Supervisor wanted (must have own car)

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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30 thoughts on “Supervisor wanted (must have own car)

  1. Kat says:

    Throughout my PhD (and still post PhD0 me and fellow PhD’ers were often comparing notes on what our supervisors did. Some were shown up as slack and disengaged with their students but mostly there were very different styles, all of which seemed like what we wanted at different times. I was lucky to have a supervisor who I always knew was doing a good job even when we weren’t seeing eye to eye (read I was raging at home about the injustices visited upon my drafts), but I think it can be SO hard to know where to draw the line with bad or inadequate supervision.
    I think you’re right that you can often look elsewhere to fill the gaps (which will be different for everyone), to pgrad groups, reading groups, research support services, other students, and of course twitter.

  2. El says:

    This is a really common problem in music instrumental teaching (my area of expertise and also source of PhD angst) and in this area it just doesn’t work. More and more often I find that students are throwing big money to have two teachers. Neither teacher is told about this arrangement (I mean are you really going to tell your real supervisor about the back up supervisor, piano teacher, whatever??) but they find out pretty quickly. The reason they find out is because, although all roads should lead to the same place, the routes taken can be very different and often completely incompatible. For the purposes of experimentation, in my own little pond, I have tried contacting the secret teacher for the purposes of getting some team teaching going and this has always caused consternation from teacher two and no collaboration ensues.

    If you need extra help then you should talk to teacher one (whether PhD or piano) and come to an arrangement. If you need to keep it secret (and it’s the secrecy of this situation that really irks me) then you should take a good hard look at yourself as my father would say!!

  3. Diane says:

    I pay monthly for a small-group dissertation coach. I see nothing about it that comes even close to cheating. The group provides me with motivation to do something and the coach helps me because my committee chair is 100-percent hands-off and I would be getting nothing done if it weren’t for this coach. Anyone in a doctoral program is already paying for tuition/expenses, at least to some extent – even if it’s just after their funding expires/runs out, so I see no inequity. Everyone makes personal decisions about how to allocate their money. My coach charges $25/month for a small-group rate. I don’t know many people who couldn’t spring for that amount. If we want to do away with dissertation coaches, then we need to change the system so that advisors actually care about students and getting them through the process AND are given time to do so… the current system shoves students to the side and gives them crumbs of time between grant proposals and project progress reports. It’s ridiculous. And I will never return to academia once I have my degree because of it.

  4. eleanor says:

    ‘Hollow laugh’. Why yes, I did jump up and down and demand and a protocol for this at all the places that I work. One boss said that it wasn’t on and would call the most recent offender (and then didn’t). The other one said that we should just assume that we are the lead teacher, obviously pedagogically unsound. The third school instigated a policy, put it in the contracts and now students busted learning from two teachers without prior discussion, collaboration and some sort of plan for the role of each teacher are given an edict to get rid of one teacher and it doesn’t matter if it is us or them. I have to say, this works quite well and keeps everyone honest. There are sometimes sound reasons for having two teachers, classical and jazz focussed teaching for example, but everyone must know about it.

  5. PhD Student says:

    Absolutely I think students should have the option of hiring back-up supervisors. In the same way that you might hire someone to transcribe interviews or use a typesetting professional, you do what you can to achieve the best result for your career. Academia isn’t a religion or a kibbutz, and being a professional academic, like being a businessman or a computer programmer or a real estate agent, is something you need to be savvy about.

    It’s especially the case, given there are real problems with the current system. I don’t know of a PhD student who *hasn’t* experienced supervisor problems. Sometimes minor, more often major, occasionally down-right horrific.

    In my own experience I had an ex-supervisor who fudged ethics approval for the broader project my doctoral research was part of, and when I made others involved known it was swept under the carpet, and given my precarious situation it is not in my interests to expose this problem. This ex-super also blackballed me for a conference and then removed my chapter from a book he was editing, even though he had already accepted it prior to a major incident that resulted in the severing of our relationship as supervisor-student.

