I’m a Paying Customer … How Assertive Can I Be With my Supervisor?

I was lucky enough to get a Masters degree and PhD by research on the public purse – the University of Melbourne even paid me a living stipend while I was doing my PhD (ok, technically it was an amount below the poverty line, but better than nothing at all). Australia is relatively generous – at least to local students; in other countries, all students have to pay to do their PhD. When you pay fees are you a student or a customer? How much can you demand of your supervisor? Dr Sarah Louise Quinell from Networked Researcher and Kings College in London ponders these issues in this guest post.

Tuition fees for research degrees are set to increase, in the UK at least. Many people are going to start thinking about whether their research degree represents value for money. I thought I would bring together the two themes of fees and how assertive you can be with your supervisor. I think it’s fair to say that everyone will have a different opinion on this and I expect a lot of comments – so let the discussion commence!

In previous posts I have outlined how I experienced some of the best, and the worst, in research degree supervision. Supervisor number one wasn’t bad, they were just not right for me. I spent ages thinking I had to conform to their way of doing things and it made me very miserable. I didn’t enjoy my work and many times I wanted to walk away. During this experience I learned that I needed to be more assertive; I had to take control of my destiny and get what I wanted from my PhD – but trying to be assertive with my supervisor got me nowhere.

When you pay your fees (or in my case, my Research Council – I was ESRC/NERC funded from year 2) you are paying for the opportunity to gain the degree and for the whole environment which supports this – good administration, desk space, computers – as well as supervision. These other, more tangible, ingredients are certainly things you can directly relate to fees. You pay, so you should have appropriate space to be able to do your work and resources, such as libraries, journal collection access and so on. In my view you must be forceful about getting the infrastructure you need to do your work; relentlessly so in some departments as provisions for PhD students seem to be an afterthought.

But are you really the ‘customer’ of your supervisor? Can you apply the same logic of ‘user pays’ to this relationship? No, I don’t think you can.

I worked in retail for 10 years. People came in choose what they wanted and bought it. If it met with the purpose they kept it; if it not they brought it back. A customer can choose between products, they can do research beforehand try different things to see how they ‘fit’. The same can’t quite be said for education. The student supervisor relationship is a funny thing, as I am sure you will have gathered from my posts. It is one that is built on experience and respect – and that is something that has value, but not in a monetary sense. You can’t always tell in advance if it is going to be the right ‘fit’.

I had one supervisor I didn’t work well with and another I did. What was different were their philosophies over what the PhD was. Number one had a very definite idea of what I should be doing, whereas, number two was happy for me to do what I wanted and would only be critical if they felt I could do it better, or if I was about to make some horrendous mistake.  This worked for me and is why, several months after completion, I still have a good relationship with supervisor number two. She is still supporting me, still has my back and we are looking at ways to work together in the future. Our relationship is very much built on mutual respect.

As a PhD student, you are not buying the finished product; you are, I suppose, trying to develop the finished product. You do this development with the aid and guidance of a supervisor. To a greater or lesser extent, depending on experience, you are reliant on the superior knowledge and judgment of your supervisor to get there. You can expect your supervisor to read, comment and return your work within a suitable time frame. You can expect to be supported, to be guided, for your work to be valued. But what you get out of the relationship with your supervisor depends on how the supervisor values you, and your research. Sometimes you and your supervisor will be incompatible.

You can’t change your supervisor’s style just because you are paying for your education – but you can change supervisors if you think that they are standing  in the way of you successfully completing your degree.

So how does that relate to being assertive and getting what you need? It might work with getting books from the library, but not with people. I tried being assertive with supervisor one and that got me nowhere, so I changed supervisors. I never needed to be assertive with number two. I like to think that if the ‘fit’ is right, there should be no need. So,  if you do feel the need to continuously assert yourself with your supervisor… maybe it’s time you found another one?

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25 thoughts on “I’m a Paying Customer … How Assertive Can I Be With my Supervisor?

  1. I think that’s good advice. As a student you feel like the supervisor does owe you an education but at the same time, as a supervisor, you must feel like the student owes you results and publications. It can seem like you are rolling a dice at the start but like you say, if you take the decision and change your supervisor, you can find someone else who you are compatible with.

    • Glenys,May I ask where you heard about the survey? That way I can send you an aaptopripre URL (there are several different links being used).No, Aberystwyth doesn\’t change much the Orangery is still lovely, though I think it might have poshed up a bit in the last few years! It is the kind of place that gets into your blood the town is full of people who came to uni here and can\’t bear to leave. We have the best educated council workers (and Morrisons employees) in the country, I think!Thanks for your interest,Sarah

  2. I don’t see why you can’t be a student and a customer. I am totally self-funded and sometimes I do wonder what I am paying for. But then I realise there is a lot I wouldn’t get if I didn’t pay for it – the use of the library, the guidance of my superviser, the opportunity to be part of an institution and the benefits of that. Unlike students on taught courses, who are paying for a transfer of knowledge as well, I am paying for the resources to enable me to do research.

