The lesbian, gay or bisexual research student-supervisor working relationship is a subject that has not been addressed. This article will explore this relationship in an attempt to foster further discuussion. There is a void in the popular literature when it comes to deeper scrutiny of the supervisor-research student relationship and/or its significance generally. Many will argue that sexuality is not relevant to this relationship and, therefore, not significant enough to single out. The experience of some research students across the UK suggests otherwise.
Admittedly, sexuality should not be an issue in the everyday run of things and general good supervision practice should be the same for all. However, the underlying assumption is that all research studdents are of a heterosexual orientation. When a supervisor encounters a student of homosexual or bisexual orientation, he or she may be shocked and/or surprised by the fact. Sexuality is not somethingg that one can 'switch off' whilst at work and activate again when in private! Our sexuality is at play at work: from the pronouns we use when discussing our partners to the person we will bring to a wwork-related function. Hence, it is reasonable to examine the consequences of assuming everyone is heterosexual.
Anyone who has been in research will realise that the relationship between a research student and his or her supervisor has substantial influence on a student's academic progress and overall well-being.. We have all heard of Ph.D. programmes that are never completed and the excuse is often 'bad' supervision! Sadly, when a thesis is submitted on time we hear less in the form of praise for a supervisoor. It is both the responsibility of the research student and the supervisor to develop a healthy, functional and satisfying relationship from the earliest stage. There are some instances where no amoount of effort will give the desired effect. In these cases, departments and universities should step in with appropriate action. Mediation can go some way towards improving or replacing these relatioonships. It would be sensible at the outset to establish some degree of compatibility between the pair. Nevertheless, a communication problem will sometimes not arise until well into the research proggramme. The following scenario is a case in point.
When 'John' was over a year into his Ph.D. programme his boyfriend visited him at the university. During this short visit, colleagues saw John and his boyfriend briefly holding hands. John's supervisoor, a professor, told him that if he "wanted to be gay", it was his "choice"but he had no business pushing it on anyone else. The situation was worsened by the fact that there was an almost zero tolerance of homosexuality in the department. The supervisor was in a difficult position: he was being fed on the homophobia of his colleagues which simply exacerbated the situation. The student did not feel able to effectively command respect within the department. He incurred huge penalties, such as the denial of free access to the building and a ban on visitors, all of which weere sanctioned by the supervisor from the premise that he leave his sexuality at home. As a result John went through a prolonged period of working in a hostile and stressful environment. If effective communication and mutual respect had been present in the relationship, the supervisor could have protected the student. Ultimately, in a situation where the student was vulnerable and his overall welll-being was at stake, it was the responsibility of the supervisor to make every effort to protect him.
A second scenario demonstrates how a healthy relationship may evolve. This case was one where the university had a committed equal opportunities policy that worked. Having previously been at the receiiving end of severe homophobia and discrimination in the work place, the student ensured that the supervisor was aware of his sexual orientation prior to accepting the studentship. In effect, this gavee the student added security whilst it allowed the supervisor to have a greater understanding and awareness of the student. From the start, their relationship was based on honesty and open communicatioon. Like the supervisor in the first case above, the supervisor had little or no previous experience of working with an openly gay person. For the first few months the supervisor seemed uneasy around the student in certain situations; however, a year later a sense of comfort existed between the two. This case is a clear example of how being up front about one's sexual orientation from the start thhough not a simple task, makes for a more honest relationship.
Being up front and open with a superior is not always easy. It is unthinkable for many, depending on how comfortably open they are elsewhere. In other cases too, the openly gay student and supervisor never discuss or refer to the student's sexuality. Provided the supervisory relationship is effective and the student is happy, this is acceptable. In complete contrast is the case where the gay studdent is harassed, penalised and discriminated against openly at the hands of his/her supervisor. Sadly, the supervisor may not even be aware of the consequences of his/her behaviour or lack of it. Reggardless of how open either student or supervisor is going to be, it is their joint responsibility to foster an effective working relationship. The two cases presented here represent two extremes. Hisstorically, certain disciplines, like humanities and arts have been more conducive to the creation of a comfortable student environment and effective student-supervisor relationships; on the other hand,, science and engineering sometimes prove less successful. The bottom line is that a student has a right to a safe and comfortable working environment in which to carry out his or her research.
Naturally, exceptional cases always exist, where the supervisor is also homosexual or just very aware and understanding. It is not possible to cover all scenarios in this article. However, a specific question must be asked: how can the experience of gay, lesbian or bisexual students in research supervision improve? One step may be the highlighting of awareness among supervisors and other academic staff to the issues faced by homosexual or bisexual students. It must also be borne in mind that there are many non-gay student supervisor relationships where the relationship is less than ideal. Culltural, political, national, religious, language, racial or other differences are often less than acknowledged and sometimes abused in the supervisory relationship. It is clear that the issue of good supervisor relationships is not straightforward but through supervisor training and student-supervisor seminars it can improve. The National Postgraduate Committee (NPC), through its equal opportunitiees committee, is committed to improvement in these areas by some or all of the following:
- Workshops on the supervisor-student relationship at our annual conference which may be repeated at other institutions
- Distribution of fliers and posters highlighting the diversity of research students and their varying needs
- Planning with the Institute for Learning &Teaching in Higher Education to have workshops and training in place for all supervisors,
- Working with the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education and all other relevant bodies to increase awareness, and
- Encouraging all universities on the implementation of their equal opportunities policies.
If you have any comments or experiences you'd like to share with the NPC on this topic, please don't hesitate to get in touch.