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By Claire Aitchison

No one wants trouble in doctoral candidature, but unfortunately, sometimes things can go bad. 2715544998_27355f64a5_m In this blog we review a recently released Discussion Paper on complaints about supervision and highlight the importance of clear and timely communication.

Last month in Australia, the New South Wales Ombudsman released a discussion paper Complaints about the Supervision of Post-Graduate Students. The Office describes the cases as “exceptionally difficult to deal with”, highly complex and emotional, and requiring “very considerable resources” (p.2). While supervision-related complaints may not be disproportional compared to other student complaints, the human costs can be considerable, threatening student, supervisor and institutional wellbeing and reputations.

The Discussion Paper outlines the range of complaints received, processes for handling complaints, institutional policies and procedures, contributing factors and suggestions for ways forward. For the report they surveyed all NSW institutions, reviewed institutional policies, and conducted follow-up interviews with selected staff and students and student representative bodies.

Of course, most complaints about postgraduate supervision are handled within the institutions themselves; it’s relatively rare that cases are taken to the ombudsman. Nevertheless, the Discussion Paper leaves no doubt about the significance of the matters and of the importance for institutions – let alone the parties directly involved – for finding better ways of heading off and then, if/when necessary, for handling disputes. The severity of such matters is indicated by their list of example cases:

  • Allegations that supervisors have plagiarised students’ work
  • Allegations that supervisors deliberately destroyed students’ research material or otherwise acted to sabotage students’ research
  • Illegal tape recordings made by students of interviews with their supervisors
  • Threats of suicide
  • Complaints about a university responding inappropriately to threats of suicide
  • Allegations of criminal conduct and/or sexual harassment and/or racist conduct by supervisors
  • Conduct on the part of students towards their supervisors that could be potentially regarded as criminal, threatening or stalking to the extent that either universities or academics personally have had to seek restraining orders.

By identifying factors that contribute to the incidence and gravity of grievances, the paper indicates where we can make improvements.

The report points to the follow:

  • Inadequate or poorly timed availability of information for students and supervisors about processes and practices should there be a grievance
  • Limited “training” of supervisors for handling difficult situations and for maximizing productive communication. If supervisors were better able to identify warning signs and then head off situations before they reached a “critical stage”, then satisfactory outcomes would be more likely. For example, there were instances where students genuinely didn’t realise a supervisor was giving them bad news.
  • Diverse, obscure and sometimes inadequate institutional policies vis-à-vis student and supervisor responsibilities that could help avoid problems (e.g., expectations for record keeping, feedback and meeting arrangements), and for identifying and handling grievances and resolving conflicts
  • Often inadequate internal processes for “tracking” and appropriately responding to repeated complaints against a supervisor
  • Inadequate or poorly timed processes for resolving conflicts (delays can intensify problems)
  • The lack of clearly identifiable and trusted “go to” persons and mechanisms for resolving conflicts, early and easily.

Communication within the supervisory team

The report infers that the traditional, highly personal and intimate model of supervision that involves numerous private, unrecorded meetings and agreements between individual students and supervisors can be problematic. Without record-keeping processes that are mutually accepted and valued, misunderstandings and unmatched memories of events can go unchecked – and potentially escalate what would otherwise be minor matters.

We know that when the supervisory space is opened out to “community” or “mixed” models (McCallin and Nayar 2012) involving supervisory teams, writing support groups and experts, peers in coursework arrangements, and so on, opportunities for openness and transparency increase. The safety net is widened.

Honest and productive communication is hard

Communication is a key issue for causing – and resolving – problems.

The report noted that more frequent and better-recorded meetings and agreements can make a huge difference for dispute avoidance and settling. When the discussion is taken into a written form, it needs to adequately and respectfully document the issues raised in an agreed fashion. It’s important that students are actively and openly involved in this process, for example they may take on the job of recording and circulating supervision meeting ‘minutes’.

It is also recommended that all parties make good use of institutional reporting mechanisms such as bi-annual reports that are “usually the only formal opportunity for students to provide feedback on their supervisors” (p. 7). Most institutions have these compulsory reporting processes but they are under-utilized as mechanisms for noting and addressing concerns – and not everyone has faith in the system, often for good reason (see Mewburn, Tokareva, Cuthbert, Sinclair, & Barnacle, 2013).

There may be some lag between having a concern and recording it. For example, supervisors may have concerns about a student’s progress, writing or ability for some time before raising it with the student – after all, many things get resolved in the course of the candidature. Raising concerns and handling the discussion is the first step – but can be hugely difficult and requires keen judgment, careful timing and sensitivity. A supervisor may be sensitive to other problems in the student’s life and decide to delay delivering what may be construed as additional bad news. Many supervisors will feel uncomfortable sharing their reservations, and even when they do raise them in conversation with students, they may hesitate to document their concerns for fear it could escalate matters, or that doing so may negatively impact the relationship, or undermine a student’s confidence.

It is understandable that a student will hesitate to record anything that may be construed as negative or potentially critical of their supervisor or institution. This is an unequal power relationship – even without taking into account personal, cultural or gendered issues. It is really trick territory – any time, for anyone – but is even more difficult when the individuals involved are isolated and lack confidence in their capacity to communicate in a way that is cognizant of the local sensitivities and contextual interrelationships. The ‘complaint genre’ is not one many of us are experienced in.

We all know how hard it can be to commit other-than-positive statements to paper. For both students and supervisors, getting advice and feedback from a trusted and knowledgeable third party can be crucial for clarifying one’s thinking and for the tricky process of constructing the written documentation of concerns. Institutions have a responsibility here.

In the Ombudsman’s Discussion Paper international students are singled out as a special case – not because they represent statistically greater numbers of reported problems but because complex visa, sponsorship and financial concerns add additional levels of difficulty for these students. In addition, some students have different perceptions of respect and face-saving that could influence their propensity to come forward and complain. Equally, some international students may harbour deep distrust of bureaucratic processes and thus resist recording concerns, no matter how valid.

There is much more to this report and the issues than I have covered here, but quite clearly, it is difficult to overstate the importance of regular, transparent, and mutually respectful communication – both oral and written – for a successful and rewarding supervisory experiences.

You may have developed some processes or have experiences that help prevent things going bad. We’d love to hear.

Photo by Alan Levine Flickr Creative Commons


McCallin, A., & Nayar, S. (2012). Postgraduate research supervision: a critical review of current practice. Teaching in Higher Education, 17(1), 63-74. doi: 10.1080/13562517.2011.590979

Mewburn, I., Tokareva, E., Cuthbert, D., Sinclair, J., & Barnacle, R. (2013). ‘These are issues that should not be raised in black and white’: the culture of progress reporting and the doctorate. Higher Education Research & Development, 33(3), 510-522. doi: 10.1080/07294360.2013.841649