bad crazy. When you undertake a PhD you spend a great deal of time with one, maybe two people as your supervisors. You learn all about your supervisors own particular brand of crazy and they, in turn, will get to know all about yours. There are times though, when their crazy can be a cause for concern. Here’s five ways to spot the kind of crazy that might endanger your studies (and your sanity!):
Is your supervisor a control freak?
Does your supervisor like to micro-manage? In the natural / hard sciences this is the norm, i.e. you are working on your supervisor’s project and you do what they want. In the social sciences (where I come from) there is a greater degree of freedom. You are more likely to be working on something you came up with on your own. But for all students some degree of autonomy and independence from the supervisor is important; after all you are meant to be making an “original contribution to knowledge”. You can’t do this without being allowed to work and think on your own – at least some of the time.
There are some supervisors who don’t understand that this is your PhD, your work, and that it has to be yours to defend through the examination process. To do this successfully you need to feel you own it. While supervisors have a great deal of experience in how to write a thesis, what makes a good thesis etc, some seem to get confused over this issue of ownership.
I had this problem to a certain extent. My original supervisor micro-managed everything, down to the last paragraph; it was incredibly stressful and frustrating. If you experience this behaviour, and it appears not to be compatible with your way of working, maybe you should consider working with someone else.
Does your supervisor criticise you in public?
Have you presented at a conference and suddenly heard a snide remark from the back only to find it’s your supervisor? Believe me this happens! I’ve seen it and I’ve seen the poor students try to defend themselves and been totally lost. This is not best practice, have a word. Better still, show them the door.
Does your supervisor discuss their family planning issues in front of you?
I remember my friend’s face as if it were yesterday, after a rather awkward moment in a chemist when their supervisors announced condoms were useless! This sounds funny but, for both of you, it’s best to try and keep a vaguely professional relationship until after you finish.
It’s the responsibility of both parties to make the relationship professional, but since there is an uneven power relationship between you and your supervisor, who is notionally your teacher, it can be hard sometimes to assert yourself.
Some students are happy going to their supervisor’s house, baby sitting their kids, picking up the dry cleaning and so on – but others do it under sufferance because they are too scared to say no. If your supervisor doesn’t seem to be taking the hint you are uncomfortable with the level of intimacy they are offering , you will need to think carefully about whether you can work with them all the way to the end because…
Phoning at 2am is not normal… for either of you!
It really isn’t. It does happen though and it’s a sign that both of you have let the professional boundaries slip a bit too much. Do think carefully before exchanging mobile phone numbers – this increases the likelihood that the relationship will escape the bounds of normal working hours.
The problem is, the further along in the process the more stressed you get, the more you are likely to text them at 9pm. I did – particularly to adopted supervisor in the final year. I was lucky, mine always phoned me back; others, particularly those who don’t have teenage children, may not be so accommodating.
Has your supervisor ever made you cry?
If the answer to this is “yes”, you probably need to remove yourself from that relationship forthwith. Original supervisor (must find a better way of differentiating the two) made me cry the first time I met them and then look how that ended up.
As I said at the start of this piece you will learn about your supervisor’s crazy, they will learn about yours, they will probably end up knowing you better than you do yourself and vice versa. Good humour is a pre-requisite for a good relationship, but when the crazy makes things difficult then it’s time to re-think your way forward. These observations about crazy supervisors could easily be turned around and used to describe crazy students - they are out there. If you are reading this post and recognising any of this behaviour in someone you are working with it’s time to have that difficult talk.
How about you – have you encountered ‘bad crazy’ in your travels through academia? How did you recognise it and what did you do?