Like many other academic developers, I have often run workshops called ‘manage your supervisor’ where I try, in an upbeat fashion, to empower students to feel they can take charge of their own learning and responsibility for the outcomes. I acknowledge in this workshop that supervisors are generally busy, time poor creatures who might need a bit of managing, especially when it comes to keeping appointments, doing important paper work and providing timely feedback on drafts.

There are books, papers, articles and phamplets on the theme of students managing supervisors, so I guess it is hardly surprising that the term crept into my teaching practice too. But now I am questioning it.

As many people have pointed out, supervision / student relationships are rarely, if ever, ‘equal’ and if you had to say one person had more power than the other, it’s almost certainly the supervisor. Why then do we burden students with the task of  ‘managing’ when they are, often, in a position where they are powerless to do so? If an academic can’t read a calendar or turn around a draft, no amount of nagging is going to make a difference. In fact, the nagging might make the whole situation worse, as this week’s post highlights.

This post is really an email, sent to me be a student who was responding to a Facebook conversation I started on the theme of ‘managing’ your supervisor. I was surprised at the number of comments and emails this conversation provoked and the student kindly let me reproduce the letter here in full, unedited. Things being what they are in my life, it’s taken a LONG time to get this into print, but it’s worth it because I think it’s food for thought for all of us in this letter and will be interested in any comments you might make.

Screen Shot 2014-03-03 at 2.47.56 pmI’m pretty over being told to manage my supervisors. What I’d like to know, is what were they meant to be doing, and how do I plug the gaps?

Before I started my Phd, I’d read a lot of advice about it being my responsibility to manage my supervision, and in my first meeting, I tried to have the conversation I would have with any new member of my team about ways of working and so on.

Dismal fail.

The relationship only went down hill from there. I noticed it deteriorating and tried to rescue it. I even flagged in a supervision meeting that I wasn’t sure we’d paid enough attention to the relational work, and maybe we should do coffee or lunch. My distress was obvious. I was in tears. But one supervisor (I have two) responded that she was busy, and I was getting my time.

That made it a whole lot easier, when the ‘busy one’ decided she wanted to leave my supervision team, and made transparently pathetic administrative excuses to do so.She was replaced with someone, who the department picked, who doesn’t really share an interest in either my method or topic, although she is generally nice, so that was a step forward.

But 15 months in, I’m still not really sure what the point of supervision is. On good days, I think it doesn’t matter. I’m still fascinated by my topic, and awed by my research partners. On bad days, I’m alternatively sad or mad.

Sad days, I dwell on the lack of support and guidance I feel from my supervisors. For example, at my annual review a panel member asked if I had gone to a particular conference earlier in the year. The answer was no, but the question was a good one. It’s exactly the academic community my work sits within, but despite one of my supervisors participating in the conference, it apparently hadn’t occurred to them to mention it to me, or suggest I go.

Mad days, I have the energy to do something about it. I work on building my own networks to get the support and advice I feel I need. And, I take practical action to build a community on campus to support research students.

Poetically, this urge to action is what caused the original issues with the ‘busy one’, but it will in the end be what gets me and others through. A research student community sharing what we’ve learned about surviving and thriving through our Phds.

So what do you think? What is the point of supervision? What should happen here that clearly isn’t? Looking forward to hearing your views.

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