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«The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research Gordon Rugg Marian Petre THE UNWRITTEN RULES OF PHD RESEARCH THE UNWRITTEN RULES OF PHD RESEARCH Gordon Rugg and ...»

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It’s likely to be different from your previous academic relationships, because as a research student you’ll take up much more of your supervisor’s attention and time. You can’t hide among the other students the way you could on a taught course if you wanted to keep a low profile for whatever reason; you’re a visible individual as a PhD student.

Similarly, your supervisor is going to be a lot more important to you than your undergraduate project supervisor, who was only one member of staff among many.

A good relationship between student and supervisor needs work by both parties. It isn’t your supervisor’s responsibility to make everything all right;

it’s up to both of you to work together. Many doctoral students encounter unnecessary problems because they make classic mistakes in dealing with their supervisors. Unfortunately, our experience is that most students don’t think this relationship through, and that most supervision problems are predictable and preventable. So, it’s time to start thinking things through... If you’ve already thought these things through, then you will be much more likely to be viewed as an asset to your supervisor and the department, and to finish with a happy ending.

Most PhD horror stories have their origins in the supervisory relationship rather than in the research topic or the external examiner. The most common cause is that the student didn’t take the supervisor’s advice. Less common, though not unknown, is horror due to an incompetent supervisor. The current SUPERVISION 33 trend is for PhDs to be supervised by more than one supervisor, which reduces the risk of your having a rogue incompetent supervising you; in addition, departments normally pay keen attention to students’ performance at stages such as the transfer seminar, where incompetence is usually spotted and subsequently investigated.

The relationship between student and supervisor is about as close as many marriages, and lasts as long as many marriages. It’s a fairly good analogy in several ways. One important issue is compatibility. Nobody in their right mind would expect to have a happy marriage if they married the first single person they met; similarly, you can’t expect that your relationship will be equally straightforward with every potential supervisor you might meet. Likewise, it’s not your supervisor’s job to put up with every unpleasant idiosyncrasy of every idiot who wants to do a PhD with them. As a student, you are an apprentice, not a customer who is always right.

Also on the subject of rightness, there isn’t a single type of ‘right’ student or ‘right’ supervisor, any more than there is a single type of ‘right’ partner. There are various types of supervisor, and various types of student; each type of supervisor will be well suited to some types of student, and less well suited to other types of student. At this point, the marriage analogy starts to become somewhat strained. In the old days, a high proportion of students signed up to do a PhD with a specific supervisor; now it’s increasingly common for students to sign up with a department, and then to be issued with a supervisor or, more often, a supervisory team. A closer analogy for this situation is two or three survivors shipwrecked on a desert island and having to learn not just to get along with each other but also to work constructively together, regardless of whether they would have chosen each other as companions if they had had a choice. Sitting on the beach complaining that the other survivors aren’t perfect human beings isn’t going to get a fire lit; similarly, sitting at your desk expecting your supervisor to be perfect isn’t going to get your dissertation written. You have to make the most of what you’ve got, unless the situation is completely pathological (discussed in more detail below). Note that this is an active process, not a passive one; you don’t simply put up with the situation that you first encounter, but instead you identify the resources you’ve got and then put them to the best use you can. With this in mind, it’s a good idea to assess yourself in relation to your personality and your needs as a student, so that you can assess what you would like from your supervisor and how to set about obtaining those things in a way which suits you both. Relevant factors usually include your need for technical support; your need for emotional support; your need for guidance and structure in planning the work; your ability to handle criticism; and your ability to deliver on time, to the agreed standard.

It’s also a good idea to ask yourself which of your characteristics (a) will make you awkward for anyone to supervise and (b) are likely to lead to problems with a particular type of supervisor. You should then think about which of these things you are willing to improve and what the implications are for how you approach your supervisor and your PhD.


The role of the supervisor

Another fruitful area for misunderstanding involves what services supervisors are supposed to provide. Students seldom think much about this.

One common misconception is that the supervisor is a purely technical resource, there to provide expertise in (for instance) the obscure area of Unix programming that you are studying for your PhD. Students with this misconception typically encounter problems when their supervisor doesn’t have the answer to an obscure technical question; such students typically complain loudly that the supervisor is incompetent, and then wonder why they receive so little sympathy from the department. The purpose of the PhD is to demonstrate that you can operate as an independent researcher and uncover new knowledge; if you expect your supervisor to know more than you about every aspect of your PhD, then you have missed the whole point.

There are many different ways to supervise a PhD, and many different roles which a supervisor can have; each student is different and will require different support. At one extreme is the student who can be pretty much left to get on with it, with supervisory meetings being something that both parties enjoy, and where each party learns from the other. This is rare, but it does happen. Such students don’t always have brilliant academic grades from their first degree; what they tend to have in common is a willingness to learn for themselves and good judgement about when to stop and ask for feedback. At the other extreme is the student who doesn’t take the initiative about anything, who needs constant feedback, active encouragement and who appears to expect a worrying degree of spoonfeeding. For students at the first end of the spectrum, supervisors will often be very busy behind the scenes, trying to find funding for the student after they graduate; for students at the other end of the spectrum, the supervisor may have different priorities.

The minimum supervisory role involves filling in the relevant forms as you progress through The System, writing annual reports, liaising with the organization where you are doing your fieldwork etc. Beyond that, there are numerous possible roles, which may or may not be relevant to your case, and which will probably be invisible to you.

Other roles include:

• Specific technical support: for instance, skills training in using the library or specialist software; pointers to relevant literature; providing contacts with other researchers; guidance on structuring the thesis; training in critical reading.

