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MN wisdom needed:PhD supervisor problem (preg DD's DP very unhappy)

(55 Posts)
Isabeller Wed 02-Oct-13 10:53:30

DD and her DP (DDP) are expecting their first baby in Feb 2014. They are both academics, she is now post doc but had serious thesis stress too, I completely realise this is normal and very tough (no direct experience).

DDP worked in industry before starting his PhD, he is an amazingly gifted engineer, gentle, not very assertive and every couple of years has plunged into a serious low mood, for example when faced with some difficult work relationships/non-technical demands. Because he is so technically and academically brilliant and outwards calm and quiet his serious distress is very hard to detect.

He is in the writing up stage and needs more help from his supervisor in order to finish and submit. His supervisor is interested and excited about writing joint papers and conference presentations but apparently isn't reading his thesis drafts unless they are physically together and always starts from the beginning and halts at the first question while DDP wants him to read the whole thing and comment.

I am seriously worried that DDP will have a breakdown at this rate. I am certain the supervisor has no idea that things are this bad. In theory he could finish writing up before the baby arrives which seems like a good plan and he also has a great (research) job offer for after he has finished and desperately wants to get on with it.

DD is his best support and is far more socially confident but she is definitely worried and so am I.

Please advise if you have any ideas at all.

Bonsoir Wed 02-Oct-13 10:56:38

Can your DD not talk directly to her DP's supervisor about her worries? It would be perfectly reasonable to do so.

Kemmo Wed 02-Oct-13 10:57:12

He should speak to his departmental graduate tutor ASAP.

Kemmo Wed 02-Oct-13 10:57:38

I strongly disagree with Bonsoir.

mummytime Wed 02-Oct-13 11:17:59

It depends on the University set up.
First your DD's husband must make it very clear that he needs help to finish the write up as with a baby on the way he will become very distracted. He then need to make a very clear agenda for meetings of what he wants to discuss. Which section they need to look at, and so on.
It is normal to hate your supervisor by the end of your write up (both DH and I did for totally opposite reasons, we see their merits now).

A Doctorate is a process of learning by apprenticeship sitting next to an expert. Part of this involves speaking up! That is why all involve a Viva Vice exam, in the Netherlands this I believe takes place in a lecture theatre and anyone can come to challenge the ideas. My own University strictly speaking allowed anyone with a certain level of Education to attend "if the room permitted it" which is why they took place in very small rooms.

It is a crucial skill for life, to be able to go into a meeting with a clear idea of what you want from it.

I completed most of my write up in the US, relying on couriers (after the postal service turned out to be totally unreliable) as email wasn't very advanced in those days (or my supervisors use of it).

Isabeller Wed 02-Oct-13 11:18:06

Thank you Bonsoir and Kemmo. You both seem to agree someone should talk someone which is helpful (you're not saying ignore or butt out). I don't know enough about the structure to know if there is a departmental graduate tutor but DD will know and I will suggest this.

I also wondered if DD might approach the supervisor, I really really know how difficult it can be when you aren't psychic, he might be very pleased to have a hint that a really bright student is in desperate need of a different approach. At the same time, of course, very very tricky as you imply Kemmo.

Do you think there might be anything to be gained by DD having a word with her former supervisor? no it's all too roundabout and convoluted.

I'm going to see if I can find anything on the University's website. There has to be someone somewhere who can help.

mummytime Wed 02-Oct-13 11:19:53

Sorry what I forgot to say, is your DD's husband should just discuss sections at a time. Not allowing his supervisor to go back to the beginning all the time. He may also want to get your DD or someone else to check it for clarity and grammar etc.

MrsBranestawm Wed 02-Oct-13 11:21:02

OP, are they in the same department?

RakeABedOfTyneFilth Wed 02-Oct-13 11:23:34

Assuming that although he is as you say 'not very assertive' he has at least already said to his supervisor in very clear and plain terms what he needs in terms of review of his drafts and the supervisor is actually being an arse, the next step is to check for any student advocate support, look at the university's rules/guidelines on what is mandated as "supervision" at this stage, then go up the chain to head of the research group, the Dept or faculty, then Dean. But he needs to be clear what he wants - prompt review of his drafts, with comments focussed on "is this clearly presenting a testable hypothesis", "is this addressing the research question", "is this showing my methods", etc etc whatever the examiners will typically be looking for in his field. If the supervisor can't do that, your DD's DP should be asking for someone in the dept to independently review his work.

