This guest post is written by Raquel Da Silva. Raquel is a PhD student at the University of Birmingham at the Institute of Applied Social Sciences. Her research is about the life stories of former political violent activists in Portugal. She can be found on twitter as @RaquelBPSilva. Raquel’s post is about the importance and nature of the doctoral researcher’s relationship with their supervisor(s).
Today is a sad day. Five years ago my MA supervisor passed away after a long and brave struggle against cancer. She was a fabulous woman and a great teacher. She loved her work and her enthusiasm for research and for social justice were incomparable. She was also very attentive and supportive of her students, rejoicing with their achievements.
I will never forget the day she arrived at the classroom and told me: “You finally did it, I was waiting for this day!” I had had an A+ in one of her mini-tests, which I had been trying for for a while. I will also never forget the day she taught us about terrorism and how it influenced my research path, to the point of walking up to her at the end of the lecture and asking if she would be my MA supervisor if I chose to study terrorism. She looked puzzled for a moment, but then said: “Well, if you ever get respondents, yes!” I am not sure if she believed at that moment that I could do it, but she lay down a challenge, threw me into the race and stood around to support me.
Even after being hospitalised she chose to keep supervising me and always answered my e-mails, read my chapters and gave me helpful feedback. At the end of my thesis she was already back to work and I had the privilege of having her seated at my Viva, encouraging me and sharing such an important moment. At that point she had hired me as research assistant and we were planning my PhD and several other academic projects. However, I kept seeing her tired and weak, but fighting and doing what she loved. The last time I saw her she was quite unwell, but kept encouraging me about the future and we even wrote a conference plan together.
Before I left she told me about a couple of British researchers working on terrorism that she had invited to come to our country to meet us and start collaborating. She said I could do my PhD with her, but it would be great to work with these contacts too. At the time I did not give it much thought. I did not want to. I did not want to imagine that maybe I would have to work with someone else, that some day in a near future she could not be there anymore, which sadly happened in less than a month.
What prompted me to share this story was not a mere desire to blow off today’s steam, shed some tears and go to bed, but a desire to show how important supervisors are in the life of their students, independently of what they are doing or at what level they are. And I am not talking about a personal relationship, I never had a personal relationship with my MA supervisor. I am talking about mentorship, about an educator taking responsibility for a learner and walking with her the academic path whatever its length. I am also sharing this story, because I miss my MA supervisor dearly and would like all supervisors to be like her. I would like to be like her one day.
My initial PhD supervisors are good people, do not get me wrong, but they were not right for my topic and lost interest quickly. They received me very well and were quite excited to have me around, however their workload and all their commitments rapidly got in the way and I would only see them for a short monthly meeting, which was neither exciting nor fulfilling. And so I spent the first three years of my PhD. I did do the work I had to do (surprisingly!). I also did all sort of other exciting things that kept me busy and taught me a lot. However, I did not do much writing. They never asked for it and I always had something else to do: a conference to go, a workshop to organise. However, reality hit me hard at the end of my third year: I had one year left, a couple of half written chapters and no support. In the meantime, my lead supervisor had left University and I hadn’t seen her for six months, even if she was supposed to keep supervising me.
I felt that I had to do something, I needed help (by that point I was pretty desperate). So, I started knocking at all doors where someone seemed able to help me. I needed a new supervisor! Various doors did not open and I don’t blame them. Who on heart would accept a fourth year PhD student, who had good plans, but not much to show? I knew I could do it, I just needed someone to believe it and help me putting it into practice by reading my chapters and being very honest, critical and supportive.
I can gladly say that there was one person who took the leap of faith and we started a great journey. This supervisor made me remember what supervision really is. He started by saying that we would have to meet regularly and from the beginning he always read carefully and gave detailed feedback on everything I sent his way. After very little time, despite not being an expert on my exact field, he got very excited with my work and became a great source of enthusiasm and encouragement. Again, I had someone there for me and it felt so good.
I will not say that it was not tough at times, it was a race against time! Nonetheless, I did finish on time and I am now waiting for my Viva. I am very near the day that appeared in a dream I had when I was in the confusion of finding a new supervisor: my MA supervisor was there, she was the one delivering my diploma, and she whispered in my ear: ‘You did it and you made me proud”.
While you may not have had this exact experience, what is important is not only the importance of the supervisor as mentor, but also the ways in which one PhDer took action to resolve an unsatisfactory supervision relationship. This is not always possible, of course, but it is reassuring to know that it IS able to be done.
(Picture credit – Library of Congress: Flickr copyright free)