Am I a student, or a therapist?!



Last year I published a post called “How I broke up with my supervisor” which detailed one student’s less than great experience of supervision. I got many emails after that post, some with really dreadful stories of neglect and bullying. I decided to publish some of them, with the authors’ permission, because I think they contain lessons for all of us, student and supervisor alike.

I posted one line from this email to Facebook and was amazed at the quick response and variation in thoughts, so I’m sure there will be a lot of interest in this story. Although the student invited me to edit the email post below, I decided to publish it verbatim. Finally, before you ask, I don’t know the names of either of the universities involved…

Hello Thesis Whisperer.

I have been thinking about writing to you for a while with my experience of flawed system that is thesis supervision. After reading the I had to, I am happy for you to publish an edited version of my experience below. Feel free to email me back if you need to confirm my identity so that you know I am a real person and this is a real situation.

I am a part-time PhD student with a full-time, very demanding job outside academia. As a Masters student I was encouraged to consider a PhD by one of my most charasmatic, fun, knowledgeable professors. A few years after I completed my Masters, while still working full time, I approached him to be my supervisor. He agreed.

We were off like a rocket! He and I worked together really well. In the first year I had several conference papers (co-authored) by the third year I had published a journal article and book chapter where I was first author. This was on top of my full time job. I credited the success to two things.

First, he was an expert at the “art of the start”. He instructed me to write papers, submit them often, don’t see rejection as a failure, but rather as a way to get expert feedback on my topic. Go to as many conferences as you can afford, meet as many people as you can, write as much as possible, and conceptualise your topic with cool ideas you can hang a hook on for a career lifetime. I am a workaholic and went down the list. Done. Done. Done. Done.

Sure there were some dead ends, but with so many roads to take who cares? He was delighted with me and I was delighted that he was delighted. We lived a few hours away from each other so rarely met in person and almost never spoke on the phone. We communicated via email and he would respond to me with 24-48 hours. So the second great thing is that he was contactable, seemingly, all the time.

At one stage he actually advised that I slow down and enjoy the process. “The University might look down on someone being able to complete a PhD part time in four years,” he said. “Slow down and start enjoying yourself. Write more. Explore side avenues.”

Then one day he rang me. He told me a few things. First, he got a divorce. Second, his grown kids both moved overseas. Third, he was moving in with his new partner. Fourth, he was changing unviersities. I could go with him to a less research-intensive university or I could stay where I was without him. I advised him not to leave. Never having been out of a sandstone university I was confident he would not like a “new” university he was proposing moving to. He was resolute.

I decided to go with him. That was my first mistake.

Within three months at the new uni he was no longer full time. Within six, he was on medical (stress?) leave. The environment was so bad there he was no longer my supervisor; I became his confidant in all things HR. Within eight months the new uni was ringing me to find some information they could use to fire him. In the meantime I had hit roadblocks with interpreting my data. He was so focused on the vortex of shit he was in, he couldn’t help me out of mine. There is no way he could lead me to completion. I wanted to go back to the old university.

That is where I made my second mistake.

He agreed, and handed me over to a colleague and friend of his at the old university. The New Supervisor is a well-established, world renowned professor at the top of his field. He was one of my Master’s lecturers. His class was amazing and I was excited to work with him. Before taking me on, I gave him the completed 3/4 of my thesis and outlined my work style. I thrive on feedback and requested a 1-2 week turnaround on all work.

He agreed to all of my requests and brought me on board.

Once on board I found out a few things about New Supervisor. First, he has an inordinate amount of PhD students. When I discovered them, they all expressed frustration and concern over the time he would take to get work back to the student–six to eight weeks. When I met with him (once every eight weeks) he would express doubt over the content of my work. It was only three meetings in that I realised he had never read the rest of the thesis and did not intend to. In fact, it was at that stage that I realised he was hardly reading what I had given him at all. Hence the doubts? When I approached the uiversity to find out if he was just doing this to me or to everyone, they said everyone. When I asked them what they were going to do about it, they said nothing. And it was too late to switch supervisors again.

I could go on, but you get the picture. The upside? He was a great editor when he looked at my work. The downside? He hardly ever did. I was supposed to submit within three months of coming under his supervision. It has been a year. I am submitting next week, and I have organised that with the University. He can choose to sign off on my thesis or not. At some point I hope the University will want their money and force the process to continue.

I had already lost a year at the new uni and now I had lost another year at tmy old one. Throughout my PhD experience all my biggest battle has been with the conflict between supervisors and their university: their perception of what their job is (as a supervisor) and what they actually do.

My first supervisor could have/would have got me all the way if he had not had his mid-life crisis. To his credit we are still friendly, still publish together, and he has taken it upon himself to cajole his friend, New Supervisor, into giving me some attention. New Supervisor means well but actually delivers terrible service to me, the University and the Australian government (who is paying my fees). No one seems to care, much less want to encourage him to do better. And no one warned me. I felt that I had done my due diligence by asking around about him but no one would tell me the truth until I was in too deep.

The silent, screaming voices of PhD students subject to the flotsam and jetsom of supervisors’ personal and professional whimsey goes largely unheard by the system. Professors seem to be untouchable, and un-correctable. If one more person tells me to “manage my supervisor” I will deck them. That is like telling the privates in the army to lead the battle. I am tired of leading from behind. Truth be told, I am just tired.

I wonder how many of your readers had a similar experience?

PhD candidate, Australia