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PhD supervision- how would you handle this?

(59 Posts)
BellaHadidHere Thu 12-Oct-17 08:59:52

I inherited a challenging PhD student who I was supervising with a Prof.

I'm an SL but very little supervision experience (two to completion, eight currently working on projects).

Prof then left so I was supervising alone. I don't work in the area of this PhD at all. I feel confident supporting methods but absolutely not the empirical/theoretical focus. I'm humanities.

A new colleague joined our Dept who works in the empirical/theoretical area of this PhD. She's an L with no supervision experience.

After she'd been around for a few months, I asked her to co-supervise with me. She agreed so I informed the student, our PhD director and the relevant admin teams that she was doing it.

Meanwhile, she changed her mind and decided she didn't want to supervise this student because it's too challenging for her first one. I get the sentiment but we're massively short staffed and everyone is taking on extra admin, teaching and PhD supervision to keep the Dept. ticking along.

A Prof (who also doesn't work in the area of the PhD) has tentatively put himself forward to supervise with me instead of this new L colleague.

However, this new colleague is really well-placed to supervise given her expertise and I feel that to support our PhD students the best we need to match students with the necessary experts. So it's concerning me that this PhD student will end up being supervised by me and this other Prof, neither of us having knowledge of the research area while our new colleague who has relevant knowledge and could support the student, isn't involved.

The other issue is that because we are so short staffed, we all need to chip in where/how we can and, unfortunately, none of us are able to be picky on some issues. We've been short staffed for some time and when we had a flurry of people leave, I (and many of my colleagues) took on a number of PhDs that weren't in our areas or were quite challenging to help out and be collegiate. The same needs to happen now and I feel frustrated that this new colleague isn't showing the same collegiate-ness that others have/is needed.

So, now that I've told everyone this new colleague will be supervising with me. She's agreed to come to a meeting with me and the student to offer some guidance but will then, apparently, step back from the project leaving me at square one and the student with a piss-poor supervision team.

How would you handle this situation, please?

What I want out of this is for the new colleague to supervise with me because of her expertise and for her to kind of recognise that we're massively stretched and need all hands to the pump.

HouseholdWords Thu 12-Oct-17 09:50:58

I'd talk it through - in pretty much the terms you've outlined here - with your Director of PG studies, and/or your HoD.

For me, this is a workload issue - when you're short staffed, people can't pick & choose.

For your colleague,
a) surely she has to have some PhD supervisions under her belt for probation/promotion (our junior colleagues do).
b) you'll be first supervisor - I'm assuming that you'll deal with the "challenging" aspects of this student. So this is an ideal opportunity to learn about supervision, and to learn about "difficult" supervisions and how to manage them, while offering her expertise.
c) We learn from our PhD students, even in areas where we are expert. I love it - they come fresh to a field I've been working on for years - and offer me new ways of looking at it. It's great for one's own research.

But if I were your DPGR or HoD I'd be close to insisting that she do this.

Also re "challenging" candidate - it's great you have a firm 1st & 2nd supervision system. We do this, for all sorts of reasons, including supporting each other as colleagues particularly with "difficult" candidates. We also have a mentor system - the PGR version of a Personal Tutor. What about asking the Prof who's volunteered (which is really collegial) to be this candidate's mentor. Then there's another person in place if things get <ahem> challenging.

Also, you don't say what the challenges are - but you seem OK about that so can you outline to your junior colleague your strategies for dealing with this candidate to reassure her?

HouseholdWords Thu 12-Oct-17 09:52:27

PS Your post lays out the issues very reasonably. Your colleague is shirking, frankly. None of you has the luxury to be picky!

BellaHadidHere Thu 12-Oct-17 10:56:26

Household Thank you for your response. I'm really heartened to ready your reply as I was worried I was being unreasonable in asking a new colleague to take this on.
I'm glad the post clearly lays out the issues- I've arranged a quick meeting with our PhD Director next week so I'll use my post as a template for discussing this with him (so I don't end up with garbled ranting).

We don't really do mentoring but I might suggest a three-way supervision team with me, Prof and the new colleague.

The challenges are that the student is part time and struggles to manage her job with her studies which means she is silent for months on end then will send a deluge of stuff and expect quite intense supervision before disappearing again. She also isn't up to the standard we should have in our PhD students. We had a terrible PhD Direction previously who basically let anyone in.
I find the supervision even more challenging because I don't know the area at all.

BellaHadidHere Thu 12-Oct-17 10:57:17

Apologies for all the typos- blood predictive text!