    I have had much less dramatic issues including a MIA main supervisor, but this along with a variety of other experiences in academia has really made me question whether this is the job for me, despite the fact that I *love* teaching and research. If I didn’t have to deal with Uni bureaucracy and bulls&*t I would do this until the day I died.

  6. Renée says:

    I think it’s a waste of money and the person is cheating him/herself out of one of the best learning experiences available to any scholar in any discipline. Why undertake a PhD if you’re looking for shortcuts? Indeed, why undertake a PhD if you are not willing to learn? At the start of my candidature, when we realised that my panel of three supervisors would be unable to provide all the expert guidance I would need, I went looking and found two amazing mentors to complement the panel just perfectly. One remained an informal mentor who provided me with one hour a month of ‘facetime’, which I came to cherish, and the other was co-opted onto the formal supervisory panel after a year of very generous mentoring from afar. The latter was located on the other side of the world, and that relationship has led to many wonderful experiences, including two stints for me as a guest researcher at a Scandinavian university and a wonderful visit for her to Australia.
    My advice is to ensure your supervisor/s have a track record of successful supervision, to establish clear, open and collegiate lines of communication and then to place your trust in them.

  7. Susan says:

    High school students often hire a tutor to help them through difficulties with a particular school subject (maths or English essay writing are common examples). This is because classroom teachers don’t have time for that one-on-one assistance that the particular student requires. Then in business it is possible to hire a “coach” to assist with issues such as how to prepare for a promotion interview, how to respond to a bad performance report, how to network more effectively. So why would it be wrong for a PhD student, somewhere in the middle of high school and business, to hire someone to help with specific issues relating to a research program? A high school students’ tutor can’t sit the exams for the student. All they can do is help the student to prepare better. A business coach can’t attend the promotion interview or do the actual networking for the person they are coaching. And a backup supervisor can’t do the actual research or write the papers. If they are performing these functions then yes there is cheating going on. But that’s not what they are being asked to do according to the materials quoted above.

    I would love to find a more collegiate atmosphere to work in – an opportunity to discuss what I’m doing, get suggestions from others about reading, how to take notes, how my research outcomes might fit together into a coherent whole. I’d love to be able to discuss research questions with more than one person. My research is multi-disciplinary. My supervisor has expertise and experience in only one of the four areas I am covering. I am terrified that I will go horribly wrong in one of the other areas because the supervisor has no idea how to go about this type of research. Fortunately I have an Associate Supervisor who can help in these areas, but she’s less available than I’d like. Still, I know how lucky I am compared to others and I don’t feel the need for a backup supervisor, at least not yet.

    I believe that a “backup supervisor” could take the form of hired help, or a mentoring relationship with a past PhD student, or a regular group session between students researching similar topic areas or even a blog like this or #phdchat on twitter. You get your advice, mentoring and coaching wherever you can. In a way, compared to the students of 30 years ago we are all “cheating” by looking up our references online and talking to each other through blogs and twitter. So if backup supervision or PhD Mentoring or whatever you want to call it is cheating, then we should look more widely at what we are all doing that past students have been unable to do. (gosh, that’s an awful sentence – note to self – work on sentence structure!)

  8. Trapped in Canadia says:

    I find this appalling for a few reasons. First, it’s unfortunate that students are put into situations where they think this is necessary. What kind of relationship with their supervisor do they have? What about their committee? Why don’t they think the committee will be there to help them along the way? I’ve been forced to get outside help because I moved away from my supervisor’s area of focus, but I have another committee member who helps me with what my main can’t. I also have other mentors with whom I’ve built relationships and they have been there for me when I need them.

    Furthermore, why does this student feel the need to purchase help? I don’t think it’s cheating, per se, and completely agree with Susan that we are all sort of “cheating” by talking to each other online. Along the way, as I said above, I’ve not been afraid to ask other profs I respect for help when I need it and no one has ever been unwilling to help me. I also think it’s fine to hire someone like Dr. Karen, but that’s at the end of the process, when you realize you have absolutely no idea how to navigate the wretched job search.

