Community Acuity (7) trust your gut: a cautionary tale for the eager new supervisor

‘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. 

This guest post is anonymously shared in the spirit of helping others to learn.

In Business Schools, we get a lot of applications from overseas students with full scholarships from their governments, often with mediocre proposals (think “dull but worthy”) and qualifications that it’s hard to map onto our own more familiar entry requirements. The best of these are invited to take up 4-year programmes where they study a taught Masters in Research and providing they do well, are offered a place on the PhD programme.

These students are usually from educational cultures that are very deferent, and have an idea of the PhD as just another degree, the next step from their Masters, and a ‘course’ they will follow, rather than the all-consuming, curiosity-driven calling that characterises most PhD experiences. They are happy – and indeed expect – to be led by their supervisor in their choice of topic, whereas applications from most domestic students tend more towards a desire to explore an area they’re already fascinated with.

It was a student from this context that I took on. Supervision is a good thing to engage in for strategic reasons – in the UK at least, your own career status is reflected in the number of completions you have, and a healthy cohort of successful doctoral students is part of the way a university’s ‘research culture’ is measured by the UK government. So, there’s a usually pressure to take on students even if their research interests are not exactly matched to your own, and that’s how my story starts.

I didn’t feel I got a lot of energy and independent thinking from early discussions with David (as we shall call him) at our initial meetings, but he got a distinction in his Masters dissertation and seemed prepared to work with some of the more critical ideas I floated past him. His eventual thesis was probably never going to be a magnum opus but he fitted the entry criteria and was fully fee paying – so what grounds would I have for turning him down? I could hardly write “REJECT: nah, something just doesn’t feel right” on his application and dash his dreams could I? As it turned out, sadly this happened later anyway, and was much much worse for him than not offering him a place would have been.

To condense the next three years into a short paragraph, it slowly became evident that despite our efforts to shape his expectations for the PhD, David only worked when his second supervisor and I gave him a task to do, and struggled with the initiative needed to direct his own studies. His written work was OK but instead of returning successive drafts after our comments, he’d submit new pieces which were often little more than rewritings of texts he’d been inspired by. In meetings he sounded like he’d been reading and we trusted that he had. He seemed to take things on board and we trusted that the written work would follow as the thesis took shape. He was undertaking a grounded theory style piece of work which meant that the scholarly content would germinate from the data he generated – such theses often only really take shape in the later stages of the research anyway, so, with a few conditions and one or two extensions, he passed his progress boards and continued towards his deadline despite us not having seen much work which we were convinced was of a doctoral standard – we were living on ‘not yet’, ‘great potential’ and ‘looks good’. And that proved to be a grave mistake for us all.

The supervisory team continued to comment on David’s drafts – there was much work to be done but the comments were thorough and clear, and discussions felt positive. We appointed an internal and external examiner that we felt were a good balance for the topic, and basically, just hoped that the final draft would come good. The draft arrived only four months before his last possible submission date, and frankly, we were horrified. Very little of our advice on earlier drafts had been heeded, the data were thin (despite months of ethnographic fieldwork) and the findings superficial. My verdict was that if I were examining it, I would only give the work an MPhil award – this was no PhD.

I had trusted in what I saw as David’s ability, and his reassurances, without insisting on convincing and timely evidence, and it would not be an exaggeration to say that I felt like the bottom of my world had dropped out. I’d failed him by being too trusting, being too hands-off and respectful of his own academic processes, by being too nice. And now what the HELL were we going to do? I felt completely at fault for not supervising him more ‘robustly’ during the four years we’d worked with him. I was terrified – how were we going to rectify this within a few weeks? How could we impress upon him the urgency of the situation without paralysing him?

Somehow we managed to get a thesis ready for submission, expecting that he would receive a decision of resubmit and re-viva. We prepared him for this and he knew this was the only way of getting him the ‘extra time’ he needed to produce a doctoral level piece of work. Nothing could have prepared me for sitting in that room as the examiners delivered their verdict: Award MPhil. David looked like he’d been shot, but had no idea why. I’ve never seen someone look like that before – slumped in his seat at the end of the boardroom table, his face full of utter dis-comprehension and despair. He’d failed his PhD. All I could think was “I’ve done this!” He’d spent four years of his life and £45,000 for a Masters degree, with no chance of getting an academic job. And then we were alone with him and I knew I had to get him to go home, to accept that it had happened, to let the horribleness sink in – that he wasn’t going to get a chance to resubmit, and had no grounds for appeal. I felt sick to my stomach, with every shred of professional judgement in tatters – how could I have let this happen?

