Dealing with administrative grief

Universities are big places, some of them have a lot of students to manage and complex timelines to administer. Most of the time, I hope, the administration of your degree will be invisible to you, but, when things break down, you can find yourself in administrative limbo. This happened to  Jessica Ritchie, a PhD student at the TC Beirne School of Law at the University of Queensland. Jess sorted out her administrative difficulties, but reflects here on how it happened and what support you need when you find yourself lost in the administative systems. You can find Jessica is on Twitter as @j_ritchie13

One of the most difficult things I’ve had to deal with whilst working on my PhD is managing the expectations of my university. In the end, I realised we were working towards two different goals.

While we both wanted me to complete the PhD, our relationship was more complicated than that. My Graduate School and administration were much more concerned with me getting the PhD done in three years. They had no real understanding or appreciation of the complexities of life, and the interruptions that this can bring to study. Our goals sometimes conflicted. My goal was to finish my PhD, but also be a competitive job applicant at the same time as staying in good health.

Image by @rawpixel on Unsplash

During my candidature, I became quite ill and required emergency surgery, after an extended time of going in and out of hospital. I wasn’t aware that I was meant to advise my Graduate School of my situation. My focus was on managing my health while trying to write, not looking up the policies and procedures for the university.

Long story short, not telling the graduate school what happened to me lead to a lot of administrative grief. I wasn’t able to complete the paperwork for a milestone – that had already been completed – because the technical due date was past. This technicality lead to me having to give an additional presentation; taking time away from writing, causing a lot of anxiety, stress and wasted time in meetings.

Going through the process, I felt more like a piece of paper than a human – I was reduced to just my due dates for completed milestones. The Graduate School and administration didn’t care that I was managing my PhD, while also teaching, publishing, supervising students for the pro bono centre, participating in conferences and seminars, and completing an invited overseas visiting scholar position.

To be honest it really soured my feelings towards the university and wanting to be on campus. However, there were four things that helped me through the process:

(1) I have an amazing supervisory team. My primary supervisor could tell that the process was not equitable, that it was upsetting me and took over and dealt with the administrative problems for me.

(2) I have some really close fellow PhD friends that really supported me and also shared their negative experiences with the Graduate School;

(3) I had picked a topic that I was and continue to be passionate about; and

4) I tried as much as possible to continue to focus on my goals, as that is what is the most important things to me – to finish my PhD – but to also be employable, while managing my physical and psychological wellbeing.

Whilst it is easy to reflect on the experience now and not get upset, it does make me glad I have a supportive supervisory team (and friends). If you ever face a similar situation you will realise how important both things are.

When I was looking at starting my PhD I did a lot of research (transferable skills!) on who I wanted as supervisors. I looked at potential supervisor profiles to see who they had supervised previously. I spoke to some of these students and asked them about my potential supervisors’ pros and cons. Further I looked at potential supervisor’s publications, and whether they collaborated with other researchers and in particular early career researchers.

Finally, I considered how my supervisors would complement each other and how they could help me develop my skills. This made my decision to approach my current supervisors really easy. As a consequence, my primary supervisor was really incredible in helping me and being very generous with his time sorting the problems out (Shout out to Professor Simon Bronitt).

In the end, it all worked out but not without some interruption to my writing process. It did lead to a lot of money being spent at local cafes, as I chose to work there instead of my university for a while. The main thing as always is to keep writing and ignore everything else, as hard as that can be – and now more importantly let me order another coffee.

Thanks for sharing your story Jessica! Do you have a tale of adminstrative grief to share? How did you end up solving the problem? Love to hear about your experiences in the comments.

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How to complain – and be heard

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10 thoughts on “Dealing with administrative grief

  1. Naomi Cogger says:

    That just sounds terrible and I am pleased that it is now behind you and you were supported by many including your supervisors.

    As a supervisor can I say to anyone reading this and going through difficult please talk to your supervisor and don’t be afraid to bring a friend. I know at times things can difficult as it can be personal or there could be cultural reasons for not sharing but honestly we can only help if we know For those who are uncomfortable sharing as it is personal then please know don’t need to give details just a heads up that there is health problem or personal issue that is taking you away from your studies can be enough.

    If you have told your supervisor and they have not helped I am sorry. Your next step could be the post-grad coordinator in your department.

