My neighbours are moving. Their’s is not the only house up for sale in our street, there are three in just one block. It’s obviously the time of year when people sell. I’m going to miss the folk next door, not because we were particularly close friends, but because they were good neighbours. We talked casually when we saw each other. We took delivery of each other’s mail order parcels. I paid their kids to look after our dogs if I and my partner had to be away. They could be relied on in an emergency – I got caught in London recently when the trains were seriously delayed and the neighgbours went in and made sure that the dogs went outside and were fed. That kind of neighbourliness is important, and not always what you get.
This time of year sees another kind of moving too. It’s when doctoral researchers finish. October is submission deadline and there is always a frantic rush over summer to try to get the manuscript sorted. Some of course take a little longer and fall into what in the UK is called ‘thesis pending’. So the mad scrabble of nearly-done-doctors writing and rewriting, and me reading and commenting – and both of us trying to make sure the final text is as good as it can be – can go on until Christmas or thereabouts.
To be honest, the end of any supervision relationship is always a bit of a mixed thing – both happy and sad. There is a slow supervisor hand-over/withdrawal that goes on through the data analysis and the production of the Big Book. As supervisor, this must not be my research and not be my thesis. The doctoral researcher grows into the expert and I the less knowing partner. However, by the time we reach the end, I’m also very close to their work in an un-expert kind of way, and I find this up-closeness can make it hard to get the necessary distance to still be helpfully critical.
But there is also a shared anticipation of the final result, an expectation of the excitement that comes from a successful examination. This anticipation is always modified by the fact that I know I will miss the doctoral researchers I work with – just as I know I will miss my neighbours next door.
I do know that many early career researchers I speak to feel somewhat cut off from their supervisors once they have graduated. For whatever reason, the relationship doesn’t continue. Others have very strong and ongoing connections.
I keep in touch with most of the people I’ve worked with, some of them more than others. However I’m always mindful that they are their own researchers now, and they don’t need me to be telling them what and how to do things. Some graduated doctors want a lot of continued contact and some don’t. Some just ask for references, but what I can say loses currency the further away from graduation we get. I do try to do what I can to help people get jobs and get on. This help ranges from simply passing on information about vacancies and funding opportunities to reading bids, book proposals, continuing to co-write, inviting people to contribute publications to special issues and edited collections, participating in conference symposia and even sometimes finding the odd bit of work on my own research projects. I like to think that I am there if needed, rather than become an obligation to stay in touch with.
But which-ever way it turns out in the end, I know that this time of year is always one of not simply welcoming beginning doctoral researchers, but also saying goodbye to those who have become part of everyday life. Doctoral supervision is at least a three-year relationship and that’s not an inconsiderable amount of time to spend with someone in a high stakes set of pedagogical interactions – these are not simply intellectual relationships, but also emotional.
I always think of October as having a kind of empty nest feeling. Maybe supervisor sadness is something we ought to recognize a little bit more? What do you think? Are doctoral researchers pleased to be rid of their supervisors, or do they feel a little sad like I do? What are their/your expectations of ongoing connection and support?