The Big Chill

Tolstoy could have been talking about research supervision when he said: ‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way‘.

Supervising a research student involves relationship work. Relationship work can be difficult; when it goes wrong it goes REALLY wrong. But when it goes right, the supervisor/student relationship is the best kind of teaching and learning experience there is. I don’t talk about this positive side of research supervision very often, so I’m going to meditate on how a relationship with your supervisor can bring you joy by telling you yet another sad story (they don’t call me the Mistress of Misery for nothing!).

This story is about a student I know, let’s call him Chung (because not all the fake names I use should be Anglo-Saxon in origin). Chung worked well with his supervisor, in fact, the two quickly became close friends. Both shared a passion for climate science and drinking craft beers. Chung was new to town and his supervisor regularly invited him around for dinner with his wife and kids.

But what really made the relationship work was mutual respect.

Screen Shot 2015-01-24 at 4.19.41 pmWhile Chung’s supervisor was clearly the leader in the scientific project they were engaged in, Chung knew he wasn’t just another student. He was a valued and respected junior colleague. In the research education literature this is called something like ‘ideal student supervisor alignment’. In less pompous terms, the two had found a way to be friends despite the fact that one of them was in charge.

Chung went about doing his work in the lab with energy and enthusiasm. He is a friendly and outgoing kind of guy who, by his own admission, perhaps spends a bit too much time partying (it’s lucky Chung is super smart and can still make good progress on his research while hungover). Despite this active social life, Chung was not really plugged into the lab culture around him. Secrecy is a bit of a thing in science from what I understand – especially if the work is truly new and still embryonic. No one else was actively involved in Chung’s research, or really knew what he and his supervisor were doing together.

The potential of the research was exciting; they had already mapped out a plan for years of work together. It therefore came as a shock when Chung’s supervisor got brain cancer.

It was a bad cancer too. Chung told me they call this particular tumour ‘the widow maker’ because most people who get it die within 18 months. In Chung’s supervisor’s case it was quicker. While he was still relatively well, Chung’s supervisor went into hospital for a procedure to ease the pain. Unfortunately he got septicaemia and ended up in intensive care. Chung was able to see his supervisor once in the hospital. He told me the visit upset him; the person in the bed was not the person he knew. Chung’s supervisor recovered from this illness, but he was so weakened that all the doctors could do was make him comfortable and send him home. To die.

Chung tried to carry on the work alone, but the image of his dying supervisor haunted him. It was the beginning of a dark time. The work Chung was doing was so bound up with his supervisor’s life and personality that it was a constant reminder of the terrible suffering that Chung knew was happening. He found it harder and harder to focus and the project lost crucial momentum.

The situation was not helped by the fact that we live in a death denying Western culture. All the academics in the department were sympathetic and concerned about Chung’s welfare, but no-one offered to take him on, even temporarily.

Chung understood why: no one wanted to say aloud what everyone knew: chung’s supervisor was going to die. And he did, aged just 46.

While an email was circulated amongst the academic staff, no one in management thought to break the news of his death to his students as well. As a consequence Chung found out about his friend’s death through an email from an administrator asking him to clean out the supervisor’s office. A truly terrible way to hear about losing someone close.

Shortly afterward Chung hit rock bottom.

Everything ground to a halt. Going to work was a struggle. Chung spent hours at his desk doing essentially nothing, while berating himself for not getting a move on. His candidature time was ticking on and the sense of urgency turned into a weird kind of disconnected panic. It was at this point that a friend, who had grown concerned about Chung’s uncharacteristic behaviour, brought him to my office for a cup of tea.

We discussed what had happened and I suggested he visit the counselling centre who could help him deal with the feelings. It was at the counsellor’s office that Chung was able to cry for the first time. He cried for a whole hour while the counsellor sat with him and handed over tissues. On a second visit the counsellor helped him come up with a plan to extend his candidature and ease the anxiety.

Chung had himself diagnosed with depression in order to be eligable for this extension. Chung was not really depressed – he was just deeply sad, grieving for his friend, which is completely normal. It is a bizarre quirk of our system that a problem like this has to be medicalised. Ironically, shortly after being granted his medical leave, Chung broke his right elbow – but he was unable to claim more leave because three months is all you get.

I’m happy to report that, slowly, things began to get better for Chung.

