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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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At the most academic level, you should be actively finding things out and actively generating ideas. One sign that you’re doing a proper PhD is that you are finding out things which are new to your supervisor; another is that your supervisor finds at least one of your ideas sufficiently interesting to merit genuine engagement and discussion. It’s useful as well as courteous to give your supervisor a précis of what you’ve found, and to offer full copies of any material that the supervisor would like to read in more detail.

At the implementation level, you should be generating ideas about specific research questions to ask and specific research methods to investigate them.

You should be doing this increasingly as the PhD progresses and you learn more. Your supervisor will probably advise against most of these ideas; what you need to do is to assess the reasons for this advice, rather than going into a corner and sulking. One thing which most students never consider is that a good supervisor will be generating ideas about their own research all the time, and discarding the vast majority of them on various grounds. If you expect to have a higher hit rate than your supervisor while you’re still an apprentice, then you’re being a bit silly.

What to ask for There are various things that you should ask for, with appropriate courtesy, at various stages of your PhD.

From an early stage, you should ask for appropriate training, both in research methods relevant to your research and also in other areas which will help you – for instance, many students would benefit from assertiveness training and relaxation training, as well as time management and numerous other ancillary skills. You should ask specifically for skills advice if you need it (e.g. what is the form of a conference paper; how does one read a paper and make notes about it?) It’s particularly helpful if the supervisor can work through an example with you, rather than just telling you how to do it. A lot of students are embarrassed to ask for this sort of advice on the grounds that they think they should already know it. That’s a faulty assumption. The point of the PhD is that it’s about learning these skills; if you had them already, there wouldn’t be much point in doing the PhD.

When you are at a later stage and have some findings to discuss, you can ask your supervisor to recommend (or introduce you to) other experts who might help. This needs to be done with discretion. Your supervisor will probably not introduce you to someone who will steal and publish your ideas (a frequent source of generally unfounded nightmares for PhD students), but you do need to have enough knowledge of academic etiquette to handle such encounters properly.

What to tell your supervisor

You should keep your supervisor informed:

SUPERVISION 39

• about the state of your work;

• about what interests you and what concerns you;

• about outside opinion: report feedback from talks and papers accurately and promptly; be specific about both compliments and criticisms;

• about decisions and turning points (the supervisor can often provide helpful insight and forestall hasty misjudgements);

• about life circumstances: let your supervisor know about personal or practical matters that are affecting your work, preferably before they turn into a major issue.

Things you can do for yourself There are also various things you can do for yourself. You should keep your supervisor briefed about all of these, in advance. This is partly common courtesy and partly practical self-interest (so that the supervisor can stop you if you’re about to do something remarkably stupid on your own initiative).

Another thing worth doing is to assemble an informal ‘committee’ of people (both staff and students, both in the department and external) who are able and willing to help with your PhD. The key thing to remember is that this is to complement your supervisor, not as an alternative to your supervisor. The informal committee can be helpful for things ranging from low-level logistics (e.g. babysitting) and low-level practical skills (e.g. learning how to use your computer properly) up to general emotional support and specific academic advice on topics complementing your supervisor’s advice (e.g. help translating foreign language articles about your area of research).

Another thing you can do is to give seminars and/or circulate draft papers.

This both gives you experience and provides you with feedback.

In brief, there are a few cardinal rules about dealing with your supervisor which are subtly different from the three golden rules of public presentation described elsewhere in this book. When dealing with your supervisor, you

should:

• be honest;

• be articulate (say what you mean and what you need);

• be informative (keep the supervisor informed);

• be respectful;

• be adult (i.e. responsible for yourself).

Supervisor caricatures Although every supervisor is different, there are, to paraphrase Evingolis, patterns which fall within a frame and we have categorized some classic types

40 THE UNWRITTEN RULES OF PhD RESEARCH

of supervisor below. The descriptions contain a fair amount of caricature, but also enough accuracy to be worth noting. We have divided them into generally bad, tolerable and good, though this interacts with personality types – a particular student might get along well with a supervisor whom every other student in the department finds intolerable.





