How I broke up with my supervisor



Insitutions are feeling financial pressure to complete candidates within 4 years and put this pressure onto supervisors, who then pressure students. But social media, by connecting students with each other, is giving some the courage to push back against this pressure. Supervisors might feel they are doing their best for a student by behaving as described in this post, but are they really? I’ll be interested to hear what you think in the comments.

I’m a compliant, goody-two-shoes, really. I tried hard to follow my supervisor’s guidance and instruction and respect her authority, but her approach led me to where I was unable to function or make progress. After seeing the student counsellor, and getting advice on how to speak in a clear and non-confrontational way, I organised a meeting. I knew I had to take the courage to address what was happening – or in the case of my progress, not happening.

My carefully worded email to my supervisors said I wanted to discuss our processes at the next supervision, and named that I’d been feeling disheartened and shut down, which I was sure was not their intention. Instead of the usually effusive response, the reply was ‘OK’. I cried a lot that week, and could feel myself slipping into the helpless depression that comes from feeling powerless and bullied.

As it happens I was not trying to do anything too radical with my approach to research and writing. I wanted to understand the big picture of my research field, try to learn some theory and apply it appropriately. I wanted to write about my insights on policy and current practice in relation to my topic area, based on published, scholarly literature. Basically I wanted to come out confident I had contributed something to knowledge via my topic, gained valuable skills and expertise, but still have lots more to learn. Personal growth and insight would come in parallel with the academic skills as part of the complex PhD journey.

This was not the paradigm presented to me in, what turned out to be, my final meeting with my now ex-supervisor.

Her vision of what ‘research training’ entails is to stay totally focused on your topic. My summary of her description is this: Don’t talk to anyone, don’t write anything non-academic. The topic is not what is important – all that matters is getting finished and being able then to move on to something interesting and collaborative. If I asked a question, expect to be told to find my own answer. If that answer is wrong, be sent away to come up with another one. Spend months alone with the data, going over and over until eventually a lightbulb moment happens. Don’t go to conferences, they distract you. Exclude everything else from life until it is done, because it is the piece of paper that matters, and opens doors to other opportunities.

This is the way of modern academia. It’s a game, and this is the way to play it successfully. This is how she had been supervised, with a powerful mentor who fast-tracked her to completion and a high position within a short time of arriving at the university.

This reminded me of when, aged 11, I prepared for religious confirmation, and said to my mother that I wasn’t sure if I believed in god or not. ‘Get confirmed first and think about it later’ was her reply. The process, and deep thinking or wide learning were deemed less important than the status at the end. As an 11 year old I saw the inappropriateness of my mother’s advice, but went along with it anyway. I am better now at standing up for what I believe in. (I’m still an atheist.)

In our last supervision session my request to discuss how we worked, my inability to make progress with her way of responding to my work in progress, the tears pouring down my face, were not mentioned. Instead I was given a description of how they all work when writing an article together: ‘this is shit, rewrite it’, no politeness or support, which apparently ends in an article being finished quickly.

The page from Stylish Academic Writing (Sword, 2012) describing what made a good article, which I had sent in the interests of sharing something I was reading, was mocked as being wrong and not in line with current practice. If I didn’t like this approach maybe I could go (from Health Science) to Arts and find a ‘feminist supervisor’, who won’t mind if I take 10 years to complete (what is that supposed to mean?).

The upshot of this meeting was: “No hard feelings, find a supervisor better suited to your style. I’ll sign the paperwork.”

I don’t doubt that this fast track, focus-on-the-task-and-get-finished-approach is common. It suits the hard, vocation-oriented direction universities are taking. They are businesses first, institutes of learning second. It bothers me, though. What kind of scholars is this fast-track paradigm creating? What impact is it having on the breadth of knowledge and depth of understanding, and the development of creative thinking and opportunities for excellent teachers to pass on thoughtful approaches and considerate practice?

Through social media I have learned that there are alternative ways to approach an idea, learn about a topic, publication and discussion. I know I’m not alone in my desire to learn deeply, to receive thoughtful input, to share ideas and to develop the courage to step out into the field.

Throughout Twitter has been an associate supervisor, guiding me, offering support and encouragement, the latest research about my topic. It’s provided instant community, with a hive mind to answer questions or suggest resources. It has been an important aspect of my candidature to date, and has contributed significantly to the resilience and confidence I feel as I seek a new supervisor to work with IRL to help me get finished in a timely manner, with deep learning along the way. Thanks, everyone!

Postscript 4 December 2012

I wrote the piece above just after the rift with my ex-supervisors happened, when I was full of grief, outrage, and frustration. Since then I have found new supervisors who are determined to keep me focused and finished, but are also open to a diversity of approaches and working in a way that suits me. I had been accepted to present at a conference in November, and nearly withdrew because I was feeling so disheartened, but decided to go, and shake off the previous negativity.

After my presentation I was approached by a respected academic in my field who said she liked my topic, approach, and way of thinking, and was I interested in doing a post-doc? Yes, please! While this was just a casual query, and no concrete offers have been made, as I do have to finish the PhD first, I have been buoyed by this interest and confidence, my work is progressing nicely, and I’m feeling good.