HouseholdWords Thu 12-Oct-17 11:19:44

The challenges are that the student is part time and struggles to manage her job with her studies which means she is silent for months on end then will send a deluge of stuff and expect quite intense supervision before disappearing again.

You could use the new academic year/new supervisory team to lay out a new way of working for her.

You recognise she's part-time. That's fine. And she produces work when she can - that's also fine. I used to supervise someone like that who had a freelance job, so sometimes she was completely inundated with work, and then other times nothing - so that's when she worked on the PhD.

What is not fine is expecting intense supervision at random times. So could you look back over both your diaries, and look forward over the next year, and try to predict - or ask her to predict - when she thinks she'll be able to send you drafts.

Then insist that if it's an unpredictable/random time, that's OK, but you need time to read & comment, then you will have a face-to-face supervision.

Or ... take the opposite approach and insist on regular (monthly) face-to-face supervisions, and say it's OK if she has nothing much to report, but try to get her doing little bits & pieces, so there's a more regular momentum.

But she cannot expect immediate intense supervision at random times. She has to think professionally about her life & working patterns, and be a grown up & be realistic about how & when she's working on drafts. Be very matter-of-fact about this - she may feel guilty about her erratic work flow. Accept that's the way it's going to be, and be open with her about this not working for large drafts, AND your workload. And invite her to work with you in making a more productive flow in the candidature.

Tell her this is part of becoming an independent scholar - it's her degree (you've got all the degrees you need grin )

She also isn't up to the standard we should have in our PhD students

She will improve, with consistent work, and really getting the hang of a different meaning of the words "independent studies." I had one student - terribly nice & hard-working - who I thought was going to break me, he just wasn't producing writing above a really bright 3rd year UG level. But something happened in his (inevitable) 4th year, and he sailed through her viva. Something just clicked - I must ask him now what it was that caused him to step up to the level needed. His 2nd supervisor was utterly brilliant about tactful ways to say "This isn't good enough" and as 2nd supervisors at my place just come in every 6 months or so, maybe that fresh outside voice helped.

BellaHadidHere Thu 12-Oct-17 11:31:53

Households Part of the reason for me getting this new colleague on board was so that I could start the new academic year afresh with her. I'd thought we could have an initial meeting where we set some ground rules for supervision (e.g. work handed in every two months) then going forward we'd have a good team and a clear direction. So much for best laid plans and all that...

I agree I think she will get better at writing but I do think this is also to do with me as a supervisor. As I don't know the area well, I can't recommend her texts to read and write about in a critical, reflective way. This is what I normally do for students who aren't great at writing. The student's also quite resistant to criticism and has, on a number of occasions, disregarded my comments on her work.

HouseholdWords Thu 12-Oct-17 12:27:31

I can't recommend her texts to read and write about in a critical, reflective way.

That's her job! You could still set that as an exercise, but challenge her to find the texts which are forming the field at the moment. You could advise her that she can check this by reading the last couple of years of book reviews in her specific sub-field.

So it's excellent bibliographic training as well!

And students disregard your comments at their peril. Not much you can do, except shrug and advise her that her thesis will be sent back for major corrections.

If your department has annual formal progress reviews, with someone outside the supervisory team reading a draft chapter (that's what we do) then she'll get that feedback from other sources as well.

I'm realising as I write that although at my place we sometimes feel things are overly managed & bureaucratic at PhD level, our standard processes would really help in the sort of situation you're in. So maybe there is a point to bureaucracy sometimes wink

Good luck!

Ellboo Thu 12-Oct-17 18:08:44

I also (and am definitely 100% projecting my own departmental dynamics into this) think that asking HoD to (politely) insist is better than working around it and muttering from the sidelines about shirkers in a slightly passive aggressive fashion. There has been a lot of resentment about uneven teaching load in the two departments I’ve worked in but infuriating how much of this is conducted via raised eyebrows, muttering in corridors and pointed statements in meetings directed at ‘nobody in particular’ about how we all need to chip in, rather than someone leading the department properly. Rant over!

ManInTheMoonMarigold Thu 12-Oct-17 22:21:02

Your department could get into all kinds of problems if this student doesn't finish on time and then claims it was due to inadequate supervision. I would go to your HoD and stress how very bad it would be for the department were such a thing to happen when it could be avoided.

ghislaine Thu 12-Oct-17 22:33:50

Definitely raise this with your HoD (assuming you don't have a director of graduate studies). It's his/her job to manage the department and that includes balancing workloads and ensuring that PhD students get appropriate supervision in order to complete on time.

I find it unbelievable that a new, junior colleague has decided to dip out of part of her job because she thinks it's too hard!