  2. Gretchen Miller Media says:

    I cannot tell you how anxious the ethics process is making me. I had no idea that they were so … ignorant about current practices and not remotely up to date with the university’s express desire to form external partnerships or support practice-based research . I’m working in citizen storytelling and have built a website to do so. That the EC seem not to understand the basics of social media (no I can’t put the ethics approval number in my tweets, let alone the names and numbers of the researchers) or that if you want to engage with community you don’t have a giant banner across your beautiful website saying essentially: if you look at this we won’t collect data, tick here if you understand… They don’t get that this might just be ‘offputting’. And this for a negligible risk application. I’m literally sick with worry that my beautiful project, accepted and paid for with a scholarship by the university, will be undone by people who can’t be bothered getting across contemporary practice.

        • Gretchen Miller Media says:

          Fascinating. Thank you Naomi, so good to see online being discussed wrt research. I’m struggling to find relevant writing on ux. Lots of things to consider there. I’ve gotten around allll of them by creating my own website and making it clear that it’s research in a pop up which people can see on arrival. The argument with ethics is about how much info should be in that popup – ie the ‘recruitment’ – and how much in the PICF which follows directly after (ie no time lag as with more trad approaches) and is lengthily loaded with all the necessary info. If you want to do participatory action research in a digital space – especially creative work – then the ux is very important. And it’s negligible, not high risk. ie nothing like medical online work! Mind you I met an amazing new PhD researcher who is an established artist and as her practice based work wants to start a cult to prove that logic is dead in the zeitgeist. Now I think I have problems with the ec…

  3. Zains says:

    I also face the same issue where the uni expect me to finish in 3 years without considering that the samples required for my study took 1.5 years of the 3 years to be released by a national oil company while needing to publish 2 journal articles in ISI indexed journal before submitting the thesis(in the end I decided to submit to open access journals that are ISI indexed, meaning spending my own money as I wanted to get the publication hurdle out of the way). As I am unable to publish and finish my analysis upon my third year I decided to extend my PhD studies by a year to 4 years. The application process to get that one year extension was tedious and exasperating. Should I fail to submit my thesis upon my 4th year the uni will initiate legal action upon me and repay every cent spent on my PhD. There has been cases where the PhD student at my uni graduated with distinction but had to repay just because he finished his PhD in 5 years with the 4th-5th years supported by a scholarship in the UK when he needed to extend beyond 4 years.

    I agree uni now see PhD students as paper or part of a number game to achieve KPI without considering PhD students are humans. I am a PhD student at an Asian university which I believe is much worse than in Western unis. While my main supervisor is supportive and helpful she is about to retire and her area of expertise is different from my field (i started with a different supervisor who left my uni when his contract was not renewed) while my co-supervisor has an attitude issue and i try not to interact with him.

    • Alice P. says:

      My comment is a bit late, and a little off-topic, but I totally agree with your observation that the bureaucratic culture can be very strong at some Asian universities. Of course, Asia is a big place. My comments specifically reflect what I have heard from my colleagues from China: expectations for graduate students and junior faculty appear to be set artificially high. I am not sure what is driving this trend, but the results are scary: burned-out scholars, scholars hesitating to work for Chinese universities, and (I am speculating here) an augmented market for predatory journals.

  4. Anjela says:

    Thank you for this article, it covers a much hidden problem in the doctoral program. I have somewhat of a different experience. After a year of research, my topic had shifted and I then failed to reach a milestone. This resulted in an uphill battle, where to fit in a three year time frame I was told I couldn’t register. Now; however, I have been informed after completing two years of work, one of which I was a registered student, neither will count and I will begin my first year next year. My supervisor has recently warned me that I have to begin my three year time frame next year, even though the progress in my PhD suggests I will be done in 1.5 years. In fact, he even suggested I hand the PhD in early 2020 but register despite having completed it, so I can have the extra years on paper. Needless to say I have become extremely frustrated and disillusioned with the program.

  5. Juila Hart says:

    Being in school or university is always stressful and upsetting especially if you don’t achieve what you want to do and when you want to finish it. Paper works and meetings can also bring a lot of stress and anxiety. Thank God you have a lot of support with you. It is really comforting that in the time you feel so stuck there’s someone you can lean and ask help for. Thank you for those people.

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