Supervision Blog

ally with your stressed students

I guest posted here on the Supervision Whisperers’ blog a couple of weeks ago on how we might ‘design-in’ self-care strategies for doctoral students. In response a few supervisors have been in touch to ask about how they might approach a student they believe to be stressed, without making things worse. Visible stress symptoms:

If you notice that your student exhibits any of these stress symptoms, can’t relax, or is indicating to you that they rarely, if ever, feel like they’re on top of things or in control, it’s probably a sign they need some support from you.

How can you support them directly in a way that doesn’t make things worse, or patronise them?

  • Time it. Choose your moment, don’t embarrass them in front of colleagues, don’t tag it on to the end of a meeting when there isn’t time to have a good quality conversation. Don’t answer the phone in the middle of it.
  • Call it. First let them know that you’ve noticed they are stressed, and, importantly, that you want to help them reduce that stress. You could say: ‘Hi, You seem a bit stressed / like you have a lot on / like you could use a break and a deep breath, can I help?’ Or ‘It’s been a stressful few weeks for you hasn’t it, lets have a debrief and see how we can make it a bit more manageable.’
  • Listen. This is really important. Listen. Just listen. Don’t just jump straight in to advice mode — people often need to vocalise a concern or a complicated issue as a way of processing it and understanding it. Don’t shut that down by shutting them up. Let them talk it out.
  • Master (or Mistress) Plan. Talking stuff through systematically may help them figure out what’s at the root of their stress feelings. Help them make a list, a map etc, that gets stuff out of their head and on to a page/screen. Look for ways to reduce what’s on their to do list right now, what can be worked around, what can be done later. Chunk it down from big picture into tangible objectives. Collaborate together on a plan, on the involves them having time to breathe, eat, sleep and relax.
  • Offer don’t impose. Ask their permission to offer them some good coping strategies. Unproductive coping strategies include things like, wishful thinking, self-blame, excessive worrying/churning things over, ignoring the problem, keeping things to yourself, working longer and longer hours, and alcohol or food abuse. Positive coping includes things like, making immediate (this week) and short-term (end of the month) goal lists rather than long-term ones, focusing on the positives, seeking help to get things done, improving relationships and friendships and taking regular time out to relax or pursue a hobby or interest.
  • Validate the plan. Make sure they know they have your permission to keep  to those reasonable working hours, to take a break, to have a holiday. Rest is important. Sustaining energy for the long game of research is critical. You are the person who needs to say this to them as they’ll believe you.

If you’ve never had this type of conversation before, then this may take them by surprise, so make sure you embed the above by following through on any promises you make, and by checking in with them after a while to see how things are going. Remember what you agreed together, you could even ask them to summarise it back in an email to you, (a) for your records, and (b) to check their understanding. Some other things that you can do that contribute to a culture of reducing stress are:

  • Let students drive, respect their opinion, listen to their voice. Overriding them or taking away control of decision making is likely to stress them further and make them lose trust in you.
  • Don’t talk about your own stress or workload, or how busy you are. However encouraging/empathetic you may think it will sound, what the student will hear is ‘well my problems are bigger than your problems so ner’.
  • If they are defensive about their ability to cope, or get upset about things, try and practice being ‘ok with that’ (it’s not innate, it comes with practice). Upset/defensive is a very normal reaction and it’s not about you. Reiterating that you will support them to find a way through the stress is all that’s required at this point.
  • Know your boundaries and signpost on to further university counselling or GP support services if you feel out of your depth. If you are seriously worried for the student’s safety — try your university ‘critical response team’ (synonyms exist — why not find out now who your key contact is?), or in an emergency call an ambulance.
  • Check your own stress levels and how you cope, anxiousness and stress can spread from person to person, if you’re stressed, you stress them and vice versa. be a role model of all the good practices above.
  • Set out expectations of healthy working hours early in the PhD. And let your students know what to do if they ‘don’t know what to do’.
  • Champion healthy working practices. Be wary of escalating competitive ‘busyness’. Be aware of stigma and challenge the  labelling of stressed students or staff as ‘lazy’, ‘unfocussed’, ‘needy’ or ‘poor’.

Don’t be tempted to delegate this ‘I’ve noticed…’ conversation to a ‘more sympathetic’ colleague (this type of work is often offloaded to women BTW). Your backing and support as a supervisor matters. If they feel you are both working together, and that you are an ally to them, it will make a difference to their perceptions of their situation, and their sense of support and control. And to yours too.

