Who is the client for your PhD work?

This post is by Paula Hanasz, who has recently completed a PhD on transboundary water conflict and cooperation in South Asia. Paula has worked as a national security consultant and continues to provide freelance social research, business writing, stakeholder engagement and policy analysis services to government and NGO clients.

We previously met Paula when she was feeling PhD lifestyle guilt. Now that the hard slog is over, she has the time to reflect on how the similarities and differences between the PhD process and other collaborative professional endeavours.

screen-shot-2016-09-10-at-5-22-11-pmWho is the client in your relationship with your PhD supervisor? No, really; who sets the scope of work, and who provides a professional service?

I know it’s heretical to bring consulting language into the hallowed halls of academia, but trust me on this one. Seeing yourself as a client seeking the specialist advice of a consultant could change the dynamics between you and your PhD supervisor. It could certainly give you the confidence to assert your right to the quality and quantity of guidance, feedback, and subject matter expertise that you require.

A client always has the right to demand (in the most courteous, professional way possible, of course) that the scope of work agreed to with their service provider has been fulfilled – or amended by mutual agreement.

If your supervisor is not providing clear, constructive guidance, or not doing so in a timely manner, as their client you have the right to ask for better service. Of course, as the client, the onus of responsibility rests on you to set clear expectations from the beginning. What is it that you can and can’t do yourself? What sort of support do you require to get you through the PhD process?

Now, that does not mean the client is always right.

In my experience as a consultant, the client rarely, if ever, knows what they really need. That’s why they hire external specialists with the expertise that they themselves don’t have. If you could conduct a major research project and write a book about it all by yourself, would you still be enrolled at a university to do so?

It is the job of the consultant to work with – not just for – the client in understanding, and then fulfilling, their requirements. This does not mean writing a thesis for you, but a good consultant will go above and beyond the bare minimum of the terms of reference. They will ‘value add’ (sorry, last bit of consulting-ese, I promise) by knowing what the client doesn’t know that they don’t know.

Let me clarify. The client will always have some idea of what they themselves lack in terms of knowledge or skills, and that’s why they hire external specialists. But they don’t know what they don’t know.

In the case of a PhD, you might be passionate about a particular subject but have no idea about the best theoretical framework for analysis. All supervisors should be able to assist with that. All supervisors who are also excellent service providers should be able to advise you that, for example, using a particular theory will align you with a school of thought that is falling out of favour in your field and could limit your post-PhD career options.

That’s the value add – something potentially significant to you that you didn’t even know you should ask about.

But PhD supervisors are rarely taught how to be excellent service providers to their PhD student clients. Scratch that – supervisors are rarely taught how to do the bare minimum as PhD supervisors. While prospective students have to go to great lengths to prove they are worthy of starting a PhD, no such qualifications exist for their supervisors.

That’s why it’s important to see yourself as a client; to be clear about the services you require, to set expectations about quantity and quality of guidance, and to establish time frames for deliverables (e.g., feedback from your supervisor on your drafts). And as a client, you should do your due diligence on prospective supervisors before you commence your PhD.

Unless you’re in the sort of program where a supervisor is allocated to you, you should be able to vet some candidates for the job.

How many PhD students have they supervised or co-supervised? How many of those students successfully completed their PhD under that supervisor? A high drop-out rate should be a big red flag for you. A savvy client will never hire a consultant with a reputation for shoddy work or not fulfilling their obligations.

If you can, speak to any current or past students of your potential supervisors to get their impressions. Is the supervisor frequently away or constantly busy with other research projects? They may be a ‘god-professor’ in their field but that doesn’t mean they’ll have time and energy to be great mentors. Sometimes basic administrative skills are more valuable in a supervisor than in-depth knowledge of some obscure theorem.

There are simple ways to gauge the professionalism of your prospective service provider/supervisor. Do they respond to emails promptly? Do they address all your questions? Do they know the university’s admissions process, or do they think paperwork and bureaucracy is beneath them?

You don’t want to find yourself in a position where your PhD is dragging on because your supervisor has failed to sign off on your milestone reports or forgotten to tell you that the university won’t allow you to submit your thesis until you do one more presentation. And you don’t want to turn up to meetings with your supervisor only to find that they aren’t there because they didn’t put it into their calendar.

You also shouldn’t have to waste time waiting for feedback because your draft chapter got lost at the bottom of your supervisor’s email inbox.

Obviously you won’t know the extent of your needs and the extent of (in-)competence of your supervisor until you start your PhD. But as a client, know that you are within your rights to change service providers if you are not getting the support you require. Your school’s research skills adviser should be able to provide you with guidance on how to do this, or whether it’s the right decision for you.

And don’t forget that you can supplement your supervisor’s services with specialist expertise from elsewhere. For example, there is an active and supportive community of scholars from every discipline on Twitter and using hashtags such as #PhDchat can connect you to people the world over with similar problems or requirements to yours.

So, who’s the client and who’s the service provider in your relationship with your PhD supervisor?

Related posts

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The tyranny of the awesome supervisor

15 thoughts on “Who is the client for your PhD work?