He was given a new panel of supervisors, which was positive, but not without its challenges. No one else really understood the work that was being done and the new supervisors made suggestions which seemed to be tangents. Chung felt a sense of loyalty to his dead supervisor and initially resisted the changes, but he quickly realised this was not a productive way to carry on. He reminded himself that his supervisor was his friend too. His friend would want him to finish his PhD first and foremost. The changes ended up being a good thing and led the research in another exciting direction.

Chung told me he only really discovered how truly amazing his supervisor was after he climbed out of his grief cave and started working properly again. Academics all over the world mourned his supervisor’s death. It was weird seeing obituaries written that said nothing about their work together, but Chung was touched by the obvious sense of loss in the community.

While there is an amazing range of expertise at ANU, Chung needed to draw on his dead supervisor’s international network for help to finish his PhD. Academics from Japan, London, Netherlands and France contributed advice, equipment, samples and data. I guess this is the academic equivalent of bringing around a stew and putting it in the fridge of the bereaved; a tangible form of respect for the dead and help for those who live on.

My friend Dr Tseen Khoo says that ‘networking’ is often presented to research students in extremely simplistic ways and this story is a good demonstration of what gets missed when we think about networks instumentally – for what they can give us. Academic networks are surprisingly robust things that are held together, I believe, by a strange form of love.

Love for each other? Well, platonic love of course (most of the time!). Love for the work? Definitely. My friend Rachael Pitt calls it ‘the circle of niceness’ and we can really see it in operation in this story. Chung told me he felt a bit like an adopted child of his supervisor’s academic family – an orphan now, who needed help and nurturing.

Chung did other positive things. He kept in touch with his old supervisor’s actual family and still helps foster his supervisor’s young children’s interest in science. Chung said he knew he was getting better when participated in a fundraising walk against cancer and met a lot of people who were still in the grief cave. It was only then he realised he’d moved beyond sad into a better place. He still felt the loss of his friend like a missing tooth; but the pain had lessened and in its place was a gap he would just have to learn to live with.

This is a sad story, but it’s also, in a strange way, a lovely one. It speaks of the genuine attachment that academic work can produce between supervisors and their students. Only a few students (I hope) would have this experience, or will experience it in the future. If this is you, rest assured. It can get better. Seek help from your university. The systems aren’t perfect, but if Chung’s experience is anything to go by, there are people who will go out of their way to help you.

What about you? Have you ever lost a colleague or teacher who was also a friend? What helped you deal with grief and sadness?

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15 thoughts on “The Big Chill

  1. Tracy Stanley says:

    What a moving post about loss and the value of community.
    While I have not lost a supervisor, I did lose my father. What was lovely during this time was the unexpected support I received from many others. It was very sad in your story that it took a while for Chung to receive this type of support, but heartening that he forged new connections and a new research direction later on, as a result. Thank you for sharing this post Thesis Whisperer.
    Regards Tracy
    P.S. Final word. I must object to your claim on the title of ‘Mistress of Misery’. Really not appropriate for this very authentic story

  2. Zelda says:

    Oh so familiar to me. SO SO familiar. Except my University didnt have a clue. I still encounter people who knew and loved my supervisor, who have said to me “if we had KNOWN we would of helped”. But because I was not yet at a stage where I had started publishing, they did not know me. They knew OF me, as he had mentioned me, but they did not know that I was struggling. Universities need contingency plans in place, and most dont have them. I still mourn my supervisor – seven years later.

  3. Lauren Gawne says:

    Half way through my honours year my supervisor was given a fatal cancer diagnosis and deteriorated so rapidly that she didn’t get to tell me, or many of her students. All I knew was that she disappeared, and that the reason was serious. I found out about the diagnosis from a PhD student in the department who was auditing one of my classes.

    I can’t blame anyone in the department. I was given another supervisor (who was unrelated to my work) and encouragement to finish, but there was no process in place to let us know, or offer any other support. Honours students are in a weird limbo in terms of their socialisation into departmental life, perhaps if I were a PhD and knew more staff in the department it would have been a less isolating experience.

    I’m lucky to report that my experience has a happier ending than Chung’s. Against all expectations my supervisor made a full recovery, and two years later I started, and completed, a PhD with her as my supervisor.

