PhD supervision, accountability and consumerism

There’s an(other) interesting ‘anonymous academic’ article in the Guardian Higher Ed section being touted on Twitter today that argues for greater accountability, in an Ofsted sort of way, for PhD supervisors.

I really feel for the author they, and apparently some of their friends, had a rough time – suffering at the hands of the revolving door of academics moving departments, and an out-dated and patronising attitude of one supervisor. This is sad and unfortunate.

However, I don’t think I agree with where the author ends up. They ask the question: “Is there an assumption that PhD students and supervisors are mature enough to work out mutually satisfactory supervision arrangements?” The answer offered is to call for “performance measures of PhD supervision”. This seems a terribly sad place to end up.

PhD supervision is an uneasy relationship. It is no longer the student – teacher relation but remains slightly different from a manager – subordinate/co-worker relation. I don’t think retreating to the teacher – student relationship and aggressively measuring that is appropriate, but I certainly don’t think students should ever feel they are being left to fend for themselves. Resorting to a form of ‘consumer rights’ model would, I feel, fatally undermine the enterprise of undertaking a PhD. It is a ‘supervisor – researcher’ relation, where the ‘researcher’ (‘student’ in the terms of the Guardian article) is a new ‘peer’ being inducted.

Undertaking your first big research project, that will be subjected to peer review, and garnering the training to do so (as well as training to support your development as an academic) is a form of induction into the research culture/environment of a department, of a university and perhaps of a discipline. I would hope that the researcher is both empowered to take responsibility for their actions while also being advised and supported in learning how they might do so.

In the universities in which I’ve worked there have been forms of a formal mechanism for keeping track of PhD progress. This has been in part due to the growth of inter-institutional ‘doctoral training centres’ and a need to administer them across institutions. But it has also been in response to precisely the problems the author of the Guardian article raises. Rather than figure the supervision relationship as the supervisor solely providing a service, that needs to be quality controlled, I would hope that it is possible to maintain precisely the ‘mature’ and ‘mutually satisfying’ supervision arrangements the author somewhat dismisses. Albeit, with appropriate levels of accountability – just like in any form of professional work – where the supervision agreement is documented and regularly revisited.

While I really do sympathise with the sentiment that supervisor–researcher relations can be seen as “high maintenance, and fragile”, and I wish that we had the time allocated in workload models to be able to adequately address this, the idea that the fault lies solely with ‘unprofessional’ supervisors is overly simplistic (although there are some people, in every walk of life, who are unprofessional). It’s a condition of the extraordinary stresses academics are put under, in terms of time, energy and resources. We should try, really hard, to protect postgraduate researchers from as much of this as is practicable but while this may sound unkind, to overly cosset them may only set them up for a fall when they face the realities of applying for jobs and slogging through the precarious ‘early career’ positions that are the only resort for the newly minted Post-Doc.

We, academics that act as supervisors, can control some of this – we can institute transparent regimes of documentation of the supervision agreement, meetings and progress reports; we can act as an advocate for the interests of our supervisees within the institution; and we can contribute to the professional development of the postgraduates by supporting them in professional activities (writing for publication, convening events etc.). Nevertheless, some of the necessary support lies outside of our capacities – and in this, the doctoral training centres are (by and large) a good development. DTCs can offer professional development activities and access to resources that individual supervisors, or even departments, cannot.

The reality of a PhD studentship in the social sciences in a university like Exeter (where I work) is that the supervisors are very important but not alone in the supervision of the postgraduate researcher – there are postgraduate tutors, DTC managers and administrators, as well as colleagues, in research groups, institutes and so on.

While the job prospects are, sadly, rather different, the support available now, in my limited experience, is even better than when I undertook my PhD. I think there is cause for cautious optimism.

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