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By Susan Carter

We’ve had a useful series of posts on technology for doctoral writing, but this post turns from the technical to the social. Human beings have their own complexities. It isn’t uncommon for tension to arise between doctoral students and their supervisors over the writing processes.

Commonly this occurs when supervision crosses different cultural protocols for talking across hierarchies. Gender, age, experience—even things like whether both have children or not—can cause tensions. Laurie Finke puts it neatly: “Every utterance is always inhabited by the voice of the ‘other,’ or of many others, because the interests of race, class, gender, ethnicity, age, and any number of other related ‘accents’ intersect each utterance” (Finke, 1992: 13).

Here, though, I focus not on social distinctions, but on difference in approach to practice. I’m drawing on material I have developed for supervisors teams who want support with managing the relationship. The following sets of questions are intended to help students and supervisors identify causes of tension so that they can begin strategizing on how to work around them. Statements in them are similar to ones I have heard expressed by academics and doctoral students: I believe that occasionally quite polarised views are held within supervisor-student relationships, and that these can also cause discomfit. Those who are not so extreme can still their preference tendencies.

Reality check for differences

Writing preferences can be checked with the following:

Main criteria for thesis prose

Clarity is the most important feature of thesis prose. Clarity is less important than theoretical complexity or creativity or [something else].

Internal thesis consistency (e.g., with use of first person pronouns, register of language etc.)

Consistency right throughout the thesis is essential. Sometimes consistency rules need to be broken when there are more important issues at stake.

Doctoral thesis length is usually 70 – 100 thousand words

It’s best to take all the words needed to fully explore material and ideas. It’s best to produce something as direct and succinct as possible to achieve doctoral success.

The thesis must show knowledge of literature and critical analysis of it

It is most important that novice researchers spend as long as it takes to fully understand the literature. Novice researchers should be discouraged from endless reading because it can go on forever.

Standard of submitted thesis

Each doctoral thesis is its author’s only one: it has to be perfect. As soon as a thesis is good enough it should be submitted so the author can move on—future publication can be more sophisticated.

Closure on research project

As soon as a thesis is good enough it should be submitted so the author can move on—future publication can be more sophisticated. Students should submit as soon as possible—they can do more with data later.

Thrill from originality or from using the conventions of research

I most love the intellectual adventure of academia. I most love the time-honoured security of academia’s well established conventions.

Fast lane or slow lane

Students should progress beyond the doctorate as soon as possible. Students should experience the doctorate to full satisfaction before moving on.

Plans for after the thesis

Students should be prepared for work as academics after completion of the doctorate. Students should be encouraged to prepare for a wide range of career options.

Holistic or discrete writing practice

It’s best to work on individual sections of the thesis one at a time. It’s best to work steadily over the whole thesis, ranging between sections.

Risk taker or risk averse

The best students take risks in thesis writing for the satisfaction of a cutting-edge style. The best students make choices that ensure safety through the examination process.

With these prompts, student and supervisor can begin talking rationally about why they might both be frustrated. They can consider whether there any other dichotomies are causing tension. The premise is that the conversation deliberately steps back from blame and reaction to objectively diagnose the cause of pain and then come up with a route to alleviating it.

I’m sure there’s scope for further analytical approaches to tension between student and supervisor around doctoral writing. Communication preferences play a role too. Do you have suggestions? Or experiences that identify other tensions that are due to different approaches to doctoral writing?


Finke, Laurie A. (1992). Feminist theory, women’s writing. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.