Loughborough PhD Social & Support Network

#blog – Supervisors: what more can be done to protect PGRs against malpractice?

By Nathan Ritchie

In the penultimate blog of this series, I want to discuss the role of supervisors. In my first blog about mental health support at Loughborough I touched upon this topic. But I would like to go further and examine aspects such as power dynamics between PGR and supervisors, the roles and obligations of supervisors and ways to improve the current situation. I am writing this blog for two reasons. Firstly, the relationship between supervisor and PGR is one of the key determinants to a PGRs success and wellbeing during their PhD. Secondly, recent issues I have come across as a representative has ignited in me a further interest in the role of supervisors. Unfortunately, it would be improper to divulge the specific cases, but clearly they annoyed me and have caused me to dedicate some time to this blog to the matter.

Before I begin to discuss supervisors, I want firstly to provide a couple of disclaimers. It is not my intention to pit PGRs against staff. Although I have taken aim at the institution in this blog series I actually find University vs PGRs rhetoric as largely unhelpful. I don’t think it serves the best interests of the PGR community to have an adversarial attitude to the university. But healthy debate and critique is also vital to ensure we are having open and frank discussions about important issues. I also want to stress that we have many great supervisors here at Loughborough University. For every negative experience I hear about I hear about many more positive experiences. Of course, much of this is do with personnel. In every job you have employees that are conscientious and those that are not. What I am more interested here is in the process issues. How can we best improve the system to better protect PGRs?

Teacher-student relationship

There is no one-size fits all when it comes to supervisor relationships. Some supervisors take a distant approach allowing the researcher to develop relatively autonomously their research. Let’s call this the ‘Watchtower approach’. The supervisor will intervene when the PGR needs extra support. Other supervisors will be deeply concerned with the researcher’s activities at every stage of their PhD. Dictating (or suggesting) strictly the focus of the research, the ‘extra-curricular’ activities of the PGR and even when they should take holiday, let’s call this the ‘leash approach’. These are obviously two ends of the spectrum and many supervisor relationships will fall somewhere in between. Some PGRs prefer the leash approach they want constant reminders, strict deadlines, and frequent reassurance and advice. Others prefer the watchtower approach; they prefer to initiate communication and seek advice only once work is completed. Again, two ends of the spectrum, many will fall somewhere in between. Dynamics will also depend on the type of research you are doing and the built up traditions within a school. Regardless of approach there is a bare minimum that each PGR should expect. I will outline what I believe this to be.

Each PGR should expect 12 supervisor meetings per year. It is in the code of practice and this is the general experience of most PGRs. It should not be the case that you go months without supervisor meetings. If this is your situation I would suggest contacting your representatives or Director of Doctoral Programmes because you are being disadvantaged compared with your peers. Each PGR can expect semi-regular feedback on written work. Of course, I do not want to say that this should be monthly as different stages of research require differing types of support. I think the majority of PGRs receive this level of support, they are likely to see supervisors regularly and get feedback on their work. But do they receive advice on training required for their PhD? They should. I am not arguing that supervisors should do the training themselves. But if they expect a PGR to become familiar with a certain type of program let’s say. They should actively guide the PGR to resources and offer support in that learning process. It should not be the case that the supervisor says, “you have to learn R” and provide no additional support in helping the PGR (I am sorry that is quite a Social Sciences related example). Supervisors should also provide a level of pastoral care. I have spoken about this elsewhere, but it is worth mentioning again. No, supervisors should not be your counsellors. But they should discuss with you pressures of research and impact that may have on your mental health or life in general and ways in which to help offset those pressures drawing from their own experience. Of course, they should also direct you to the appropriate services if required.  Just having some humanity to check in during these largely virtual times goes a long way. I think there is a tendency for supervisors to worry about pastoral care, whether this is anxieties of not feeling qualified, or it not being part of the job description. But supervisors will continue to play an essential role in the PGR mental health crisis we are currently under. Training, training, training!

Unequal power dynamics between supervisors and PGRs are in many ways inevitable. The PGR is very reliant on the supervisor in many aspects including work feedback and general guidance. It can be very difficult to come forward with an issue about your supervisor when you know there could be damaging consequences for the relationship. I often encounter PGRs feeling unable to raise a problem with their supervisor and often wonder how many issues PGRs let things slide because they don’t want to ‘rock the boat’. The PGR might say to themselves, ‘ok I feel this is not right’, but then fear that raising a problem would cause more trouble than its worth. This is understandable and can be found in many forms of employment and it is highly likely that supervisors at Loughborough go through this regularly with senior management. In that way it reminds me of when I was younger and my older brother would give me a dead arm (a punch to the arm), then I would go to school and give my friends a dead arm. I should probably call my brother.. sorry I digress. The most immediate question I believe becomes not how we break down power dynamics, as this is a long process, but how do we better protect PGRs from supervisor malpractice?