Is it also possible to include the Prof as well and have a three-person supervisory team? We sometimes have these to accommodate gaps in experience/expertise.

BellaHadidHere Fri 13-Oct-17 08:22:06

Thanks for the comments. I absolutely don't want to be one of those muttering, raised eyebrow people. That's why I'm going to see my Director of Graduate Studies about it. He's brilliant and, if necessary, will liaise with the HoD about workload issues.

I find it unbelievable that a new, junior colleague has decided to dip out of part of her job because she thinks it's too hard!

She was also actually complaining that the admin role that she's been given isn't appropriate for her. I can see where she's coming from because her admin role is about a programme she doesn't teach on but we were told last month that we'd all have to take on extra admin burden so people might end up with two or three admin roles and roles that they're not necessarily perfectly suited to.

I'm going to tell DoGS that this student does have very legitimate grounds for complaint as she's been pushed around supervisors a bit then has been told a new (very appropriate) supervisor is coming on board who's then said "actually no".

There's definitely the possibility of a three-way supervision team which is what I'm going to suggest. So I stay on because I've been involved for a while, the new colleague comes in as the person with expertise in the area and the Prof comes on to support us as we're both relatively inexperienced. Sounds fine to me, what do you think?

When she told me the other day that she'd changed her mind, I was completely dumbfounded and I really regret that I wasn't more forceful in expressing my frustration and disappointment. I don't mean have a massive go at her but I just kind of went shock "Oh okay, well let's have a meeting with the student and see where we go from there". It was only after she left my office that I wondered why on earth I didn't say "Well actually, you already agreed to this. Why didn't you just say "no" in the first place? We can't be picky because we're short staffed. I'll need to discuss this with DoGS" yadda yadda.

Instead, I stood there like an idiot so now I'm worried that she thinks it's all resolved (i.e. that she won't be involved in supervision) and me going to DoGS about this might be perceived as me going behind her back or dobbing her in. I don't want to sour relations with a new (and seemingly well-liked, certainly very well-protected) colleague but OTOH, I do think she's being unreasonable.

Saltwort Fri 13-Oct-17 12:05:33

The new colleague probably foresees that the demands will only increase, feels a bit shocked at beginning teaching (if they haven't had a teaching and research role before?) & is trying to protect their time. If the student has been presented as being challenging then they are probably trying to avoid eating that particular frog, even if they really should.

For what it's worth, I'm responding less to appeals to morality and collegiality now since my male colleagues often don't.

PhD supervision shouldn't be that big a job. It's not your job to go beyond the bounds of what is reasonable so she can finish, or indeed to effectively do it for her. If it's an obvious thing that your colleague join the team, then go up the line, perhaps see if something else can come off her workload in exchange to make it more palatable.

It doesn't sound as if your student has been that badly treated - they have had supervision throughout. Supervisors do leave (or get sick or take parental leave or pass away). It's not the department's job to ensure that the exact same expertise is available. The student chooses their area of research and by the end of first year should know more about it than their supervisors in any case. And it's their choice to do a PhD while working.

I felt enormous responsibility at first towards my weakest PhD students - but in the end they finished because they decided to finish. I learned a lot from that and now restrain my instincts to 'save' them.

HouseholdWords Fri 13-Oct-17 14:09:22

Your department could get into all kinds of problems if this student doesn't finish on time and then claims it was due to inadequate supervision.

Keep records. Keep every email enquiring about her work, every email laying out a schedule.

Get your PhD student to write a short summary of each supervision , as a kind of reflective journal, and send them to you as well.

Keep copies of drafts you've read & annotated.

If you have all these records, then you can show that supervision was thorough, adequate and detailed. And possibly imply, without having to say in black & white, that the student was capable, or didn't keep their side of the supervision bargain.

HouseholdWords Fri 13-Oct-17 14:11:34

So I stay on because I've been involved for a while, the new colleague comes in as the person with expertise in the area and the Prof comes on to support us as we're both relatively inexperienced. Sounds fine to me, what do you think?

Excellent. Sounds watertight from all sorts of angles, and really appropriate for this student.

I'm sure you're not as wanting as you think you are as a supervisor for this candidate grin Look, most of us can read something scholarly outside of our own area and make a pretty good case for its efficacy and cogency.

BellaHadidHere Fri 13-Oct-17 14:18:45

Saltwort I completely agree about saying "no" because our male colleagues seem to do this a lot. However, male colleagues in my department have actually been great while we've been short-staffed and I don't see a gender divide. Absolutely not denying it's a problem more widely though.

