A couple of weeks ago @emilyandthelime sent me a link to a job advertisement which was posted on The Conversation jobs board. The ad had been posted by an anonymous PhD student who described themself as “an industry veteran”. The ad began by saying there were “… many beginners mistakes that I simply do not need to repeat”. In the body of the ad the student gives a neat statement of the problem of the ‘unknown unknowns’ which bedevil the PhD process:

“I know that I dont yet know the questions to ask, the issues that can arise, or the consequences of the decisions I may make. You have been there, and can help.

The ad then went on to describe the kind of guide that the student needs to face these unknown unknowns:

You will be able to give me independent coaching advice – help to identify the issues and make the right decisions to make my own PhD journey as painless as possible.

You will be open minded, able to contribute innovative ideas, and happy to work with someone who thrives on finding new approaches that readily meet compliance requirements. Issues may be related to research, methods, logistics, people politics, institutions, process – anything!”

On the face of it, this is a simple but ingenious solution to an intractable problem: how to get get through the PhD experience unscathed and with a good result.

Mischief managed? I’m not so sure.

What this student seems to be looking for is a combination of friend, mentor, sounding board and coach. The ad outlines, at least in part, the job specification of a specialist the university already pays by the hour: the research supervisor (or as you people in the States would say – ‘advisor’).

I wondered: what would compel a student to write such an ad when, presumably, they already have a supervisor?… Wait – don’t answer that question. After running this blog for 2 years and working in the field of research education for around 6, I can state with total confidence that inadequate supervision is a global problem.

It could be this student is stuck with a poor supervisor and wants to throw money at the problem, but the more I thought about it, the more I disturbed I got. Is this student being clever – or are they cheating? There’s an equity issue here: why should one student, who can pay, get extra help, while other students, with equal needs, can’t? Of course, students can already hire help; copy editors and thesis coaches have been around for ages. If you can believe the words of the Shadow Scholar there’s even people who will write your whole thesis for you. However these specialised support people are called in at the end of the process, when things need fixing. This student is looking for ongoing support, advice and help with ideas generation during the process.

I couldn’t decide how I felt about this new development, so I retweeted the link on Twitter to see what other people reckoned. I ended up having a somewhat disjointed, but enlightening discussion on the subject of failure and uncertainty in PhD study and the role the supervisor should – or should not – play in helping the student through it.

People on Twitter had different views, but they all agreed on one thing: some discomfort was unavoidable – and even desirable. Discomfort can teach us valuable things; things which help us to become independent scholars (in a post some time ago I talked about ‘threshold concepts’ in learning which explains this idea in more detail).

The problem is, discomfort, in conjunction with poor supervision, can cause trauma. The scholars Lee and Williams argue that trauma has become the ‘badge of honour’ of the PhD process. (The paper is called “Forged in Fire: narratives of Trauma in research supervision”. The URL is broken, so here’s the reference: Lee, A and Williams, C (1999) “Forged in Fire: narratives of Trauma in research supervision”, Southern Review, 32(1): 6–26.).

Lee and Williams argue that some supervisors, after being themselves being traumatised, come to believe it is a necessary part of the process. I think Lee and Williams are right; there are some supervisors who believes you need to suffer or you aren’t really doing the PhD properly. Others seem to shield their students from trauma, but this can be a problem too. Some supervisors, with all the best intentions, become dictators; endlessly writing over their student’s manuscripts to ‘edit out’ all the errors and make sure the student avoids mistakes.

As you can imagine, being a kind of global agony aunt, I often hear stories of conflict with supervisors from students that reflect these unhealthy supervision styles.  Occasionally – very  occasionally – supervisors will contravene university guidelines and policy (if this happens don’t even try to solve it; report it as soon as possible). Most of the time however, student / supervisor problems are similar to workplace disputes where disagreements have to be settled by negotiation. The key difference is the power differential which is inherent in the teacher / student relationship, which can make it hard for students to be assertive early enough. By the time the problem comes to the attention of management the whole situation can be poisonous and difficult to resolve.

But let’s turn the situation around for a moment – is all this conflict a problem with crappy supervisors, or a problem with the system? Perhaps we just ask too much of supervisors? It’s extremely difficult to combine friend, mentor, sounding board and coach with that other essential role: critic. Supervisors are human – and fallible; they inhabit demanding workplaces. Not all of them are great teachers, despite all their expert knowledge. If you are not getting what you want from your supervisor, perhaps you need to adjust your expectations of what they can provide and look elsewhere for the rest?

In this respect, our Industry Veteran is on the right track. Other academic mentors can provide some of these missing ingredients. Potential mentors are probably all around you: other staff members, fellow students, people you meet at conferences. When you spot a likely person be brave and invite them for a coffee. You never know – it might be the start of a beautiful friendship. At least it will be cheaper than paying them by the hour!

So what do you think: Should you be able to pay a ‘back up supervisor’? Or is it cheating? What do you think we could do to fix the system so students don’t feel like they need to post an ad to get the help they need?

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