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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