sadness and supervision

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?

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in emotional research, pedagogy, supervision and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to sadness and supervision

  1. Julia says:

    i felt like that when i went on ‘sick leave/suspension’… maybe because i was going away to ‘nothing’; there was no new beginning to be had if I tried to make the most of it.


    • Julia says:

      i realise now I should have specified I was going away to rural retreat… not a land of human connections or of job prospects etc (-don’t want to be misunderstood!). It was about time away from home…


  2. Judith Jesch says:

    Unlike a parent, who never really stops being a parent, the nice thing about being a supervisor is that when the student graduates, they transmogrify into colleague and friend. The level of post-graduation contact will vary in individual cases but the level of the relationship always changes into a more equal one. You may still be writing references and giving advice, but you do that to colleagues and friends too. At least, that has been my happy experience.


  3. am8it says:

    For what it’s worth, at the half way mark, I think I’d miss my supervisor and of course, stay in contact – supervisors are so much more than the word implies, and that relationship built is one that only happens every now and then, and only a countable amount of times throughout ones life (just as relationships with truly great friends), the professional bond is something, I think, not only to be remembered, but to be thankful for, and not forgotten.


  4. Alan Smithee says:

    I guess this determines on the dynamic, some Supervisors have this odd thing where they feel the PhD “owns” them something and tries to make the newly minted Doctor into a acolyte.

    However the must quite common experience talking to peers is simply one of indifference than any real emotion – I saw my supervisor maybe once in my final year and a friend who is graduating this year, their supervisor’s final missive was “That should be fine, good luck with the Viva, Bye”.


    • pat thomson says:

      The binary of acolyte or indifference seems unfortunate. I t has h prompted another post, coming next week.


      • Alan Smithee says:

        Hi, just to follow up, to be fair to supervisors, the indifference bit can be on both sides and influenced by a number of factors – I did my PhD part-time alongside someone I now consider a close friend, we became good friends because we were both very much in the “so you want/need a PhD but don’t want to do one” camp – we both did a PhD because it was expected for progression. For us, it wasn’t the all-consuming thing that it seemed to be for younger full-time doctoral students, it was just another project to get done and was scheduled accordingly, as a result, I don’t think the emotional undercurrent you describe developed.

        So it was as much us as the supervisor.


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