The big chill



Tolstoy could have been talking about research supervision when he said: ‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way‘.

Supervising a research student involves relationship work. Relationship work can be difficult; when it goes wrong it goes REALLY wrong. But when it goes right, the supervisor/student relationship is the best kind of teaching and learning experience there is. I don’t talk about this positive side of research supervision very often, so I’m going to meditate on how a relationship with your supervisor can bring you joy by telling you yet another sad story (they don’t call me the Mistress of Misery for nothing!).

This story is about a student I know, let’s call him Chung (because not all the fake names I use should be Anglo-Saxon in origin). Chung worked well with his supervisor, in fact, the two quickly became close friends. Both shared a passion for climate science and drinking craft beers. Chung was new to town and his supervisor regularly invited him around for dinner with his wife and kids.

But what really made the relationship work was mutual respect.

While Chung’s supervisor was clearly the leader in the scientific project they were engaged in, Chung knew he wasn’t just another student. He was a valued and respected junior colleague. In the research education literature this is called something like ‘ideal student supervisor alignment’. In less pompous terms, the two had found a way to be friends despite the fact that one of them was in charge.

Chung went about doing his work in the lab with energy and enthusiasm. He is a friendly and outgoing kind of guy who, by his own admission, perhaps spends a bit too much time partying (it’s lucky Chung is super smart and can still make good progress on his research while hungover). Despite this active social life, Chung was not really plugged into the lab culture around him. Secrecy is a bit of a thing in science from what I understand – especially if the work is truly new and still embryonic. No one else was actively involved in Chung’s research, or really knew what he and his supervisor were doing together.

The potential of the research was exciting; they had already mapped out a plan for years of work together. It therefore came as a shock when Chung’s supervisor got brain cancer.

It was a bad cancer too. Chung told me they call this particular tumour ‘the widow maker’ because most people who get it die within 18 months. In Chung’s supervisor’s case it was quicker. While he was still relatively well, Chung’s supervisor went into hospital for a procedure to ease the pain. Unfortunately he got septicaemia and ended up in intensive care. Chung was able to see his supervisor once in the hospital. He told me the visit upset him; the person in the bed was not the person he knew. Chung’s supervisor recovered from this illness, but he was so weakened that all the doctors could do was make him comfortable and send him home. To die.

Chung tried to carry on the work alone, but the image of his dying supervisor haunted him. It was the beginning of a dark time. The work Chung was doing was so bound up with his supervisor’s life and personality that it was a constant reminder of the terrible suffering that Chung knew was happening. He found it harder and harder to focus and the project lost crucial momentum.

The situation was not helped by the fact that we live in a death denying Western culture. All the academics in the department were sympathetic and concerned about Chung’s welfare, but no-one offered to take him on, even temporarily.

Chung understood why: no one wanted to say aloud what everyone knew: chung’s supervisor was going to die. And he did, aged just 46.

While an email was circulated amongst the academic staff, no one in management thought to break the news of his death to his students as well. As a consequence Chung found out about his friend’s death through an email from an administrator asking him to clean out the supervisor’s office. A truly terrible way to hear about losing someone close.

Shortly afterward Chung hit rock bottom.

Everything ground to a halt. Going to work was a struggle. Chung spent hours at his desk doing essentially nothing, while berating himself for not getting a move on. His candidature time was ticking on and the sense of urgency turned into a weird kind of disconnected panic. It was at this point that a friend, who had grown concerned about Chung’s uncharacteristic behaviour, brought him to my office for a cup of tea.

We discussed what had happened and I suggested he visit the counselling centre who could help him deal with the feelings. It was at the counsellor’s office that Chung was able to cry for the first time. He cried for a whole hour while the counsellor sat with him and handed over tissues. On a second visit the counsellor helped him come up with a plan to extend his candidature and ease the anxiety.

Chung had himself diagnosed with depression in order to be eligable for this extension. Chung was not really depressed – he was just deeply sad, grieving for his friend, which is completely normal. It is a bizarre quirk of our system that a problem like this has to be medicalised. Ironically, shortly after being granted his medical leave, Chung broke his right elbow – but he was unable to claim more leave because three months is all you get.

I’m happy to report that, slowly, things began to get better for Chung.

He was given a new panel of supervisors, which was positive, but not without its challenges. No one else really understood the work that was being done and the new supervisors made suggestions which seemed to be tangents. Chung felt a sense of loyalty to his dead supervisor and initially resisted the changes, but he quickly realised this was not a productive way to carry on. He reminded himself that his supervisor was his friend too. His friend would want him to finish his PhD first and foremost. The changes ended up being a good thing and led the research in another exciting direction.

Chung told me he only really discovered how truly amazing his supervisor was after he climbed out of his grief cave and started working properly again. Academics all over the world mourned his supervisor’s death. It was weird seeing obituaries written that said nothing about their work together, but Chung was touched by the obvious sense of loss in the community.

While there is an amazing range of expertise at ANU, Chung needed to draw on his dead supervisor’s international network for help to finish his PhD. Academics from Japan, London, Netherlands and France contributed advice, equipment, samples and data. I guess this is the academic equivalent of bringing around a stew and putting it in the fridge of the bereaved; a tangible form of respect for the dead and help for those who live on.

My friend Dr Tseen Khoo says that ‘networking’ is often presented to research students in extremely simplistic ways and this story is a good demonstration of what gets missed when we think about networks instumentally – for what they can give us. Academic networks are surprisingly robust things that are held together, I believe, by a strange form of love.

Love for each other? Well, platonic love of course (most of the time!). Love for the work? Definitely. My friend Rachael Pitt calls it ‘the circle of niceness’ and we can really see it in operation in this story. Chung told me he felt a bit like an adopted child of his supervisor’s academic family – an orphan now, who needed help and nurturing.

Chung did other positive things. He kept in touch with his old supervisor’s actual family and still helps foster his supervisor’s young children’s interest in science. Chung said he knew he was getting better when participated in a fundraising walk against cancer and met a lot of people who were still in the grief cave. It was only then he realised he’d moved beyond sad into a better place. He still felt the loss of his friend like a missing tooth; but the pain had lessened and in its place was a gap he would just have to learn to live with.

This is a sad story, but it’s also, in a strange way, a lovely one. It speaks of the genuine attachment that academic work can produce between supervisors and their students. Only a few students (I hope) would have this experience, or will experience it in the future. If this is you, rest assured. It can get better. Seek help from your university. The systems aren’t perfect, but if Chung’s experience is anything to go by, there are people who will go out of their way to help you.