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By Susan Carter

There’s a common caricature of the doctoral student as a shy and elusive creature, one who slides away into dark corners if they fear that their supervisor is possibly about to appear. This is the doctoral student who is not writing. Yet these creatures can be hunted down, and there are modern techniques—think Richard Attenborough’s infra-red lighting in underground burrows—to follow their behaviour.

However, the really prickly creature to control is the evasive supervisor. Supervisors’ power lies in many dimensions, including the political and the symbolic. Supervisors are feared as deadly to the career if crossed. ‘Timely completions’ of doctoral theses are much desired by institutions; but, how can lowly students coax supervisors to give timely feedback on writing without irritating them?

Jim consulted me the other day, at the end of his tether because his main supervisor just wouldn’t look at his writing. She’s obviously busy. She thinks that the co-supervisor’s comments will do—the co-supervisor thinks that Jim’s chapter is alright. But the bit Jim wants his main supervisor to look at is contentious, cutting edge. Jim is worried he might go right over the edge. He’s not convinced that the co-supervisor is actually sufficiently familiar with this aspect of his theoretical construct to be trusted.

Theory is his supervisor’s main area of strength, and he is unwilling to go much further before he gets her expert guidance. (I suggest that the co-supervisor’s reassurance may be right—but Jim dismisses this idea, and looks mildly and uncharacteristically hysterical.) He has spent the last three months scheduling meetings, and every single time she has cancelled without rescheduling.

We do have a formal system at my institution—as yours will—for dealing with supervisory relationships that have broken down. This one hasn’t broken down, though; it just seems to be stalling. Jim doesn’t think it would help to follow the formal procedure: consult the supervisor first to explain the problem (well, he has done that half a dozen times with increasing levels of urgency to no avail), then approach the Academic Dean Postgraduate and or the Head of Department He fears that approaching these guys in his small department would just damage the relationship with his supervisor and risk his being seen as a ‘difficult’ student. He still values his supervisory relationship, and now is so acutely aware of how much.

Jim doesn’t want to change supervisors, then, because he enormously values this evasive one. There is no one else in the department more suitable or anywhere near as suitable. But he can’t get what he wants and is on the verge of throwing the toys out of the cot.

I find it difficult to know what advice to give—even though I’ve met this problem and its variations before. The institution sets up sound procedures and models to encourage things to work democratically and problems to be solved smoothly. But these thoughtful solutions talk straight past the unequal power ratio in a system that is still extremely hierarchical—in practice more like a Renaissance court than a 21st century democracy. It is not so hard for supervisors to track down AWOL students, because the power ration works that way—they hold the power. They can threaten to ‘terminate’ the student—that is the term used in our institution’s rhetoric—which inevitably flushes the student to the surface. But it is hard for students to try to pin down supervisors. Their evasiveness mightn’t matter when the issue is grammar, style, or logic, but it does when it requires specific disciplinary expertise.

I’m also aware of hearing one half of a story. Maybe Jim’s supervisor feels that he is far enough through that he needs to be more independent and self-critical.  Maybe she has given advice before that he didn’t follow.

What other variations do you know of in similar situations? Any success stories with this one, or suggestions?

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