    • In some ways I think that PG research fees (and to an extent student fees in general) should be seen as something more like membership dues.

      You are paying to be part of the organisation and to have access to its resources including library, advice from staff (supervisor, librarian, academic skills unit), IT resources, space and so on. You’re paying to be an apprentice member of the university community. How you make use of that community and those resources is still up to you.

      Education is a set of relationships and an opportunity not a product or a service.

  3. Be assertive, but also recognize that your supervisor has a right to say “no”.

    My own anecdotal evidence from supervising students is that most fully understand that graduate level research requires independent learning and research. However there are always the few who think that being a paying student entitles them to a passing grade (or an A) and expect to be spoon fed the entire time. Sometimes, as a supervisor, you have to say no and the student has to figure it out on their own.

    You are paying for supervision/lab access/library access etc. This does not guarantee you a degree of any description. And I think that’s something that needs to be reinforced in some cases.

  4. I’ve paid my own fees for two masters degrees and am now paying for DPhil.

    My first masters was back in 1980. I had major issues with my supervisor that eventually only got resolved by involving the head of department and eventually the allocation of another supervisor. The problem was essentially a conflict of agendas and a supervisor wanting me to fit in with what was convenient for him – he thought it was appropriate for me to visit his home and lie around on low couches for supervision and I much preferred the more businesslike setting of the university office (which he didn’t want the hassle of travelling to) and he had a clear political agenda which I was very unhappy about. I didn’t see myself as customer, but I did see I wasn’t getting the support I needed to finish the job I had started and in the end a change of supervisor with a more professional approach meant rapid completion.

    A taught masters in 2000, I got what I expected – I received teaching and direction, applied what I was learning, got timely feedback and passed the different course components.

    Although I am paying my fees for my DPhil, I didn’t see myself as a customer in any sense until very recently. According to the regs of my uni, I could move to ‘continuation status’ in my final year, but this would give me no right to supervisory input, though I would retain things like access to library, etc. I am choosing to pay the full fee so that I retain a right to ask for and expect the support of supervisors in what I see as a critical year. For the first time, I flexed my muscles yesterday when one of my supervisors wanted to cancel a supervision session arranged for this week – OK she had just arrived back from States and was badly jetlagged. I was not happy at the prospect of having to wait a month to see her – as she had suggested – as I need some input now in order to help me move on. Result, meeting re-arranged.

    I guess at the end of the day, I see it as a partnership where I am paying for a service which involves a number of products, in this case knowledge of what is involved in achieving the goal of a DPhil and keeping me on track when I deviate too far from the expected trajectory. I am not paying for the degree, but paying for the guidance which should lead to me achieving the degree if I put in my part of the work.

    • Liz, you shouldn’t be in continuation in your third year. Continuation is for subsequent years i.e. if you go over time. I know as many of my friends did it while studying there so if you are in your third year then you should be a full fee paying student and getting the same supervison / access etc.

      I can understand the supervisor wanting to re-arrange, i think a month though is well off so glad you got that sorted

  5. The reason why I don’t see it as a straight customer / client relationship is because if you don’t put the work in you wont get the desired outcome. It requires equal participation. While people say undergraduates can be customers i dont agree with that either as we can teah the same things in lectures etc and within that group some will get 1sts others won’t all have had the same teaching. Its the degree of self-input that needs to be talked up, especially with the change in fee structure

  6. The problem with building a relationship with a supervisor on ‘respect’ is that it’s a bit like a relationship with a parent- you respect them by default because of their position, but if they’re not supporting or teaching you properly, you should feel like you have a right to change without being seen as being ‘disrespectful’. And that’s without mentioning the ‘respect’ they have towards you.

    I think that this is a great point though: “As a PhD student, you are not buying the finished product; you are, I suppose, trying to develop the finished product.”

    At the moment in the UK with the fees rising fast it’s understandable that some people might feel like they deserve at degree at that kind of money. When you put down that kind of money it creates so much stress and worry, in that if you don’t or can’t finish for any reason, you’re plunged into debt which will take years, maybe decades to clear and affect your whole life from this point on. That feeling never existed in the UK before.
    Once you put money into the equation people expect more. It is like a product. People don’t want to pay for poor quality, they want value for money. And- dare I say- they have a right to it.
    But then the whole idea of paying to be ‘allowed’ to undertake research is abhorrent to me anyway. As if only rich people have the ‘right’ to be a researcher.