The generally bad The catatonic: does nothing unless asked; apparently without emotion;

supervision is wholly reactive, as they wait for the student to run the meetings, make suggestions etc.

The sexist/racist/general bigot: ‘Women/Welsh people/arts graduates just don’t have the thrust and drive for research’.

The slave driver: makes all the decisions; treats student like a lackey;

publishes student’s results and forgets to include student’s name on the authorship list.

The generally tolerable The assembly line manager: (‘crank ’em out’) produces PhDs to a formula;

directs students into topics (often subsidiary to one of the supervisor’s funded projects) over which the supervisor has control; usually runs an empire. Will probably see you through a PhD efficiently but impersonally; will probably drop you if you become a liability; will not be very interested in whether the PhD topic you do is the right one for your future plans.

The good buddy: tries to run supervisions in the pub; spends lots of energy on discussing interesting but extraneous topics; knows all about your personal life. This may sound fun, but such supervisors may not be able to provide the structure you need and may make you feel uncomfortable about the degree of their intrusion into your life.

The formal traditionalist: stiff, formal, plays strictly by the rules; may be good for teaching you the formally correct way of doing things. On the negative side, often expects their name on all papers regardless of amount of personal input; usually does not welcome any discussions outside research;

often has condescending assumptions about students.

The absentee: usually over-committed, but sometimes actively hiding.

If faced by this, you need to find out which category they are in. Overcommitted people can sometimes be excellent supervisors if you can catch them (they are often over-committed because they’re so good that they’re dragged into all sorts of responsibilities); actively hiding supervisors are unlikely to be of much help to you.

The schoolmaster: sets assignments, guides with a firm hand, has strong ideas about how things should be (may provide necessary structure in the first year, but may not give you enough room for growth in subsequent years).

SUPERVISION 41 The novice: you may be your supervisor’s first student. This doesn’t mean that you won’t pass, or that the supervisor won’t be useful. Usually these days novice supervisors are part of a team for their first student, so you’re unlikely to end up with a novice as your sole supervisor. Novices can be very conscientious and keen, because they’re keen to get it right, but they will probably not know as much about realpolitik and the field as someone more experienced.

The lightweight: neither a profound researcher nor a deep thinker, but may well be a conscientious supervisor; lack of innovative flair may not impede their ability to recognize good ideas or nurture a good student. If your supervisor is of this sort, then make use of what skills they do have.

The boffin: loves technical detail and gadgetry; phenomenally knowledgeable but loses sight of the big picture (don’t get lost in technical detail – look elsewhere for strategic advice).

The bumbler: well-meaning, knowledgeable and committed, but slightly inept, absent-minded or insensitive (ignore the presentation and concentrate on the substance).

The Zen master: gives cryptic advice, often via anecdotes, parables and obscure references; may give little help with structure or detail, but may work well with a strong student who can handle independence and who can appreciate the insights behind the inscrutability.

The generally good

There is only one type of generally good supervisor:

The idealized academic: respected researcher; experienced supervisor;

approachable; reasonable; balances guidance with license and specific support with spoonfeeding. If you have one of these, you should show appreciation via visible professionalism, and learn as much as you can from them.

Most supervisors are combinations of two or more of these types, and play different roles at different times. A supervisor who’s perfect in the first two years may not be able to support you through dissertation writing. Recognize and use your supervisor’s strengths. Recognize others who can shore up your supervisor’s weaknesses. Recognize the difference between a normal, imperfect supervisor and a supervisor gone wrong.

Strategies for when things go wrong

When, not if: in something which lasts as long as a PhD, and which involves learning new skills and engaging in a long-term relationship with a fallible human being, something will go wrong. The key questions are what that thing will be and what you are going to do about it.

42 THE UNWRITTEN RULES OF PhD RESEARCH

Most difficulties in the supervisory relationship are ‘cock-ups’ rather than ‘conspiracies’. Always start from the assumption that all parties are acting in good faith. As is often the case, prevention is the best cure: if you have good work habits (e.g. networking effectively, keeping good records, letting other people know what you’re working on, publishing internal and external reports promptly, communicating clearly and promptly), then many difficulties can be avoided altogether. Good habits will also make early diagnosis easier. Good communication can usually sort problems out before they become serious.

