Who is the client for your PhD work?


Who is the client in your relationship with your PhD supervisor? No, really; who sets the scope of work, and who provides a professional service?

I know it’s heretical to bring consulting language into the hallowed halls of academia, but trust me on this one. Seeing yourself as a client seeking the specialist advice of a consultant could change the dynamics between you and your PhD supervisor. It could certainly give you the confidence to assert your right to the quality and quantity of guidance, feedback, and subject matter expertise that you require.

A client always has the right to demand (in the most courteous, professional way possible, of course) that the scope of work agreed to with their service provider has been fulfilled – or amended by mutual agreement.

If your supervisor is not providing clear, constructive guidance, or not doing so in a timely manner, as their client you have the right to ask for better service. Of course, as the client, the onus of responsibility rests on you to set clear expectations from the beginning. What is it that you can and can’t do yourself? What sort of support do you require to get you through the PhD process?

Now, that does not mean the client is always right.

In my experience as a consultant, the client rarely, if ever, knows what they really need. That’s why they hire external specialists with the expertise that they themselves don’t have. If you could conduct a major research project and write a book about it all by yourself, would you still be enrolled at a university to do so?

It is the job of the consultant to work with – not just for – the client in understanding, and then fulfilling, their requirements. This does not mean writing a thesis for you, but a good consultant will go above and beyond the bare minimum of the terms of reference. They will ‘value add’ (sorry, last bit of consulting-ese, I promise) by knowing what the client doesn’t know that they don’t know.

Let me clarify. The client will always have some idea of what they themselves lack in terms of knowledge or skills, and that’s why they hire external specialists. But they don’t know what they don’t know.

In the case of a PhD, you might be passionate about a particular subject but have no idea about the best theoretical framework for analysis. All supervisors should be able to assist with that. All supervisors who are also excellent service providers should be able to advise you that, for example, using a particular theory will align you with a school of thought that is falling out of favour in your field and could limit your post-PhD career options.

That’s the value add – something potentially significant to you that you didn’t even know you should ask about.

But PhD supervisors are rarely taught how to be excellent service providers to their PhD student clients. Scratch that – supervisors are rarely taught how to do the bare minimum as PhD supervisors. While prospective students have to go to great lengths to prove they are worthy of starting a PhD, no such qualifications exist for their supervisors.

That’s why it’s important to see yourself as a client; to be clear about the services you require, to set expectations about quantity and quality of guidance, and to establish time frames for deliverables (e.g., feedback from your supervisor on your drafts). And as a client, you should do your due diligence on prospective supervisors before you commence your PhD.

Unless you’re in the sort of program where a supervisor is allocated to you, you should be able to vet some candidates for the job.

How many PhD students have they supervised or co-supervised? How many of those students successfully completed their PhD under that supervisor? A high drop-out rate should be a big red flag for you. A savvy client will never hire a consultant with a reputation for shoddy work or not fulfilling their obligations.

If you can, speak to any current or past students of your potential supervisors to get their impressions. Is the supervisor frequently away or constantly busy with other research projects? They may be a ‘god-professor’ in their field but that doesn’t mean they’ll have time and energy to be great mentors. Sometimes basic administrative skills are more valuable in a supervisor than in-depth knowledge of some obscure theorem.

There are simple ways to gauge the professionalism of your prospective service provider/supervisor. Do they respond to emails promptly? Do they address all your questions? Do they know the university’s admissions process, or do they think paperwork and bureaucracy is beneath them?

You don’t want to find yourself in a position where your PhD is dragging on because your supervisor has failed to sign off on your milestone reports or forgotten to tell you that the university won’t allow you to submit your thesis until you do one more presentation. And you don’t want to turn up to meetings with your supervisor only to find that they aren’t there because they didn’t put it into their calendar.

You also shouldn’t have to waste time waiting for feedback because your draft chapter got lost at the bottom of your supervisor’s email inbox.

Obviously you won’t know the extent of your needs and the extent of (in-)competence of your supervisor until you start your PhD. But as a client, know that you are within your rights to change service providers if you are not getting the support you require. Your school’s research skills adviser should be able to provide you with guidance on how to do this, or whether it’s the right decision for you.

And don’t forget that you can supplement your supervisor’s services with specialist expertise from elsewhere. For example, there is an active and supportive community of scholars from every discipline on Twitter and using hashtags such as #PhDchat can connect you to people the world over with similar problems or requirements to yours.

So, who’s the client and who’s the service provider in your relationship with your PhD supervisor?

Author Bio: Paula Hanasz  has recently completed a PhD on transboundary water conflict and cooperation in South Asia. Paula has worked as a national security consultant and continues to provide freelance social research, business writing, stakeholder engagement and policy analysis services to government and NGO clients.