  7. Hi, this is interesting advice. Can I just ask how long it took you to complete your thesis? Public funding in the UK is conditional to the completion of a research degree within four years and therefore includes the informal contract that YOU will do the work. From what I can tell from various posts you took longer than 4 years, and while you have referred to supervisory problems, I would just like to here about your own work ethic and indeed you own progress.

    most universities reflect the research councils strategy of imposed a 4 year deadline I think there is a broader issue that if universities expect students to complete within shortened time frames it will have certain effects at the individual and institutional level. One is that as a student you have very little time to pursue other scholarly activities like administrating reading groups and seminars, teaching and publishing (which is essential to the job market). All these activities consume precious time that should be spent on doing the thesis, but they also nurture your research experience and confidence so that you perhaps do not depend singularly on your supervisor for advice but form a good independent work ethic. The other effect is that students will NEED to have access to resources, which includes good supervisory practice. Most institutions, especially the one I attended had in recent years provided very good resources to PhD students (desk space, which is expensive, electonic resources etc..) Supervisors are regulated much more tightly than in previous years and sanctioned if they continually fail to get students through within the institutional time frames. The imperative is that in the UK completed PhD students registers as an esteem factor in the Research Excellence Framework (REF), reflecting both the competence of the academic and research culture of the institution.

    I was funded by the ESRC and I recently completed just inside the 4 year cut off. While I agree that this timeframe is not ideal because it imposes an artifical structure on what is in many ways an activity pursued out of vocational aspirations and passion, institutions have had to improve the training and development of their PhD students in terms of getting them through, which has perhaps come at the expense of fostering radical and critical communities. In the UK, as in Australia, research funding and resource allocation is increasingly politicised at the national and institutional level and so, I would disagree that as a student you are a paying customer and encourage a better understanding of the political context in which you are pursuing a research career.

    • I was self funded in year one – i was awarded an ESRC/NERC studentship from year 2 onwards I had two intermissions one for serious illness and one when i worked for the UNEP all of which were sanctioned by my institution and thus with intermissions i was within the appropriate time frame to have finished.

      I did have supervisory incompatability issues which are well documented but I pushed very hard to finish and worked to a high standard reflected in the examiners comments after my viva. I believe the onus is on the student to do their part and I am sure both my supervisors would agree despite the varying issues I did keep up my side of things.

  8. From reading some of your other posts I’ve no doubt that you had a dreadful time with your initial supervisor. I was very lucky to have had an excellent supervisor, who yes, I wanted to throttle at times, but who also read and commented on my work within a day or two, and consistently believed in the research I was doing.

    You don’t mention your supervisor’s other students and I wondered what their experience was? Did you have a shared experience or any kind of consolation from them? Most of my supervisor’s students got on well and we forged good friendships that have survived the PhD, we regularly read each other’s work and supported each other throughout (particularly when finishing the PhD). I would have guessed that shared experienced is key to understanding the predicament you are in with regards to bad supervisory experience and can provide something of a cushion, reassuring you that your are right to question the kind of guidance you are getting. As you mentioned previously the student-supervisor relationship is strange, and not a familar relationship and so how do you know what counts as the standard measure of good gudiance. The relationship is almost parental, or feels like it sometimes, and yet it is not because in reality, you, as the student, only take up a thin slice of your supervisor’s time, even less if he/she has other students to manage. I often found myself reminded that while I depend wholly on this person to see me through the PhD, my supervisor was in no way dependent on me and in actual fact spent very little time thinking about my project, but always liked the work that I produced and was happy to tell me.

    • this post is not about my supervisory experience, it is about my mthoughts on the student as a customer and would be the same irrespective of that. I had a wonderful experience with my second supervisor and still work well together now.

      My initial supervisor wasn’t bad, he just didnt suit me. Thus I changed to someone who did.

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  12. This article give out a good advice, i would personally say,choosing a right supervisors for your PhD is half way work done. I am my first year of my PhD but i took me almost 3 months figuring out who gonna be my supervisors. Being full off-site student am truly enjoying working more closer to my secondary supervisor. My primary supervisor is based in UK he always respond promptly and these are people who we are both learning from each others, despite being our guide to walk us through PhD timeframe.

    I have found out that choosing a supervisor is not only accounted by how much he/she has expertise but also the personality is a key aspect to take into consideration, students and supervisors should ask themselves if they can work each other. PhD programme has to be an enjoyable session. Therefore we students needs to look much into this rather than taking it for granted.

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