I had a similar problem nearly ten years ago and I am staggered that research councils aren't yet insisting that students have two supervisors. The killer point to make is that the student is principally funded to write a thesis, journal papers are important to everyone's careers but are a secondary nice-to-have in the context of the British academic finding model (I'm assuming research council in this case, if industry funded prob similar). The student is certainly not funded to boost the publication record of the supervisor and if a letter making such a complaint was sent to the funding body they might think twice about awarding future money to both that supervisor and the dept which had failed to keep him in line.

MrsBranestawm Wed 02-Oct-13 11:24:43

Can DDP submit one chapter at a time and ask for feedback meetings regularly?

MrsBranestawm Wed 02-Oct-13 11:26:12

And what Rake said too.

RakeABedOfTyneFilth Wed 02-Oct-13 11:27:41

Oh I cross posted. I disagree that DD should intervene in anything other than an informal way if she has good friends on the dept who could have a quiet word only. I also think that they/he should avoid discussing the imminent baby - keep it professional and about completing the research in the time that was funded and expected.

Isabeller Wed 02-Oct-13 11:54:58

They are not in the same department, also her PhD was Maths not Engineering but there is a fair amount of mutual comprehension (DD works at a different university in a totally different area).

I don't think he is being deliberately ill-used although probably not being very well or considerately served especially taking into account how difficult he finds it to be assertive (I understand the idea that a PhD is the time to learn to be more assertive).

I don't have enough information to know whether he has a complete draft or is simply asking for a whole section to be looked at but I do know he hasn't been able to successfully do any sort of insisting about the process. This obviously doesn't mean he can't learn to but he is in such a state of depression I'm not sure how.

Isabeller Wed 02-Oct-13 11:59:01

I agree Rake I think if she can think of a suitable ear for a quiet word that is about as far as she should go.

I also totally agree that 'don't mention the baby' is essential grin.

Isabeller Wed 02-Oct-13 13:27:49

DD has read the thread and written this:

"He wrote a complete draft of his thesis a year ago for the job application, but I don’t think his supervisor has looked at it properly, and also some things have changed since then.

He has lost motivation to work on thesis/take initiative himself, because he is convinced his supervisor will want to go through it all with a fine tooth comb anyway/change lots of things, so it will end up as totally wasted effort.

He feels his supervisor never keeps his promises about how much time he’ll give him etc, so he is now always expecting the worst from his supervisor (his supervisor has not been really awful, and does do some things well, although it may be true that he thinks my partner is very self-sufficient and so doesn’t really need much support/he can get away with giving him less).

He has sent his supervisor a couple of emails in the last few weeks asking for a meeting and has got zero response. He’s extremely angry about this. His supervisor probably doesn’t think anything of it/has no idea he’s so angry and upset. I don’t think he’s said in a clear way which he can be sure his supervisor understands exactly what he needs now in terms of reading drafts/his time etc etc. I think he might feel it’s a bit pointless to ask (which I don’t agree with, but that’s poss why he hasn’t).

He finds it almost impossible to talk to anyone about this, least of all explain to his supervisor how he feels.

All the advice given so far is very sensible, and many are things I have suggested, but he is in such a position of disempowerment I think he feels incapable of acting on them. He’s having very depressed thoughts.

I have wondered whether using the deadline of the baby might be helpful – simply to give a reason for getting it over and done with. I don’t think this is unreasonable? But I note others disagree, and haven’t particularly suggested it.

I have also wondered about talking to the supervisor myself, but I think I would only do that if things got even more serious, as it would prob affect their relationship (so cost of not doing so would need to feel great than cost of doing so).

I think what is needed is a way for him to break out of this cycle of negative thoughts about the whole thing, as once he does that he’ll be able to do all the sensible things re: talking to his supervisor etc etc. If he were in a better place he’d be able to do these things. He probably knows himself what to do when he’s able to think clearly."

Helspopje Wed 02-Oct-13 13:34:58

He should speak directly to his supervisor about his concerns. Try not to make it about the baby. Many scientists (and I therefore presume also applied scientists like engineers) have the odd blunt/logic driven trait so can sometimes not realise that there is an alternative way of doing things that would suit others well. I say this because I have been inadvertently and unintentionally guilty of this in the past as has my similarly geeky DH.

if no progress -
does he have a secondary supervisor/mentor that he could discuss with?
is there a college graduate tutor

failing all that - board of graduate studies or similar for formal route (but this shouldnt be required and may sour his relationship w his supervisor - not ideal in the final/post final year which is usually the most productive phase for publications).