I will leave you to imagine the heart-rending emails that were exchanged in the days that followed. Starting with despair and slowly building into a righteous anger, I felt a complete shit for not even being able to ‘say sorry’ to David for fear of admitting liability on behalf of the university – plus the detached, rational part of me part of me knew that this wasn’t really my fault. He’d failed because his thesis wasn’t good enough and I knew that giving him time to make revisions would not have changed matters at a viva in a year’s time. David just didn’t ‘get it’ – he hadn’t ‘got it’ throughout the four years of his programme and the only way he would succeed in the future would be for us to edit his work so closely as to effectively write the thesis ourselves. I am well aware that’s how some students ultimately get through the PhD process but I feel very strongly that a PhD should not be awarded at any cost. It’s disrespectful to students who work hard and independently often in the face of considerable adversity to succeed.

But this was not how I felt. I couldn’t hold a conversation about it without crying, I had nightmares, and completely lost faith in my own abilities as a teacher and scholar. Looking back, I basically had a break-down – which was not helped by hearing that colleagues at my former institution where David was still registered were questioning my actions “She chose who as internal??” “Why the hell didn’t she give it to a ‘safe pair of hands’?” “How did he get through his progress boards??”.

It was no surprise to hear that David intended to appeal (despite ostensibly having no grounds to do so) and under the Freedom of Information Act, he requested all supervisory team emails sent about him over the past six months, being convinced there had been under-hand conversations before the viva. I was thankful I had not committed anything inappropriate to email in my darker moments of despair, and instead felt quite pleased that at least he would get to read correspondence that showed how deeply troubled his supervisors had been about his progress – and the lengths we had gone to treat him gently.

But the final blow came when I heard the appeal was allowed by the university – on what grounds I don’t know, since I asked to be excluded from further dealings with David and the situation due to the breakdown of our relationship and for my own wellbeing. But I don’t think it’s too far of a stretch to claim that David’s appeal was upheld because he had spent considerable sums of money, and his Visa status in the UK was at stake. Essentially, he challenged the academic decision of a very senior and well respected external examiner and the university upheld that, permitting him a year to revise the thesis for re-examination by a fresh examining team. And that’s something that hit me hard – as an undermining of my professional judgement and competence as a supervisor by the very people who I trusted to ‘have my back’.

So what have I learned from this painful process? With the benefit of hindsight and some distance from the emotional trauma, the following points summarise my advice:

  • Being tough is not being unkind. The consequences for the student are far worse the longer it drags on.
  • Be clear and honest about the quality of work. Is it really doctoral level? Ask another more experienced colleague for advice if you are in any doubt.
  • Take the progress board process seriously. Treat is less as a friendly chat, and more like a viva for each stage of the work.
  • Keep on top of a schedule for the student. Frequent meetings, rigid deadlines, clear guidance. The clock is ticking – much faster than you think.
  • Evidence your gut feelings – trust what it is telling you, but don’t stop there. Use it as a starting point to gather more data on the student’s actual process, or ability, not what you would like to think it is (because they are nice/ keen/ having a tough time, etc., etc.).
  • Involve others. This is not a failing of you or your supervision, and as soon as you feel uncomfortable with any aspect of working with a student, go and talk to your PhD Director (synonyms: Tutor, Convenor)/ trusted colleague.
  • Ask for the advice of senior colleagues/ PhD Director when appointing examiners. Get their buy-in for your decision.
  • Above all, trust your instincts. If you don’t feel able to undertake the steps above, don’t take the student on in the first place. I realise this is not always possible but if you are ‘required’ to supervise someone you don’t think is really up to the game, vocalise your concerns at every opportunity and use your supervisor reports to honestly register them.
  • But don’t stop being nice, or trusting in a student’s potential. Don’t let a bad experience, (or the worry of one) tarnish your view of all.  We are skilled in helping polish rough rocks into diamonds, and helping discover and develop a shining, glittering person is one of the best feelings in the world.

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.