    This brings me to my main concern, which is that I question if it’s possible, or even beneficial, to have a painless PhD. This hasn’t necessarily been the smoothest, most problem-free time of my life, but I think it’s all part of the learning process. I benefited from the advice of students who went before me, just like I passed on what I learned to students who have come after me. To suggest that you just want to know the answers straight away, without even bothering to figure out what the questions are, is what bothers me most. I’d like to think it shows initiative, but instead I think it shows a laziness that makes me question how they are going to succeed through the long haul that a PhD can be.

  9. Susan says:

    A response to Trapped in Canada – the person who posted this advertisement is located in Australia. In Australia PhD candidates do not have a Committee. They have one Supervisor (yes, just one) – possibly an Associate Supervisor as well. And that can be the weak link in the chain. I have seen students left high and dry when their Supervisor relocates interstate or goes on maternity leave. Yes the university administration can step in and locate a new supervisor, but wouldn’t it be great to have someone else, someone independent, to discuss such an issue with. How might the student approach their new supervisor – what sort of briefing might the student give the new supervisor to prevent a whole lot of re-work – how might the student go about quickly creating a new working relationship? I can’t see how getting coaching to help with these sorts of issues can possibly be cheating. Maybe it’s because I also come from a business background, but if the wisdom of years in business gives one an “edge” (and you use that wisdom to find the extra resources you need) then why is that wrong? The fact is that someone with years in business does not approach a PhD in the same way as someone coming straight out of an undergrad or Masters program. It is different and I don’t think there’s anything wrong in that, especially if those wise old business heads can share some of their wisdom with the younger, fresher, less experienced students. And by “less experienced” I mean life-experience and work-experience, not academic experience.

  10. dr_eff says:

    I had a lead supervisor who began my thesis by being away for six months and a secondary supervisor who was away just as often throughout my candidature. The main thing they both did was edit chapters. Guidance, or what one might call ‘supervision’, was (for the most part) lacking.

    Although this certainly had its benefits (i.e. very few squabbles over content and autonomy in shaping the direction of my thesis as I pleased), it would have been nice to have had a supervisor who was much more invested in my topic and my success.

    Would I pay for this privilege?

    Could I have afforded this privilege on a student scholarship?
    No again.

    My advice: create your own collegiality where possible (in your department, division, faculty, etc.).

    In the end, the success of my PhD was helped along significantly by my unpaid significant other. So if you’ve got a partner – and if they truly love you – they will read this utterly boring content in the hope that you actually will graduate one day. When this happens, make sure you promptly thank them for their unwavering support in your acknowledgements section.

  11. Dale Reardon says:


    I see absolutely nothing wrong with seeking such support. As others have said it is up to the individual how they use their money and if they wish to pay for assistance that others may see as wasteful then that is their choice. It is far better to get help in areas that you need it than sit back, get confused and never finish.

    By the same token letting this person pay for help doesn’t stop us campaigning for the current system to be improved. Current supervision arrangements could be improved in many ways and I certainly think PhD students are entitled to better supervision.

    Twitter: @DaleReardon

  12. PhD Student says:

    I forgot to add too – that the best thing an aspiring PhD student can do, is go and physically talk with some students who are just at the end of the process (if they’ve just graduated, they’ll be too blissfully happy to remember all the bad stuff) and get the grape-vine on who is good at supervision and who they should avoid at all costs. There should be no lack of completing doctoral students frantically typing away in the postgrad rooms to give you their 2p.

