the myth of the ‘supermom’ supervisor

On Facebook I’ve seen a number of shares to an article in the Times Higher entitled “10 truths a PhD supervisor will never tell you“.  The author is writing from an Australian perspective, and is now a senior academic in a university there, so has seen, at least the system there, from both sides.  The article includes useful advice.  Some seems obvious, such as “A supervisor who is active in the area of your doctorate can help to turbocharge your work“; of course this may not be so obvious to a young PhD student … but then how many read THES?

However, I was sometimes lost as to whether the author was carping at her own PhD supervision many years ago, or writing satirically as the set of requirements for a PhD supervisor sounded a bit like the mythical supermom juggling nappies, school run in the SUV and voluntary work in the Opera House all in the gaps in her busy schedule as chief executive of a multi-national.

To be honest, as a PhD supervisor, I have sometimes felt like a flailing (and often failing) supermom, but the supermom is an invention of exploitative magazines, ignorant media and the odd misogynist, and the super-supervisor is no more soundly based.

Some of the comments on the THES website do pick up these contradictions, for example (truth 3) never being absent on the weekly meeting slot (the school run), but also (truth 4) powerful enough to protect the student from bureaucracy (the chief executive).

Most of the Facebook shares have been positive and the article reads well if read as hyperbole, however I can’t help feeling that it should be mixed with a little more realism … and maybe someday I should write “10 truths they never tell you about being a PhD supervisor”.

In the UK our PhD system (and indeed whole university system) dates from the time when less than 1 in 20 school-leavers went to University and of those less than 1 in 20 went on to do any sort of post-graduate degree or PhD. While the latter figure has not grown so much, the former is now near 40%.  I guess, in the dim past, with a super-elite of less than 0.25% doing a PhD, a ‘sink or swim’ approach may not have worked so badly; a bit like saying “Hey Usain, run”.

The mix of students has changed, but the attitudes and models have not kept pace, for example, many universities still count PhD supervision as ‘research’ time rather than teaching, a perk rather than a job. In the UK system we still, in practice if not in word, regard the PhD process as independent research rather than as training for independent research.  This puts unrealistic pressure on the student and makes the supervisory task one of all responsibility and little control (pretty much the clinical definition of stress).

To be honest some academics do take the old school approach, seeking research ‘cannon fodder’ rather than students, but for the prospective PhD student this is rarely an issue as they won’t accept you anyway unless you are already an academic Usain Bolt.  However, the vast majority of supervisors put in substantial time and personal energy in what is often, institutionally, a thankless task.

The fees for PhDs also reflect the old model, whether they are paid by the UK government, some sort of external sponsor or in rare occasions the student themselves.  I once calculated that the average PhD fees (higher for overseas student than EU ones) paid for a maximum of 2 hours per month for normal supervisory activities, this to include every email answered, university form filled in and paper/chapter read as well as face-to-face contact.  This is in contrast to a stated minimum contact time of 2 hours per month and in practice at least twice that, not to mention the above average periods.

Maybe we could have supermom supervision, but it would cost an awful lot more.

I have had some wonderful PhD students, but by definition you know them at one of their most vulnerable, but also most self-absorbed times of their lives.  When they are not actually having babies while doing the PhD (I’ve lost count of my PhD ‘grandchildren’), the thesis is like a baby, and every student is going through the emotional and physical trauma that entails!  The job of PhD supervisor is more often about motivating, cajoling, and wiping tears than sharing pearls of academic wisdom.  But, happily, the only homicidal student I have supervised (not PhD!) only threatened other academics and not me.

In my own experience, I bought my first mobile phone so that I could walk back and forth on the beach on a rare family holiday helping a student through an early paper submission, and I have received a complete thesis draft on Christmas Eve knowing I needed to read it by Boxing Day … indeed I cannot recall when I last had a Christmas period without either a PhD thesis to read for a student or one to examine externally.

I was fortunate in that my busiest time as a PhD suorvisor was when my daughters were already starting to grow up (although maybe they did not think so at the time), as they were born just before and while doing my own PhD (yes Colin you too were a PhD grandfather).  A colleague, who had had his first child while he was already a long-standing academic, once told me how he had cut back his working hours. “I don’t come in until 8:30 and I leave by 4:30”, he said – oh my goodness an eight hour day. But then he spoilt it, “and I don’t start work again until after the baby is asleep at 7, and do less at weekends”.

So, if you are a prospective or current PhD student, do read the THES article.  However do also remember that to the extent that your supervisor satisfies any of the ‘supermom’ criteria, it is not that they are ‘doing their job’, but because, out of their own time and effort, they are doing it for you. And, please, don’t forget that they have a life as well.

And if you are a PhD supervisor and read the THES article with despair in your heart, believing you have failed your students, your university and yourself, remember, the ‘supermom’ supervisor is a myth.  At times being a supervisor may be demoralising, depressing and debilitating, but also there are rewards (albeit unlikely to be institutional ones) when you see your students mature.  And, please, don’t forget who your real children are.

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