Sometimes synchronicity happens. And this time it happened with a good cry. About supervision.
A few weeks ago I found myself walking through the park – the Amsterdam Vondelpark (far too touristy) – in tears. This was completely unexpected: I hadn’t thought about my own PhD for years. It is an awful story: my supervisor died in the last year of my PhD. He had a heart attack. And I was suddenly sad about it. Really, really sad. This hadn’t really happened before in this way, and it is 8 years ago that he died, so it completely took me by surprise. Perhaps these tears that had not been shed before needed to be shed.
Fast forward a week or so, and I get an email from someone who attended the EUI at the same time I did and asked to chat about supervision dynamics and its relation to finishing the PhD. So we chatted, and it was wonderful. And it made me reflect on so many of the subtle and not-so-subtle ways supervision dynamics can go awry. There are so many!
There are quite a few dynamics we discussed in our call. I have been talking to PhDs for years now and my jaw drops when I hear about the similarities when it comes to supervision. My mantra seems to be: ‘It’s not just you,’ when it comes to the more difficult aspects of the PhD: so many issues stem from the way academia is set up, and are not in any way personal.
Supervision is pretty low on the list of priorities for many an academic, and it is not because they don’t care about you or your work, but because their workload is ridiculous. Publications count, the rest…not so much. So to say the odds are stacked against PhDs in this regard is an understatement. (In my own case my supervisor had 12 or more PhDs. That’s not realistic in any way. How is he even supposed to read everyone’s work?) To add to this, there is a category of academics – and it is a large category – who would much rather be working on his own research than engaging with yours, incentives non-withstanding, and surprise surprise, the academic system rewards this attitude.
Now combine these features (structural and personality) with the vulnerabilities of the average PhD researcher. Especially in the first years of the PhD, the PhD tends to be a foggy pursuit for many, and questions may result: ‘Am I really capable? Perhaps I am not cut out for this.’ Self-doubt runs rampant, and may result in shrinking from seeking out feedback. Because you wouldn’t want your supervisor to know how out of your depths you feel…or compound your feelings of inadequateness (Sometimes you are well-advised to not share your struggles, depending on the supervisor in question and their supervision skills).
To round it all off, I have come to the conclusion that women are even more vulnerable to succumb to such dynamics, because their communication style tends to be different from their (male) supervisors. The hard-nosed male academic may not understand what they are asking or needing, which results in counter-productive remarks and dynamics. All of this can be quite unintentional, but destructive nonetheless.
Voila, this is the perfect mix for disaster.
To give a personal example: my supervisor used to remind me I had to ‘work hard’ every time I saw him. I took this to mean he thought I was not working hard enough. In retrospect his remarks probably didn’t mean much, perhaps they only meant seeing me was uncomfortable because it confronted him with the fact that he didn’t give me any substantial feedback to work with, so instead he deflected.
I once asked a male colleague about my supervisor’s remarks (because I couldn’t figure it out, and it was making me miserable), and he just shrugged his shoulders and said: ‘Oh, you shouldn’t listen to what he says.’ And that’s the part which is rather difficult when you are dependent on your supervisor, especially so when you do not know where you stand when it comes to the content of your work. From personal observation I think men are better at not internalising this stuff. (Though men struggle too.)
In my opinion supervisors should be trained to be better supervisors. I think it would save PhDs a world of grief and self-doubt, and far more theses would be finished and papers would be published. Until that time, some tips:
1. You are capable. Don’t doubt this: there is a reason you were admitted to the PhD programme. Whenever self-doubt crops up, know it is par for the course, and it isn’t personal (though it may feel that way).
2. Be assertive. Your supervisor likely has other priorities. Again, this is not personal. So make sure you are pro-active and arrange supervision meetings regularly. This should be one of your priorities.
3. Be pragmatic. What does your work need? What could your supervisor offer? Be as specific as possible. It will help the communication with your supervisor run more smoothly.
4. If there is a communication-style mismatch, acknowledge this, if only for yourself. This may be enough to ease your mind. If things are really bad, counselling may help reframe things. In the worst case scenario, you may need an extra reader or a different supervisor.
I am more than happy to chat about this, and help you out. You can book a coaching session here. Or, take the Stress-Free PhD Programme: it has an entire module on supervision with practical ways to get out of unproductive spirals, and improve your supervision relationship.