  13. PhD Student says:

    It is a while that I am reading your weblog and it is absolutely helping me, I also recommend it to some of my friends who are also doing PhD. I faced a lot of moments which I wanted to even kill myself, I would come here and your posts would help me to find out that I am not alone and how to engage with them.
    Thank you very much…

  14. Diane says:

    Renée, While you were fortunate to have found outside mentors, many people are not so fortunate. What would you have them do? Sit around trying, unsuccessfully, to get things done until they time-out of the program and are forcibly removed without receiving a degree? Spend years trying to find that rare outside mentor who is by some miracle willing to give you face time? That is a really poor idea. I have never met anyone as fortunate as you. Ever. And I live in Boston, so I am surrounded by PhD students from various schools at every turn. Perhaps it’s different in the U.K., but researchers here, at least in my field, do not have time to meet with doctoral students because they are too busy trying to scrounge up enough grant money to justify their employment. My first advisor told me, point-blank, “I don’t have time to speak with graduate students,” and that was the very first time we met. I suspect that if you were in that position, you wouldn’t judge others so harshly. And in the situation I’m in, there WAS no learning taking place before I hired a coach, so that argument may be valid in your very fortunate world, but it certainly isn’t valid in mine.

    • M-H says:

      I find it really sad that academics say they have no tine to talk to PhD students. PhD students are the future of a discipline, and it they are not mentored and nurtured that discipline will have a poor future. An hour a week with students will not make much dent in the time spent applying for grants. I have found where I am (in Australia) that academics (who are not your own supervisor) are generally happy to give you an hour or so. And the university has a responsibility to its enrolled students; it’s not good enough to say you don’t have time to talk to them – you shouldn’t have taken them on if that is the case, and students shouldn’t put up with that.

      • Fe says:

        I’m also in an Australian University and when I went to introduce myself to my associate supervisor he seemed very confused as to why I was there. He told me his job was to sign off on the departmental paperwork. I am (hopefully) finishing in late March and that is the one and only time I saw him…
        On the other hand there is another academic I know who is just as invested as my main supervisor and who will make time for me. I think it a matter of luck and meeting the right people!

  15. Liz says:

    Isn’t the point of a phd that you have to do it yourself? A supervisor, coach or whatever might point you in the right direction or flag up major issues but at the end of the day it is you and the research and the writing that produces the output. It’s very sociology to call it ‘identity work’ but that’s what it is, a little (or big) piece of you orchestrating a whole lot of information into a (hopefully) beautiful symphony. Good supervision might cut down on the messing around time at the beginning but if you are consistently reading, writing and questioning even the blind alleys are worth going down. I often wish I had one of those nice supervisors who talks to you about your work, makes suggestions for readings, checks that you understand stuff, but would I have learnt as much as I did from my old school ‘good, keep going’ ‘not good, go away’ supervisor? If the aim is just to get the damn thing done then buy all the help you want but what’s the point, you can’t spend your whole life buying help.

  16. creativewriterphd says:

    Even though I am a newby to the PhD journey, I agree with Liz, that it is something you need to do for yourself.
    While writing my masters thesis, my supervisor would gently guide my work, by suggesting directions based on what I had been looking at already. My current PhD supervisor seems to be doing the same thing. Some of their suggestions are fruitful, but some are not.
    You have to remember that while they may be an expert in your field, they are not the expert in your topic. Sure, they should be able to offer insight, and they can certainly hep keep you on track, however, I do not expect my supervisor to help me write this thing. That is something I need to be able to do all on my own. As massively daunting as that seems, that is the PhD journey, and taking short cuts is just cheating yourself.

  17. Chris Fellows (@cfellows65536) says:

    “You’re not the only one who’s made mistakes, but they’re the only things you can truly call your own” (Billy Joel)

    Re Susan 2/7/12 14:15: While I have been an academic in the sciences in Australia (since 2000) every university I’ve worked at has had a system where PhD students have a Principal Supervisor and at least one Co-Supervisor. Occasionally I have ended up being a nominal chapter-reading Supervisor, and at other times have ended up shouldering the whole load as second or third-ranked Co-Supervisor. As long as the student is engaged with their subject and everyone is a little bit flexible, we have managed to get along… all people are different, and all combinations of two or more people are more different than that…

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