  1. Anon. says:

    “If you can, speak to any current or past students of your potential supervisors to get their impressions.”

    I always see this advice in columns about starting a PhD or picking a supervisor, and nobody ever seems to acknowledge that this is much easier said than done. Unless you are already connected to people in the department (and many people move universities to do a PhD – indeed I was encouraged to do so to increase my employability), a cold-call/email to a complete stranger who is supervised by your desired supervisor, asking whether they’re any good and whether they’d recommend them, is hardly going to be productive given the reliance in academia (and the world more generally) on personal recommendations.
    Even if you can talk to such people, the answer is unlikely to be “yes they’re great” or “no they’re crap” – they’re humans with their own flaws just like anyone, who will annoy you more or less depending on your own requirements. Plus, the requirement for two supervisors (writing in Aus here) means that you might deliberately choose to accept a busy, difficult-to-get-hold-of star professor because you know that their name on your plain language statement and thesis will open doors for you and you can always balance them out with a younger, less busy supervisor who can help you more with the day-to-day processes.

    Otherwise I like the analogy, but this bit of advice always puts me offside!

    • Thesis Whisperer says:

      A good point. But I would argue that a sign of a good potential supervisor is that they will be happy to set you up with a current or past student. I always get people to have a coffee with mine if I can. I figure I should be confident enough to be able to do this, or I shouldn’t bother putting myself out there as a supervisor.

      • Anonymous says:

        I really like this metaphor of the student as the client. I wish I had known this when I started my PhD. However, I too find the constant advice of asking about their past supervising record, and speak to current students or others about the supervisor quite offputting.

        Aside from the issue of current students / colleagues not wanting to step on toes and run the risks of blabbing on a bad supervisor, there is the issue of the cultural issue of high power distance in many cultures and also the lack of choice in some institutions, especially in institutions where there is a great power disparity between supervisors and students (quite common especially in certain cultures).

        My personal experience has been that some supervisors may have developed great reputation as a wonderfully kind and caring person because they know who to ‘take care of’ and how to cultivate the ‘important people. However, outside of this ‘important circle’, their students/research colleagues are either too petrified of them (and their long reach in the institution and academia) to complain/seek new supervisors, and/or the admin people/research office manager refuses to believe complaints, even when shit hits the fan and students finally ‘break’ (in one case to the point of refusing to look at evidence provided by the student of bullying and other bad behaviour from the supervisor).

        A remedy for this I believe is to educate students and potential students about their rights vis-a-vis supervisors. Which this blog is doing brilliantly, but which postgrad student associations in universities should build into their orientation talk for all newbies – just in case shit hits the fan, and preferably before that happens, to keep the supervisors a little more wary about bullying and unreasonable behaviour.

  2. Victoria says:

    Two other issues are when you ask all of the questions, but they withhold information, and/or you agree to timelines/deadline, but they are never met.

    I did ask all of the questions of my first supervisor, and then brought her onto the project. Three months later she mentioned that she failed to tell me she was trying to get pregnant and was planning a year’s leave.

    She took off, while I floundered not knowing what to do, and when she returned, she left on another long holiday.

    I “fired” her, then asked another of my team members to be my supervisor. Although he was knowledgable, he was extremely disorganised and kept me waiting months for simple revisions. All I received were excuses.

    When it was time to review my thesis, we agreed on all of the deadlines, but he missed every one of them.

    I became very stressed and spoke to the head of the department who basically told me I had 3 choices: wait until he gets around to it – go find another supervisor (in my 5th year), or turn in my thesis unreviewed.

    Not nice. All I could do is wait.
    After 6 years (that should have been 3-4), I finished my PhD, but have such a bad taste in my mouth about arrogant, incompetent and disorganised people who call themselves supervisors.

    Oh – and by the way – both of those supervisors were promoted.

    • Matt says:

      Sorry for your experience, at least you got out eventually. I usually come to this website and feel better after reading the articles, but this one above also just made me feel like I was missing out on what could have been. My advisor has zero technical knowledge and through some bizarre ego thing has been blocking me from forming a technical relationship with anyone else. At least he responds to emails promptly and spends a lot of time with revisions. My advisor as a consultant? Pah! He has no knowledge to offer. I should have fired him years ago.

      • Matt says:

        I was thinking about this some more and I think the advice in the article is solid. If I had viewed my relationship with my advisor in a purely professional way and concluded that he was not meeting my needs, maybe I would have been less afraid to switch advisors.

  3. Alice P. says:

    This is one of my favourite posts – it forced me to think of things in a way opposite to the way I had done in the past. Coming from a consulting background pre-PhD, I have generally thought of my supervisory committee as the clients, with me being the consultant whose goal was to keep them happy. Thinking of them as the consultants makes a lot of sense. They have unique knowledge and limited time in which to share it. At the end of the day, though, I am still the one paying tuition.

  4. Danny says:

    It was a very nice to read on a different perspective on the relation between student and supervisor. How I wished to change the consultant after just being 6 months into this phd. would love to see more of this kind of post

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