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By Claire Aitchison

It’s scary being a PhD supervisor.

Whatever the reason, there would be few supervisors who have not experienced anxiety and self-doubt at some point.

This post is about some of the ‘night terrors’ that can afflict doctoral supervisors. What scares you the most? Please feel welcome to add to this list—and share remedies!

Am I asking too much of this student?

During doctoral candidature there are inevitable ups and downs. Emotional turbulence for both student and supervisor can have their origins in the challenges of the research itself; the stresses around writing and giving and receiving feedback; or perhaps have nothing to do with the research and instead arise from financial, family or work concerns. Life gets in the way, damn it! It isn’t easy to know when to ease off and make allowances, or when to maintain the right level of pressure so that the PhD stays on the boil. How does one balance the personal vulnerabilities and demands on individual students against the institution’s completion-focussed priorities? Furthermore, sometimes the needs of supervisors come into the equation — we too have lives, challenges, workloads and vulnerabilities!

Instead of waking with the hot sweats, alternate responses may include a reconsideration of the dimension of the project: Can the original scope/plan be revised and/scaled back? Does this research/topic need to be as complex as first imagined? Does it need to be so highly theorised? Can the data collection be simplified in some way to make it more contained, but still rigorous and robust? Is it possible to seek support with the writing—from institutional writing advisors or an affordable editorial helper?

Significant omissions

Horrors! What have we forgotten? For example, is the thesis missing an account of a significant piece of research or relevant theorist? Is the method accurately executed? You don’t know what you don’t know—and that can be doubly scary. Opportunities for not knowing multiply when we are working in interdisciplinary and mixed method research. Omissions can also occur when supervisory oversight is divided between panel members and it isn’t clear who has the knowledge or responsibility to ensure that all the bits are there.

Will our relationship be able to survive the criticism I feel I must give?

There is no doubt that the job of the supervisor is to push a candidate to achieve their potential. There would be few doctoral projects that have not surfaced (and survived) challenges. For example, student work may be slow coming in, the writing may be under par, sections may need serious revision to bring a more critical perspective to the discussion. Whatever the reason, delays can risk non-completion, and supervisors have a duty of care to point this out. The supervisor must decide when, and how, to act—hard judgements to make, and difficult conversations to have. With the growing awareness of mental health in doctoral study, it is appropriate that we should not take these responsibilities lightly.

But is the student—and our relationship—robust enough to handle criticism? Will rapport return? Will this criticism tip them over? What should a supervisor do if, or when, one’s student cries in distress or disbelief, shouts in anger or frustration, or simply refuses critique?

A confidential chat with more senior colleagues and/or other members of the supervisory panel can be a first and relatively simple step. In addition, institutions sometimes offer professional training, even if it is not specifically directed at PhD supervision. In my experience there’s usually something useful to be gained from ‘Leadership training’, or workshops on ‘Mentoring’, ‘Handling difficult conversations’ or ‘Negotiating skills’.

Will this ever end!? Or, when is enough, enough?

This concern is born of a desire for perfection—or could it be a fear of letting go? Whether the striving for perfection comes from the student or the supervisor, an over-emphasis on perfection can create endless delays and frustrations. That feeling of being stuck on an eternal treadmill of revisions, tweaks and corrections is debilitating. Good enough can be good enough.

My student is struggling—should I seek help now, or wait a bit longer? 

In regard to challenges with writing, sometimes writing acumen will improve considerably by virtue of the normal iterative cycles of writing and feedback, but sometimes the problems are bigger than the supervisor can handle. How and when such issues are raised can alter the course of the candidature. When is it too early to identify one’s concerns and potentially undermine confidence unnecessarily? On the other hand, the costs of leaving things too late can be devastating. Learning to write as a credentialised PhD student can take years, and for some, especially where English is not the strongest language, it is best if this support is structured into the program as early as possible. Many universities have a variety of writing development options. As a first step, the supervisor needs to be aware of what’s available, consider the level of need for support, and then sensitively discuss options. It’s better to be proactive than reactive.

Is it good enough to be submitted?

Is this thesis ready? How long is a piece of string? Have we really nailed the argument? Are the results sufficiently convincing? Did I check the Introduction and Conclusion speak to each other? What’s more important here—time spent on revising the Introduction or updating the literature review? Have we secured the ‘right’ examiners? And how will my own reputation be affected if this is under par?

Hopefully this is the final hard call a supervisor will have to make. Sometimes there is a happy agreement amongst all members of the supervisory team that this work is as good as it can be, and is ready to be examined. Equally, it is likely that not everyone will hold this view. Often compromises have to be made, and sometimes factors such as visa constraints, illness and completion deadlines force us to make decisions that we can be uncomfortable with.

REALLY SCARY QUESTIONS

And, finally, there is the really scary question that occurs late at night, alone, in corridors and behind closed doors. It is the question no one wants to speak about—does this student have what it takes (intellectually, emotionally and in terms of sheer grit and determination)?

But, wait — there is an even more confronting question.

The most scary question of all – do I have what it takes (intellectually, emotionally and in terms of sheer grit and determination)? Now that’s a thought enough to give one the hot sweats! …

No wonder supervising is difficult. It is a big responsibility managing humans, relationships and projects over an extended timeframe. But need all this be so terrifying? Perhaps we should acknowledge the limits of our responsibilities, skills and capabilities, and be more aware of where and what help is available, attend training where it is available – and begin to develop a community of practice and support. Supervising in isolation is a recipe for stress. Identify critical friends and institutional experts—for one’s doctoral students and oneself.

Do we supervisors speak to each other often enough? From whom do we seek help and advice? What are our avenues for developing supervisor knowledge and skills? What are our options for support?

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