Community Acuity (2) kindness and tough love: interacting with international students

‘Community Acuity’ blog posts are from supervisors, to supervisors. They share the thoughts, experiences and reflection of the highs and the challenges of supervising doctoral students. See also #comacu on the @predoctorbility Twitter.

This post is by Dely ElliotLecturer in Education (Creativity Culture and Faith), University of Glasgow.

I am inspired by articles that I have read as well as a few events that I participated in recently, which impressed on me the idea that PhD supervision style tends to be strongly informed by one’s own experience of being supervised. Often, there are tacit traces of good supervisory examples, which were previously observed from the PhD supervisors’ own supervisors.

Even the not-so-helpful experiences can serve as reminders that there are certain approaches supervisors should avoid. This suggests that regardless of whether the experience is positive or not, there is always some cascaded impact – like remnants from one’s experience. This agrees with my personal view that ‘every interaction is a potential source of valuable learning’.

As a PhD student, I shared all the academic-related challenges experienced by my fellow doctoral students. Achieving a PhD is a tall order after all. On top of that, being an international student also brought about a very distinct set of experiences – struggle, but also fascination – that led to a personal journey of broadened values, beliefs and mindsets. It is, in fact, a type of learning that was beyond what I originally anticipated and aspired to.

Standing now on the other side of the fence, so to speak, being a PhD supervisor to other international students is such a privileged position to be in. Reflecting on my earlier supervision experience and on negotiating between old and new understandings of what a PhD entails offered valuable insights that can guide and assist my own approach to supervision; this seems to confirm the idea above – our personal experience is what’s behind our supervision style.

Since PhD supervision covers such a broad area, let me focus on discussing observed supervisor-student interactions, in order that this post might prompt evaluation of your supervisory behaviours: what is kind and useful, and what might be regarded as kind, but could actually obstruct PhD students’ progression.

But, why focus on student-supervisor interactions? In the UK, where PhD study has traditionally adopted an ‘apprenticeship model’, the majority of students undertake research with a potential original contribution to knowledge, under the guidance of academic experts. This is complemented by the workshops, seminars and other events available within and outwith our institutions. This model implies that the interactions between students and supervisors are central to the PhD process.

Observation and informal conversations with international PhD students, particularly those who come from cultures where there is a great deal of respect for authority, reveal that they value the friendly and informal interaction for which British academics are well known. Although local students may not find it particularly distinctive as it is common practice in their context, it continues to amaze international students especially if they have been exposed to a rigid hierarchical structure (academic and non-academic) back home – something embedded in their psyche since childhood. Just to be able to enjoy casual and easy-going discussions with their supervisors and have the privilege of calling them by their first names is regarded a breath of fresh air.

The literature confirms that students do appreciate this element of an international PhD education. From experience, I know that the warmth, friendliness and acts of kindness received by a ‘foreign’ person from the locals (including non-academics) can make a qualitative difference to their sense of wellbeing and general adjustment. The informality in this style of educational interaction can convey a general feeling of being welcome and, in turn, greatly facilitates settling in in a new environment.

It’s fair to say that most international students appreciate this. It does not really matter where they are from originally. They all go through a transition process and each transition can provoke anxiety of various types. Even when adjusting academically, these informal relationships can tacitly play a role as they communicate some powerful messages of belonging and support. As supervisors, our considered input in this transitioning process is important.

This is why a friendly and informal exchange is particularly important in PhD supervisory relationships – it is something that stays with students long after returning to their respective countries. Take note though, moderation and balance are required, to avoid unconsciously promoting a sense of dependency, or giving students the impression that PhD standards can be lowered to help them pass. Amidst friendly interactions, students (and their supervisors) should not lose sight of the expected requirements in gaining a PhD. Such ‘kindness’ might feel like ‘receiving support’ but it is likely to end in tears.

For example, supervisors need to convey clearly to students that going through the ‘painful process’ of what seems to be never-ending revision of doctoral writing, is not a reflection on their relationship, but is a crucial element of the PhD. Supervisors endeavour to guide their students to the finishing line and this inevitably involves revising work as ideas develop.

Perhaps, it is even worth impressing from the very beginning that the whole supervision process is a partnership, a shared effort, and an ongoing formative assessment where supervisors’ feedback and critiques aim to improve, enhance and bring out the best in their student’s work.

Kindness needs to be balanced with tough love. The idea of ‘authoritative parenting’ comes to mind and is perhaps a good metaphor. Whereas concern and support are given, supervisors who have a much better idea of the standards need to articulate gently the importance of meeting these standards and that together, they and their students can strive to meet them.

Ideally, it would be great to see international students continuing a healthy relationship with their supervisors years after completing their studies. It is worth remembering though that this hinges not only on friendly interactions but on students achieving what they set out to accomplish in the first place – a PhD.

Author: predoctorbility

I design researcher mentoring and coaching programmes, partnering researchers at all career stages with academic and non-academic mentors. I use research data to ensure programmes are aligned to the researcher voice, are situated in academic development, and fit with the current researcher career landscape.