• Broader intellectual support: for instance, helping the student develop skills in discussion and critical thinking; providing high-level knowledge about the field and about research issues in the field; providing specialist expertise in conducting studies in the field.


• Administrative support: for instance, finding funds; finding other resources; protecting you from political and administrative difficulties within the institution; publicizing your work.

• Management: for instance, providing a structure (meetings, deadlines, goals); deadline creation and enforcement.

• Personal support: for instance, career advice, emotional support and counselling.

If you’re feeling cynical about this, it’s worth remembering that the student’s performance reflects on the supervisor who has to undergo, among other things, institutional procedures and reports (including scrutiny of PhD failure rates); supervisors’ meetings; peer scrutiny at transfer seminars;

research assessment exercises; and scrutiny from funding bodies.

Why do people become supervisors? It’s certainly not for the money as supervision is almost never remunerated. And it’s not for release from other tasks, since workload planning almost always underestimates the time supervision takes. There are many reasons, ranging from a direct order from the head of department, via a feeling of duty, on through mercenary self-interest (such as using the students to further the supervisor’s career), to idealism and a love of working with students.

Whatever the supervisor’s motivation, it’s in both your interests to get along. Whatever the moral rights and wrongs of a particular issue, it’s very much in your interests to make the relationship work; failing your PhD is much more of a disaster for you than it is for your supervisor, so expecting your supervisor to do all the running in your relationship is not an advisable strategy. It is, as usual, a good idea to try seeing things from their perspective. If you were asked to supervise an undergraduate project, what sort of student would you want to supervise and what sort would you not want to supervise at any cost? Once you’ve thought about that for a while, try looking long and hard at your own behaviour from that point of view: how often have you missed a meeting, turned up late, turned up unprepared, expected your supervisor to do all the thinking and so forth?

You are ultimately responsible for your work; your supervisor is not. Taking your share of responsibility in the supervisory relationship is good practice for the dissertation and viva, where the burden is on the student to communicate – if the thesis is unclear to the examiner, it’s the student’s problem, not the examiner’s. So practise on your supervisor. Decide what you want from the PhD and from the individual meetings, and communicate this to your supervisor.

As with marriage, it’s worth putting the effort in, because the relationship is likely to last at least three years, and a good supervisory relationship will benefit you for the rest of your career. Also as with marriages, it can be useful at times to remember that supervisors are human too – they’ll have bad days and human failings. Be realistic and forgiving in your expectations and the chances of a happy ending for you both are much better.


Practical ways of establishing a good relationship with your supervisor As usual, try looking at it from the other person’s point of view – most of the answers will then become pretty obvious. Supervisors are research-active academics and research-active academics are hideously overworked. PhD students take up time, which is the supervisor’s scarcest resource, and are in that sense a liability. A sensible student will reduce their liability rating; a good student will find ways of being a positive asset.

Reducing the liability rating mainly involves basic professional courtesies.

It’s your PhD, not the supervisor’s; if you can’t be bothered to work on making it happen, why should they? Making it happen includes making supervision meetings work: you should take the initiative in setting up the meetings, circulating relevant information in advance, drafting an agenda and coming with a clear set of things to report and questions to ask. Something which is easily overlooked is that you should also minute the meeting, recording decisions and actions, and circulate those minutes afterwards, then check that the actions are in fact done. A related issue in many organizations is keeping logs of meetings for The System.

Running meetings properly is a rare skill, so we’ve summarized the key points here – this particular skill is valuable in most walks of life.

Several days before the meeting, the organizer of the meeting should:

• circulate the agenda;

• check that the venue is still available, if it isn’t the supervisor’s office;

• remind people of the time and place of the meeting;

• circulate any briefing material, including minutes of the last meeting.

During the meeting, the chair of the meeting should:

• record the date and the parties present;

• check that everyone agrees with the minutes of the last meeting;

• check that actions from the last meeting have all been done;

• record any decisions made, including milestones and deliverables (and check that everyone agrees with this record);

• record any actions agreed (and check that everyone agrees with this record);

• fix the time and place of the next meeting.

After the meeting:

• the organizer should write up the minutes and distribute them;

• everyone should do what they have agreed to do.

–  –  –

meetings when you explore ideas or discuss your longer term career plans, or work through a problem which is bothering you. These usually take place over the legendary cup of coffee.

Some classic irritating habits which students often show in relation to

meetings include the following:

• failing to take deadlines seriously;

• failing to respect the supervisor’s time pressures (you are but one demand among many);

• dumping demands on the supervisor at the last minute instead of allowing them time for reading, thinking, enquiring etc.;

• expecting the supervisor to read every draft, usually by the next day;

• expecting the supervisor to organize everything;

• organizing things without consulting the supervisor (independence is good up to a point, but you need to check you’re being independent in the right way).

Dealing with your supervisor There are various strategies which students can use to make life better for all parties in the PhD, but which are not as widely used as they should be. These


• exchanging favours, such as tracking down an obscure reference for your supervisor in exchange for some advice about a job application (but make sure that the exchange is agreed explicitly, so you both know where you stand);

• showing explicitly that you value your supervisor’s knowledge and experience;

• trying to do something the supervisor’s way, but setting criteria and a date for evaluation of the success of it (especially if you’re reluctant);

• not just refusing to do something you don’t like, but offering an alternative instead;

• being scrupulous about giving credit where credit is due (e.g. when you publish papers);

• finding out about your supervisor’s research – surprisingly few students do this, even though their supervisor’s research is probably one of the most valuable resources available;

• allowing your supervisor to be human – tolerating human weaknesses, and making the most of your supervisor’s strengths.

What to put in The supervisory relationship is a two-way one; you are supposed to be actively learning, not passively waiting to be told all the answers.


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