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Supervising the critical student

(5 Posts)
MarasmeAbsolu Sun 07-Feb-16 15:09:35

Looking for a bit of guidance on supervision, more precisely on dealing with one of my student (lets call her Sunita).

Background - i am in STEM, lead a mid-size lab-based group, and have seen approx 5 phd students to completion. All within time, good outcomes etc. I tend to have a mix of nationalities and select students carefully (or as carefully as poss) in term of drive / competency.

Sunita is an international student just about to enter her 2nd yr of PhD. I supervised her Bsc dissertation. She is hard working, a grafter, driven. But Sunita has been compared by others in the group, not unfairly, to Blair Waldorf. She is a demanding princess, and has no qualms of squatting my supervision surgeries, even if it costs others. She already has 2 published papers, and I have supported her very much since starting with her (think loads of pastoral + formal supervision + opportunities).

Her project is on the topic of my programme grant and has got a prescriptive part (the one related to the grant) and a more creative one. The project is demanding, but this was always on the card. I drive my group to achieve good research, but also gain a broad set of skills, for the future (esp. if they are not sure of sticking to academia). I also try to give them an insight into life as an academic (not sure they ever understand this, or the shift between what supervision used to be like, and what it is now).

Recently, Sunita has taken to criticise my supervision very openly, in front of others, complaining I drive her and her project too hard (she is the one coming to all optional supervision surgeries, and complaining when she does not get extra work that I give to others). There is an other group in my unit where students underachieve to my standards (think one big experimental chapter, salami-sliced into 3, with often resub+reviva as outcome) - i think my students feel they have a hard deal compared to them.

Basically, to cut the rambling:
- she pisses me off by undermining supervision constantly, and by being a princess
- students in general seem to all wish for a diluted PhD

There are plenty more anecdotes. However - the girl is clever, but also immature and spoilt. How to best handle?

geekaMaxima Sun 07-Feb-16 19:06:05

I'm in a different field, but would handle it in a way that covered myself in case she decided to lodge a formal complaint or appeal (however unjustified).

For example, you could email her to say something like: you have become concerned recently that she may be struggling with her workload, and would she like her responsibilities to be reduced so she can cope better with the demands of a PhD? Ask her to respond to the email (so you have it in writing), and if she calls to your door to discuss it in person instead, send her a follow-up email to reiterate the points discussed.

I would also give a heads-up to the postgrad director or whatever your local equivalent is.

Personality aside, you need to make sure that you're not actually overloading her (even if she takes on extra work voluntarily). If she says no, she's coping fine, then I would have a word in person about her attitude and how it makes it difficult to provide a good reference. If she says yes, she would actually like a reduction in workload, then do it for a trial of 2-3 months and reevaluate.

A person's supervision style can't suit every student... wine

It sound like you have an annoying clash of styles and/or personalities at the moment, but it's not helpful to write her off as a princess if there's any hope of salvaging the professional relationship for the next 1.5+ years.

MarasmeAbsolu Mon 08-Feb-16 10:37:33

thanks Maxima
yes - good point re keeping it by email, documented. I'll go fwd with something like this.

Re. writing her off - well, I am not there yet, but my entire group is. They've had enough of her demands, inflated needs, and constant moaning.

It partly stems from her total lack of empathy with others' struggle, and how "work works". This is not something we can teach, unfortunately. One of my colleague as a "no hostage taken" policy - you disagree with her, you can take the door. I wish I had such a black & white attitude to supervision ;)

getyourgeekon Mon 08-Feb-16 11:31:16

I would do a few things - contact the postgrad supervisor, as mentioned, to cover your back.

Make sure all supervision is recorded. Our students have to complete an online form after each contact which we sign off. Prior to this I asked students to take notes when we met and we'd review and both sign these at the end of the meeting.

You sound like a very giving and thoughtful supervisor...she sounds like a bit of a vampire and personally I would take a firmer line with her. Deal with any undermining behaviour in public immediately (take her aside and have a conversation about it), don't let her monopolise supervision surgeries and also disengage a bit from pastoral care - focus on her research and getting her to the end / out of your lab!

Andfaraway Mon 08-Feb-16 17:35:28

As the others say, document, document, document!

And bring in PGR Director, or a second supervisor.

Has she been in a public arena when she's had to sink or swim without you? Find such an event for her.

Do you do annual reviews with an 'outside eye' - if not, think about it.

It sounds like you could maybe be very frank with her, and tell her what the consequences of her behaviour are. "I'm not going to judge you, as you are my student, and I know how you work. But others may do so" sort of stuff.

And I really do think PhD students nowadays are not aware of the real demands ... the structures of supervision, and its monitoring - while far better than what I experienced (sink or swim) - mean they're still mollycoddled a bit too much.

I've started a very deliberate discourse around "this is what independence means" with my PhDs. But I'm in humanities.

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