A classic example is dealing with the supervisor who is never available.

Make friends with your supervisor’s secretary; get to know your supervisor’s schedule; and make sure your supervision meetings are on that schedule.

Discuss the problem with your supervisor. Explain your needs. You may not be able to reduce the travel schedule of an international expert, but you can probably work out means for remote communication, so you can still get advice when your supervisor is away. Use your informal committee to fill in when your supervisor is otherwise occupied – and keep your supervisor informed about developments.

If you are convinced that you have the wrong supervisor and you can articulate exactly what quality or problem is irredeemably fatal to the supervisory relationship then you’ll need to find a new supervisor. It’s crucial that you find the replacement before rocking the boat, otherwise you’ll destroy the relationship you have, and you’ll have ruined your reputation with everyone else. The point is to find a better match, not to throw verbal rocks at your present supervisor. So find positive reasons for the change (different research specialism, better personality fit). The more diplomatically you handle the transition, the better it will be for you and for everyone else involved.

There are some classic problems that are usually fatal to the supervisory relationship, sometimes immediately, sometimes late in the PhD, when change is most difficult. These are in a different league to the inevitable misunderstandings, arguments, disagreements and suchlike that occur in any PhD.

The really serious problems include the following:

• ’isms: sexism, racism, anti-Semitism, etc. Most institutions have procedures for dealing with this. Whether or not you want to become embroiled in formal procedures, you should find a new supervisor.

• Intellectual property issues: ‘absorption’ or theft of work, obstruction of research, suppression of results. Good habits (like letting people know what you’re working on, writing up results promptly) can help here, but sometimes they are not enough.

• Non-communication: when no matter what you try, you can’t get through.

• Harassment: sexual harassment, bullying, damaging insensitivity. Again, most institutions have procedures for dealing with this, or at least a trained person to help you deal with it.

SUPERVISION 43 If you find yourself in any of the above situations, you must proceed with

extreme care and diplomacy. You will need to:

1 Find out exactly how supervision is coordinated in your department; there will be a procedure for changing supervisor. The bottom line is that, once it has accepted you, the university has an obligation to find someone to supervise you. There may be a bullying and harassment policy which is applicable. Go about this investigation discreetly.

2 Establish the paper trail: write things down, keep all emails etc. Write down the facts, with dates and details, as dispassionately as you can. If there really is a problem, the facts will speak for themselves.

3 Consult a third party, confidentially. There is often a designated third party, a ‘third-party monitor’ (whose job it is to review the progress of the supervisory relationship), a postgraduate tutor (who oversees all research student supervision), a professor or director of research, an equal opportunities officer, a research dean. Sometimes there is an accessible Wise Person in the department, often one of the professors, someone who has been around and knows the ropes and who is kindly and sympathetic.

Sometimes it will be easier to speak to someone outside your department.

In any case, choose an academic who is experienced and respected as well as compassionate. Speak as calmly and dispassionately as you can, bring along your documentation, ask for advice and listen.

4 Call in a third party (not necessarily the same one that you consult for advice). It may be appropriate to ask someone – usually someone senior – to act on your behalf. This person can sit in on your supervision, in order to see what’s going on, can intervene with your supervisor, or can help you through the procedures. Choose your third party carefully and listen to the advice this person gives you.

It’s usually better not to get into this situation in the first place; a cup of coffee in a tactful way can make an enormous amount of difference (for instance, a cup of coffee with someone discreet who can give you some hints about your potential supervisory team). Assertiveness training can also help prevent some situations arising.

A simple scheme for effective supervision meetings

• Provide a discussion document: send something to your supervisors a week before the meeting (this can be a progress report, a study plan, a critique of the literature you’ve been reading, an annotated bibliography, data, a draft conference paper – whatever represents what you’re working on). Having something concrete to discuss always helps, and preparing

44 THE UNWRITTEN RULES OF PhD RESEARCH



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