  4. Shari Walsh - Resilient Researcher Program says:

    Thanks for sharing Chung’s story. It highlights the importance of having support and community around during the death of a loved person irrespective of whether you are doing a PhD or not. I have the privilege of counselling people who are dying and people who have lost a loved one. A common theme is how uncomfortable others around them are and how often family, friends and colleagues avoid them and sometimes stop making contact at all as they don’t know what to say. It is really sad that at the time we need people most, they often aren’t around.
    A PhD is such a personal journey that close relationships are formed with supervisors, other PhD candidates and academics. Supporting each other during difficult times like the death of a colleague can help overcome the loss. I am so glad that the wider academic community was finally there for Chung.

  5. Kate Bowles says:

    I’d like to share another side to this story. When I was diagnosed with cancer, I was open about what had happened, and that I had very little idea what it would mean in practice. Among the many people who provided practical support in the way of meals, headscarves and messages of care, were students I supervise, from undergraduate to PhD. And when I returned to work still visibly cancer affected, these people were the ones who made me feel most comfortable.

    But I’m still very concerned about the impact that my illness had on student research progress, even though the two supervisor system is intended to be the contingency plan that you’re talking about. However well this system works, there isn’t really a contingency for the sense of disruption and stressful distraction that life-limiting illness and its treatment brings into close collegial relationships. And it’s immensely awkward for students who need to record that their progress was affected by a supervisor’s illness, so it would be really good to develop good practices for that conversation.

  6. Kate van Doore says:

    I have just experienced this in the form of my academic supervisor of 8 years passing away, and whilst she was not my Phd supervisor, it has still affected my phd progress in a myriad of ways. I totally identify with the feeling of being utterly bereft and sad – people also asked me whether I was depressed, but I knew that I was just really, really sad.

    Grief is such an intangible process in many respects – the tangible elements (funeral etc) are quickly dealt with, and then you are left in this state of in-between. As a colleague/student, you work everyday with this person and you feel the loss immensely, but it’s not really acknowledged. I have sat at my desk for many days being unproductive – trying to force myself to continue but being thwarted by the overwhelming fog of grief. Other academics have given me all sorts of advice – “Just write!” being the main statement – completely missing the point that if I could lift the fog and do so, I would.

    Time is the key, I have found. Several months on and my head is starting to come above the surface again – I’m feeling like I can write. I’m also very aware of contributing to the legacy of my supervisor – I guess in a way, making her proud (even though that doesn’t really make sense). The lasting feeling I have now is that I was very, very lucky to know her – lucky to be guided and mentored by her – and to carry all of that forward as I go about my research.

    Thanks for a piece that really spoke to the experience that I’ve been having.

  7. Anonymous says:

    What a moving post.

    I had a similar experience to Tracy – I didn’t lose a supervisor but I lost my father. While working on my corrections, I learned that my father had liver cancer. What made it so difficult on top of this news is that I live in England, my older sister and her family live in Switzerland, and my father, mother and middle sister were living in Canada. I felt extremely isolated and did not know who to turn to. I kept the news secret which was probably not for the best….

    I had a great working experience with my supervisor – I had been working with him for nearly five years. He noticed something was off in my behaviour and got me to open up. He was the one to call in one of my closest friends and got me my support when I needed it.

    I managed to get home twice before he passed and I treasure that time. When the news broke that he had passed, I was at university and my supervisor and my friends were all there for me. Community, support networks, and so on are important in everyone’s life. I’m glad that my supervisor was there to help make sure I had these in this period of my life.

  8. Charles Knight says:

    ” let’s call him Chung (because not all the fake names I use should be Anglo-Saxon in origin). Chung worked well with his supervisor, in fact, the two quickly became close friends. Both shared a passion for climate science and drinking craft beers. Chung was new to town and his supervisor regularly invited him around for dinner with his wife and kids.”

    I’ll put this out there to see what the response is – maybe I’m old-fashioned but I’m not friends with my students, I don’t want to be friends with my students and I’m not sure it’s either professional or helpful as a general principle.

    That doesn’t mean I’m not *friendly* with my students nor does it mean that I don’t become friends with some afterwards but during the supervision process I have a very clear role and there is a power differential to acknowledge. Students seem to be happy with this as they recommend me to other people to supervise.

    I’ve seen people go down the friends route and it can often turn into a car-crash if you have to fail the student or have difficult conversations. I remember receiving an email off a failing student (supervised by someone else) and this situation seemed to be made worse as they couldn’t understand why their friend was doing this to them.

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