I think you're right that she's protecting her time and is cautious about demands increasing. I completely understand and support her in that sentiment. But, she has no PhD students, a very minor admin role and she has some of her teaching time protected for developing new materials. When the rest of us have tonnes of PhD students in all different areas (i.e. not necessarily related to our expertise) and are having to take on additional admin, her protecting her time isn't a valid argument. It's all hands to the pump.

Plus, she genuinely is the best person in the department to supervise (as a team) this student. It's not like I'm just trying to recruit her randomly because I need any old person.

FurryGiraffe Fri 13-Oct-17 14:20:35

I'm finding that a lot of new probationary lecturers these days are quite good at saying 'No' about workload related matters. I'm beginning to think it must be taught on PhD programmes these days.

I veer between admiration for them sticking to their guns, and irritation at the occasional impression that they are actually quite workshy like the colleague who claimed his mental health would suffer if he took a single extra first year tutorial for one week while another colleague was signed off sick

BellaHadidHere Fri 13-Oct-17 14:22:11

Household I've kept everything. From now on I will encourage the student to make her own notes of the supervision. I have kept all chapters that I've commented on which clearly demonstrate I've given her very extensive support which she hasn't particularly responded to.

I'm a good supervisor for sure but the student is doing work in a very hotly debated, contested and fast-moving area of the discipline which I have no clue about. I feel the new colleague would be able to engage her in these debates and point her in the right direction whereas I absolutely can't. The student isn't great at finding this literature herself - she has very limited academic background (comes from practice).

BellaHadidHere Fri 13-Oct-17 14:24:22

Furry That's really interesting. I'm not in a management role so I don't get to see people's patterns of saying "no". I think it's a good thing that ECRS (esp. women) are able to balance their work well and have the confidence to do so. However, it can go too far as with my colleague and your tutorial-dodger grin

FurryGiraffe Fri 13-Oct-17 14:32:51

I think it's a good thing that ECRS (esp. women) are able to balance their work well and have the confidence to do so. However, it can go too far as with my colleague and your tutorial-dodger

I agree really, especially for women. We’re far too apt to people please and say yes while our male colleagues say no/just don’t do it and get away with it.

I just wish I’d had the gumption to do it myself grin

BellaHadidHere Fri 13-Oct-17 14:36:30

We're being asked to take on more and more admin roles as we're so short staffed. There are about seven admin roles to fill with varying degrees of responsibility. I am determined to say "no". I already have a medium-sized admin role and lots of PhD students.

I always feel terribly guilty when I say "no" and I ended up losing my whole summer because I'd originally said "no" to something but then it was all going tits up because no-one else took it on so I ended up doing it anyway. Fucking idiot.

FurryGiraffe Fri 13-Oct-17 14:47:18

We sort of have the opposite problem. We’ve expanded hugely, so lots of new staff, but all ECRs and no experience/can’t give them anything big to do. Then there’s the people who don’t get given significant admin because they screw it up. So we have the bizarre situation of trying to ‘invent’ admin roles for the juniors while a select band of competent people with permanency try and juggle the big admin jobs.

One of my colleagues (lecturer) has missed interim REF deadlines but HoD still wanted her to take on massive admin job, despite her having only just escaped a different one. I told him it was crazy and unfair to her and he was damaging her career. His response was ‘but I don’t have anyone else to ask’.

Try asking one of the lazy fuckers who always wriggle our of admin

HouseholdWords Fri 13-Oct-17 15:31:34

I veer between admiration for them sticking to their guns, and irritation at the occasional impression that they are actually quite workshy

Me too.

I pride myself - as a senior person & rapidly becoming a senior professor even - that I muck in with everyone else from PhD tutor to other professors. But I have seen some rather entitled behaviour from bright young things. But then I thin, no-one should have to work like I have to ...

Summerswallow Fri 13-Oct-17 16:29:18

My guess is that someone senior told them this PhD student was tricky and not to do it. I've turned down someone on that basis when I was junior, rather none than a very unlikely to submit/difficult student.

That said, you could ask HoD, appeals to her collegiality aren't going to work (and maybe rightly so if she's being asked to inherit someone else's mess).

Slightlyperturbedowlagain Fri 13-Oct-17 16:42:00

This is exactly the kind of situation that drives me crazy in HE- the lack of management impetus to insist specific academics include specific tasks as part of their workload allocation. Never come across the 'volunteerism' culture to this extent in other structures I've worked in. Everywhere else I've worked the line managers look at the extra tasks and hand them out, then everyone gets on with it. Ok there might be room for a discussion and negotiation sometimes but at the end of the day if it's on your list you have to come up with the goods.

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