Helspopje Wed 02-Oct-13 13:38:49

Forgot to say - might be best to set a target date for submission. My uni required prior notice of which term the dissertation was due in. A deadline distills attention for all.

If he is getting nowhere with the supervisor re drafts, he does have the option of going an alternative tack and suggesting a ballpark date of submission and viva and instead of asking for review and comments, asking for examiner suggestions instead.

I'd aim to submit at about 20/40 with an intention to take the viva about 2-3 months later (quite a short time frame). which might give him a couple of weeks to do corrections and to print and bind before baby.

Isabeller Wed 02-Oct-13 13:50:58

20/40 was this week unfortunately. I was a bit shocked to hear from DD (quoted above) that he actually had a complete draft a year ago but the supervisor hasn't read it yet.

It seems as if the pretty threatening presenting problem was the tip of a much larger iceberg.

I'm not sure how significant the baby's arrival is, it seemed so obvious and tidy to have submitted before but now I can see there are clearly much bigger issues here which could take some dealing with. I think I might need to gear myself up to being a lot more actively supportive than I was planning to be (by extraordinary co-incidence I am 23/40...) hmmm (as in thinking type noise)

I am so grateful for everyone's responses. It is really helping me get my Mumbrain in gear.

titchy Wed 02-Oct-13 14:02:58

Does the supervisor have a department admin person he can go to, to get them to nag him for a meeting? Or go to Head of Faculty (or their PA?). Admin staff can be incredibly helpful at blockage removing....

Dancealot Wed 02-Oct-13 14:10:54

His supervisor is not doing his job. Does your DDP have someone to look after him in pastoral terms? All our University Departments have a post-graduate tutor who can be approached by students if they feel there supervisors aren't giving them the right support. It is then up to the post-graduate tutor to ensure the support is then put in place. Also I agree with titchy- approaching admin staff would be useflu, they will know who can help and how the department works.

creamteas Wed 02-Oct-13 15:14:06

Every university dept will have named person in charge of doctoral students. Ours is called Director of Research Students but titles vary. The admin staff will know who this is if he is unsure. My advice would be an informal chat with who ever this is in the first instance.

There will also be a formal process for dealing with issues such as this, although I know many students are reluctant to use it.

ProfondoRosso Wed 02-Oct-13 15:24:10

My friend had some issues with his supervisor never replying to emails or giving him feedback on drafts (she is now my supervisor). What he did was, after repeated emails to the supervisor which received no reply, go to our department's postgraduate convener. She called a meeting, and a date was arranged for the supervisor to give him feedback on his draft. She kept to this date and he submitted about a month later.

He also voiced his concerns in a feedback form after his viva. Honestly, he has to just push, push, push until he gets the answers/actions he needs.

MrsTittleMouse Wed 02-Oct-13 15:25:16

I'm astonished that the university isn't putting the pressure on to write up and submit. The days when students could spend years on the dole faffing about with their thesis are a long time gone. Are there some written rules/guidelines that he could use to nudge the supervisor along?

imip Wed 02-Oct-13 15:34:02

My experience was over 20 years ago and in a different country. I struggled to complete my thesis, was far too overwhelming and too much pressure. I saw a counsellor on campus. It was free. Might not help with the supervisor problem, but might be good for dp?

LRDtheFeministDragon Wed 02-Oct-13 16:06:49

I've just finished my thesis (in a different area entirely). I don't think your DD should talk to the supervisor at all. It's unprofessional, both for her and for her partner.

I agree he should talk to whoever organizes research.

I might be being really unfair, but I wonder if there's another side to this, though?

It's not a wasted effort to draft and re-draft. It's normal. It does feel absolutely horrible. I had some form of a complete draft (by which I mean, enough coherent words on the page, in chapters, that I could have handed it in with intro and conclusion) sometime in my second year. But my supervisor knew it wasn't 'complete'. So she went through it with a fine-tooth comb.

I did not always like my supervisor's approach (I actually had three, so can compare, but I'm thinking of the one most like yours). I found it slightly annoying that, when I finished, she complimented me on being independent. I wished I had realized I could have pushed harder for help! This sounds a bit like your DDP. So I get that it is annoying.

But, I do think it is easy to get into a state where you start to feel that you can't do anything at all until you solve the problem that you don't like how your supervisor does things. He needs to tell himself he can do this, he's independent enough. He can also push the department to sort things out properly, but I think there's an extent to which he maybe needs to push himself to work in a way he's not totally comfortable with.

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