I have spoken previously that I would like to see the introduction of personal tutors. Its an ambitious target and one likely not be adopted any time soon. Personal tutors for PGRs would provide a sounding board if the PGR is worried about something to do with their supervisors. Take for example, a PGR who has not received an e-mail back for a month from their supervisor, the personal tutor can either contact that supervisor or report this to Director of Doctoral Programmes. Of course, there are drawbacks to do with workload models and also a build-up of power dynamics in the personal tutor-PGR relationship. But I do not see the role as particularly onerous on the staff member and more of point of contact for the PGR with someone in a more senior position. It may also prove useful to provide some digital form like a Padlet within departments for a PGR to raise an issue anonymously. Of course, there should also be frequent communication with DDPs and supervisors. With those in positions such as DDP, DPL (or equivalent position in your school) not hesitating to fight the corner of PGRs when they clearly see something has gone awry. Each school should run a ‘know your rights’ style seminar that makes PGRs aware of the code of practice and what they can expect. May I even suggest an annual anonymous online feedback akin to those for undergraduate modules? Or am I now suggesting metrics? Anyway, there are many things that could be done, and I do not wish to provide an exhaustive list here. Essentially ways that give PGR’s greater confidence in the power dynamic is the goal. I think the above goes some way to addressing those issues. If these are not achievable, then let’s discuss what is.

In a recent report by outgoing Presidential Team Tom Baker and Rieman Rudra on Research Culture that was shared widely on social media. It was flagged that some PGRs have reported intimidation and bullying by supervisors during their PhD. The Presidential Team rightly outlined a strong stance against this type of behaviour. I would like to add my voice to that. What I have discussed above in terms of power dynamics, I think are largely a consequence of the type of relationship and PGR dependence on supervisors. I would say in the majority of cases, the supervisors themselves would help break down some of these barriers if they could. Supervisors who bully or intimidate their PGRs are a different breed. In this case we are talking about those staff members that abuse power. You know, the real pricks. Every University and workplace have them. A small sniff of power drives them to act arrogantly, rudely, or selfishly. They lack common decency and tend to go unchecked as they know when to display this behaviour and when not to.

I can say confidently that bullying and intimidation does not describe the behaviour of a large majority of PGRs. But I have heard of times when the PGR feels discriminated against or has an antagonistic relationship with supervisor. Okay, so we know this goes on, but how again do we protect our PGRs? Firstly, PGRs should be made aware that it is their right to change supervisor. This should be raised at the Doctoral College level right away and not the Director of Doctoral Programmes who may be too close to the incident. There should also be LSU representation whether this is LSU voice or PGR representation present in these decisions. Issuing a complaint against a supervisor and this process should also be made clear. Multiple strikes against a supervisor should result in disciplinary action (I am sure it already does). So, it is not only that bullying is unacceptable, but those staff members will not be able to supervise PGRs in the future.

” PHD comics:  You either do what I tell you to do…”

Much of poor supervising is likely a result of the pressure on workloads rather than sheer incompetence. On the whole I am not blaming staff for when things go wrong. It is easy to be a back seat driver, I have no experience of supervising PhD and I am unaware of the associated challenges from a staff perspective. For example, my supervisors have never been anything but cordial and pleasant with me, but I have felt the weight of the power difference at times. It is telling that I did not write this blog on my personal experiences as I did in the last blog. Although I can honestly say my experience has been fine and I feel I have a working and productive relationship with my supervisors. I can imagine how rough it is for those PGRs who do not and have to contend with a fractious supervisor relationship as well as their research.

The University continues to centralise PGR matters in the Doctoral College. This likely includes or will include training of supervisors. I am not certain how many times they run these. But PGRs should have some input into the content of the training.  I would also like to see the re-introduction of Supervisor Forums and some mandatory requirements for supervisors to attend at least one session a year. Continuous training of supervisors is important as the way we do research, the mindset of our PGRs and our understanding of mental health and power relationships continues to develop. How we protect our PGRs from malpractice and/or bullying also needs to progress along with it.

This is the fifth of the series. One more to go. I hope this is of interest to some. Thank you so much for reading. Any questions or comments please e-mail n.ritchie@lboro.ac.uk and follow me on Twitter @NathanRitchie16

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