As always, your additions to this list are welcomed, your discussion encouraged. I hope this all makes you feel less stressed. Take care.

designing self-care into the doctorate

Re-posted with permission from my original post on The Supervision Whisperers’ blog @superwhisperer.

Discussion of academic workloads, measurement culture, and the impact of stress on mental health, and wellbeing has seen some recent and well deserved attention. Many of us have known in an uncoordinated, experiential, day-to-day way about academic strain and stress for a while, through doing, supervising, or supporting research work. Those of us to whom doctoral researchers turn when they’re stressed, are glad to see the mental health needs of an at risk group of people being better documented and championed. Continue reading “designing self-care into the doctorate”

Community Acuity (1) the sympathetic supervision of 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 Jane Plastow, Professor of African Theatre, University of Leeds.  Continue reading “Community Acuity (1) the sympathetic supervision of international students”

giving feedback to – or doing feedback with?

Is your feedback missing the mark? I was awarded a certificate for giving feedback about 18 months ago and it’s fair to say I’m very proud of the recognition (I do wish it came with a Bendy Bully though). I’m pleased to be recognised in this way, because giving feedback that helps people develop is a core competency of being a coach (it’s right here woven through three areas of our competency framework), and being a good coach is something I’ve been striving for in my professonal life. Continue reading “giving feedback to – or doing feedback with?”

October is coming…

Dear doctoral supervisor,

“I was blissfully unaware how long it would take me to write up. To be honest I would have preferred a more clear marker from my supervisor, or from the department, saying stop doing experiments now and write! I was expecting someone to say when I had enough data, because I never felt I did, so instead I kept going much longer than I needed in the lab because I didn’t know how much was enough. I feel pretty annoyed about that.”

The 31st of October is coming. I mention this date as we have around 1100 third year doctoral students whose theses are due on that date*. With still 6 months to go, now is a perfect time to make sure that your thesis writers know it’s time to spend some time each week — an hour a day, every day? — writing. Continue reading “October is coming…”

PhD –> postdoc no sweat, or posthoc regret?

I work a lot with stuck and panicking PhD researchers near the end of their time here, and from them I have some intel to share. Bear in mind then that what follows doesn’t represent an ever so typical experience, but it does represent an important and keenly felt negative experience. One we can all learn from as colleagues in researcher development: be your role full time academic superhero and supervisor, or like mine, a specialist learning and development role, I think this will be relevant to you. Continue reading “PhD –> postdoc no sweat, or posthoc regret?”

coaching myths and coaching legends

I teach professional practices in coaching and mentoring* in an education context and have developed some short workshops for academic supervisors and principal investigators that focus on the relational aspects of research leadership and use coaching techniques as the basis for conversations that help people develop their thinking and understanding. Continue reading “coaching myths and coaching legends”

spoon-feeding PhD students – extending the metaphor for supervisory practice

Every so often someone opens their mouth in a meeting and out tumbles “but we mustn’t ‘spoon-feed’ our PhD students – they have to be independent.”Recently, I’ve been wondering in some detail what’s behind this reaction, and how, in my role, I can interpret what this means for researcher and supervisor development. Continue reading “spoon-feeding PhD students – extending the metaphor for supervisory practice”

what is predoctorbility?

This site is based in the data collected from a project investigating the vulnerabilities and tensions in the relationship between doctoral students and their supervisors. It asked about the quality of that relationship: what constitutes ‘quality’, what does quality mean for learning, and how do you get a quality relationship, and how would you recognise if and when you have it?

Continue reading “what is predoctorbility?”

share your supervision stories

This page was used to collect data to inform phase 1 of the Trust me! project. The page and comments section remain open for your reflections, and for you to be able to read the stories of others.

If you would like to, you can still use the comments box to share your experiences of doctoral supervision.

Doctoral students, I’m interested in hearing about what your supervisor does that impacts on you, what makes all the difference, how are you supported, what does good supervision look like, how do you and your supervisor interact, how did you come to trust each other, is your relationship typical?

Supervisors, what’s your approach, where did you learn about supervision, how is it working for you, what does good supervision look like, what are the essentials for supervision, where does trust come from, how do you interact with your students?

Information on this study can be found here. Ethical approval was granted by the University of Sheffield Ethics Committee on 11 May 2016.