It’s no secret that getting a PhD is a stressful process.
One of the factors that can help or hinder this period of study is the relationship between supervisor and student. Research shows that effective supervision can significantly influence the quality of the PhD and its success or failure.
PhD supervisors tend to fulfil several functions: the teacher; the mentor who can support and facilitate the emotional processes; and the patron who manages the springboard from which the student can leap into a career.
There are many styles of supervision that are adopted – and these can vary depending on the type of research being conducted and subject area.
Although research suggests that providing extra mentoring support and striking the right balance between affiliation and control can help improve PhD success and supervisor relationships, there is little research on the types of PhD-supervisor relationships that occur.
From decades of experience of conducting and observing PhD supervision, I’ve noticed ten types of common supervisor relationships that occur. These include:
The candidate is expected to replicate the field, approach and worldview of the supervisor, producing a sliver of research that supports the supervisor’s repute and prestige. Often this is accompanied by strictures about not attempting to be too “creative”.
The student becomes research assistant to the supervisor’s projects and becomes caught forever in that power imbalance. The patron-client roles often continue long after graduation, with the student forever cast in the secondary role. Their own work is often disregarded as being unimportant.
The “ghost supervisor”
The supervisor is seen rarely, responds to emails only occasionally and has rarely any understanding of either the needs of the student or of their project. For determined students, who will work autonomously, the ghost supervisor is often acceptable until the crunch comes - usually towards the end of the writing process. For those who need some support and engagement, this is a nightmare.
The relationship is overly familiar, with the assurance that we are all good friends, and the student is drawn into family and friendship networks. Situations occur where the PhD students are engaged as babysitters or in other domestic roles (usually unpaid because they don’t want to upset the supervisor by asking for money). The chum, however, often does not support the student in professional networks.
When the supervisor is a high-powered researcher, the relationship can be based on minimal contact, because of frequent significant appearances around the world. The student may find themselves taking on teaching, marking and administrative functions for the supervisor at the cost of their own learning and research.
The practice of supervision becomes a method of intellectual torment, denigrating everything presented by the student. Each piece of research is interrogated rigorously, every meeting is an inquisition and every piece of writing is edited into oblivion. The student is given to believe that they are worthless and stupid.
Some supervisors prefer to stalk their students, sometimes students stalk their supervisors, each with an unhealthy and unrequited sexual obsession with the other. Most Australian universities have moved actively to address this relationship, making it less common than in previous decades.
Captivate and con
Occasionally, supervisor and student enter into a sexual relationship. This can be for a number of reasons, ranging from a desire to please to a need for power over youth. These affairs can sometimes lead to permanent relationships. However, what remains from the supervisor-student relationship is the asymmetric set of power balances.
Almost all supervision relationships contain some aspect of the counsellor or mentor, but there is often little training or desire to develop the role and it is often dismissed as pastoral care. Although the life experiences of students become obvious, few supervisors are skilled in dealing with the emotional or affective issues.
Colleague in training
When a PhD candidate is treated as a colleague in training, the relationship is always on a professional basis, where the individual and their work is held in respect. The supervisor recognises that their role is to guide through the morass of regulation and requirements, offer suggestions and do some teaching around issues such as methodology, research practice and process, and be sensitive to the life-cycle of the PhD process. The experience for both the supervisor and student should be one of acknowledgement of each other, recognising the power differential but emphasising the support at this time. This is the best of supervision.
There are many university policies that move to address a lot of the issues in supervisor relationships, such as supervisor panels, and dedicated training in supervising and mentoring practices. However, these policies need to be accommodated into already overloaded workloads and should include regular review of supervisors.