10 truths a PhD supervisor will never tell you

There are some important dos and don’ts to bear in mind when choosing someone to oversee your doctoral thesis, advises Tara Brabazon

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Source: Katie Edwards

My father used to tell a joke, over and over again. It was a classic outback Australian, Slim Dusty joke that – like the best dad jokes – I can’t remember. But I do recall the punchline. “Who called the cook a bastard?” To which the answer was, “Who called the bastard a cook?”

This riposte often comes to mind during discussions about doctoral supervision and candidature management. Discussions go on (and on and on) about quality, rigour, ethics and preparedness. Postgraduates are monitored, measured and ridiculed for their lack of readiness or their slow progress towards completion. But inconsistencies and problems with supervisors and supervision are marginalised. In response, I think of my father’s one-liner: Who called the supervisor a bastard? Who called the bastard a supervisor?

To my mind, I never received any satisfactory, effective or useful supervision for my doctorate, research master’s or two coursework master’s that contained sizeable dissertation components. I found the supervisors remote and odd. A couple of them tried to block the submission of the theses to my institution. Indeed, on three separate occasions in my career, academics informed me that if I submitted this thesis, it would fail. The results that followed these warnings were a master of arts passed with distinction, a master of education with first-class honours and a dean’s award, and a PhD passed without correction. I was left with the impression that these supervisors had no idea what they were doing. The worst supervisors share three unforgivable characteristics:

  1. They do not read your writing
  2. They never attend supervisory meetings
  3. They are selfish, career-obsessed bastards

I am now an experienced supervisor and examiner, but I still remember my own disappointments. For the doctoral students who follow, I want to activate and align these personal events with the candidatures I have managed since that time. Particularly, I wish to share with the next generation of academics some lessons that I have learned about supervisors.

As a prospective PhD student, you are precious. Institutions want you – they gain funding, credibility and profile through your presence. Do not let them treat you like an inconvenient, incompetent fool. Do your research. Ask questions. Use these 10 truths to assist your decision.

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