We're glad to be postgrads

Reproduced with kind permission from Times Higher Education Supplement.

We're glad to be postgrads

Anna Fazackerley
Published: 09December2005

A Times Higher-NPC survey offers some surprising insights into the postgraduate-supervisor relationship. reports Anna Fazackerley

The stereotype of egotistical postgraduate supervisors who are intent only on supporting their own careers may be a thing of the past, but some still have lessons to learn, according to a Times Higher investigation.

A survey, carried out in association with the National Postgraduate Committee, reveals that, in general, senior academics are behaving responsibly towards junior staff.

Out of a sample of 117 postgraduates from across the country, just 9 per cent say they feel under pressure to work unreasonable hours.

Most say they are being given proper credit for their work: 85 per cent say their supervisor has never presented their work at a conference, and 90 per cent say their supervisor has never published their work with the supervisor's name listed as first author on the paper.

But the survey also throws up areas of concern.

Three in ten students feel that their supervisor is not good at communicating, and almost a quarter say their supervisor does not take their concerns seriously.

In addition, more than one in five postgraduate students says that their supervisor does not have time for them.

Simon Felton, general secretary of the NPC, said: "We usually hear only the worst cases, such as supervisors presenting work that isn't their own at conferences. But, on the whole, this shows that supervisors understand how the relationship should work."

However, he stressed, it was essential to building a sound relationship that postgraduates take the initiative to establish ground rules at the beginning of the supervision period.

He said: "Set out what you want and what they want from you. Communication is really important. You must be able to access each other and talk if you need to."

The NPC is pushing for UK universities to standardise their approaches to postgraduate supervision by signing up to a new European charter.

The Eurodoc supervision and training charter - which was devised in response to inconsistencies in the standard of supervision across higher education - requires institutions to train all supervisors when they first take on the role and to monitor their workload to ensure they have time to undertake the role properly.

It specifies that the senior academic must ensure that they have at least one hour free every week to discuss research with their postgraduate.

'My supervisor showed up at 11am for a scheduled meeting and was drunk'

* When Susan Richardson embarked on a PhD at Plymouth University in her late forties, she was definite about whom she wanted to work with.

"I had worked with Sheena Asthana previously as a research fellow, and we got on well. I knew I could trust her - I think that is essential," she said.

For Ms Richardson, who is now in the third year of her PhD at the School of Sociology, Politics and Law, a supportive supervisor has to criticise as well as praise.

"Sheena is always very straight with me. She tells me when I'm doing well, but also when I could be doing better," she said. "That means I can believe her when she tells me positive things."

Ms Richardson added that supervisors must understand how their researchers wantto work. "My supervisor is very hands off. She will give me enough rope to run with," she explained.

"But I know that if there's a danger that I'm going to hang myself with that rope, I can always go to her."

Two of Ms Richardson's friends have had very different experiences. One has had to negotiate a change of supervisor and the other is "struggling" with an unsupportive and unhelpful supervisor.

"The chances of me staying in academia are very high," she said. "But if I had had a bad experience with my PhD, I may well have looked in other directions."

* Klaus Reinhardt is enthusiastic about his research at Sheffield University - and not just because of his fascination with bedbugs.

Mr Reinhardt, a German postdoctoral researcher who has also worked in the US, was drawn to the advertisement for his job initially because he wanted to work with Mike Siva-Jothy. He has been "positively surprised" by the experience of being supervised by him.

"In my first couple of weeks, he helped me to get to grips with the university and the administration," he said. "He won't sort problems out for me - I'm an adult, so I should sort things out myself. But he will be supportive."

Mr Reinhardt, who is researching sexual conflict in bedbugs, is grateful that his mentor is not detached from his subject and is able to offer creative input. But he also likes spending time with him socially.

"I think a good relationship in the lab cannot be maintained without some personal interaction," he explained. "We sometimes have a beer together. He has invited the whole lab to his house."

* Before she started her PhD, Sarah (not her real name) read about the problems students might encounter with their supervisors, but nothing prepared her for her own disaster story, writes Yfke van Bergen.

"I turned up on the first day of my PhD and my supervisor wasn't in the department. I was told that he was unwell, but nobody seemed to know when he'd be back," Sarah said.

And things did not improve. "I saw him only once in the first nine months of my PhD. He showed up at 11am for a meeting we had scheduled and was drunk."

Sarah decided to change supervisor. But this new academic presented a different problem.

"He had decided what the conclusions of my thesis were going to be before I had even started collecting any data," she said. "And now that I've analysed the results, he's still telling me to publish those conclusions even though my results don't support them."

She has also had conflicts with him on a more personal level. "He laughed in my face when I told him that I had to take some time off when I was unwell," she said.

"He's now in a senior management role, no doubt treating other people the same way."