why supervisions can be hard

This post is from Rebecca Coles, a doctor-in-waiting at The University of Nottingham. She has recently handed in her thesis (yippee and well done), an ethnographic study examining what counts as ‘education’ at an independent ‘art house’ cinema.

When I submitted my PhD thesis a few weeks ago, I emailed Pat and said “We didn’t always find it easy but we made it! Thank you for sticking with me”. Later in the week we drank a glass of wine together and she said something like “I hope I wasn’t that bad, was I?”. “No, I didn’t mean that!” I said. “It’s just that I found supervisions really hard at first”. What follows is a reflection on why supervisions can be complex and fraught.

Before I started my PhD, I had never before been asked to sit down for an hour at a desk, facing someone I didn’t know that well, and talk seriously with them. It’s not that I’m not used to discussing ideas with people, but that when I do it’s usually with friends and usually in small groups, in the pub or in a reading group. As an undergraduate and during my MA, I discussed more formally in group seminars. This was, in fact, central to how I learned and was the thing I most enjoyed about University. I talk a lot in group situations and often I find out what I think in the process of articulating an idea. One-to-one interactions are very different. There aren’t all these ideas flying around, proposed by different people, that you follow, are inspired by, and then intervene in when you choose. You have half the responsibility to maintain a coherent flow of thought and interaction. As soon as the other person stops speaking, you have to be ready to start.

Also, I had no idea how this one-to-one interaction was supposed to go. Was it supposed to be a free flowing discussion? Or was it supposed to be more structured, more like an interview in which two people assume different roles? And if this was the case, who was supposed to be the interviewer and who was the interviewee? Who was supposed to take charge? Perhaps my slight paranoia about the situation was just a matter of personality. But whether it was me, or whether it was the way the education system had taught me to be, to begin with one-to-one supervisions made me tense and panicky.

Before I started my PhD, I had never been involved in discussing my ideas and thinking process in any kind of sustained way. In group discussions people rarely challenged me about how I knew something, in what detail I knew it, or where the thought led me. In a supervision, your ideas are under close examination, both in a good sense and a in bad sense. On the one hand, you can’t be flippant about an idea and declare, as you might to a friend, “Such liberal bollocks” because you have the vague idea that’s the right opinion and move on. Or rather, I did, but it always met a sceptical glare. You have to justify yourself. This forced me to take myself and my ability to generate coherent analysis more seriously than I had before. A bit like Althusser said: “I was already a Communist so I had to learn how to be a Marxist”.

But on the other hand, the kind of thinking that supervisions requires is not totally open and free. Ideas do not meet a warm reception if they are too out of step with the existent concerns of the discipline, literature or your supervisor. The point is not just to learn how to think but to learn how to produce a commodity for the academic market – a thesis, a talk, a paper, a book. Being a good academic in general, I suppose, involves negotiating between two possibly antagonistic demands – that you reflect on the reality of your thinking process, and work continually to develop it, and that your thinking process be commensurate. But the supervision process was the first time I really experienced this.

Before I started my PhD, I had never been required to sustain a relationship that mixed friendship and professional power. When you have such an extensive intellectual engagement with another person, they feel like a friend. But is your supervisor your friend? There is also a power relationship between you: she will write your reference and she can get you work or not get you work. So there is a second, more personal, level to the dilemma described above: on the one hand you are supposed to be honest and open with your supervisor (as you are with any friend), but on the other you are supposed to be giving her your best performance of being an academic. The relationship, something between genuine affection and practical utility, something between intimacy and performance, is necessarily ambiguous.

The tensions of the supervision process seem tied to the complexity of learning to do any creative, intellectual labour that requires the engagement of one’s deepest subjectivity and thinking processes and at the same time the engagement of a particular subjectivity and way of thinking. Its specificity is that this learning takes place through spoken one-to-one interactions. This was new to me and it concentrated these more general problems in an intense way. If I’m no less confused and divided at the end of it, I’m a better thinker and a better academic.

We’re interested in how this might fit – or not – with your experiences of supervision and perhaps supervising. Why is supervision so intense emotionally as well as intellectually?

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
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11 Responses to why supervisions can be hard

  1. Anonymous says:

    I am leaving this comment anonymously, the reason will be clear soon.
    I do not think I can be the first one to have experienced the dangers of too close a relationship between doctoral student and (male) supervisor, but this is not the reason why I think the relationship is inherently unbalanced and potentially toxic. The reason is that I think the current phd process is not producing what it should, ie good teachers and researchers. I always thought, and after having gone through the process successfully after all (unconditional award), i still think, that it would be much better to have a more structured path, where one is invited to produce what ‘real’ academics have to produce:
    1) lesson plans, and course curricula, and a sophisticated understanding of teaching methods;
    2) at least 3 good quality short publications, chapters, articles etc;
    3) participation at conferences, colloquia, etc, including the organisation, chairing of panels, writing of conference reports;
    4) training in funding applications, and successfull application for small funding for any of the above activities.
    I think successful phd outcomes happen despite, not because, of the current phd curriculum and I argue that my proposal (not thought out and researched, admittedly) is not necessarily resulting in aan easier process, but only on one that is not based on an almost unhealthy close relationship with one senior academic in a position of power, and does not focus on the production of one magnum opus of often questionable quality to the disregard of all the skills actually needed for a successful career in academia.

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    • SheriO says:

      This is really insightful…your need to comment anonymously speaks volume about the power imbalance and harm that could come to you..Academic freedom meet Anmal Farm
      Thanks for the courage though to put these important thoughts to words..

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      • anonymous says:

        Thanks for the comment, and yes I think maybe the idea of multiple supervisors has merit; in a way, my suggestion to reconfigure the phd to include smaller publications (each one having its peer-reviewers), conference participation, teaching, etc., it’s suggested in that spirit, giving the phd candidate the opportunity to measure his/her work against the judgment of many different senior academics, both anonymously, through peer-review, and directly, through teaching mentoring for example. And after we have that phd, and the academic job, if we want it, we can all write a monograph….

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  2. Pingback: why supervisions can be hard | chavdamrunal

  3. Alan Smithee says:

    “current phd curriculum” – curriculum what curriculum? 🙂

    I got on all right with my supervisor but I never thought of him as a friend of that type, we were useful to each other and that is what the relationship was about and still is.

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  4. SheriO says:

    How about multiple supervisors? I came across a paper about this idea ..I guess there are pluses and minuses, but multiple supervisors could give supervision more balance traded off against less intensity. Maybe a variety of perspectives in a multiple supervisor scenario might break the rreproduction of mini-mes that one to one supervision creates. Is the one-to-one fomat for supervision in the education of knowledge producers in need of more study?

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  5. Pingback: why supervisions can be hard | Fabrication Nation

  6. Reblogged this on shakespearescholarinprogress and commented:
    Very interesting post on PhD supervisions and the exchange of ideas and the relationship between supervisor and supervisee.

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  7. Pingback: troubleshooting research supervision | patter

  8. Pingback: What to do when your thesis is rejected by the examiners | The Thesis Whisperer

  9. Pingback: What to do when your thesis is rejected by the examiners - world.edu

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