There is no I in PhD: Supervising, Stifling, and Safety Nets

I had planned to write a large gospel type blog this month about my triumphant PhD viva examination experience. However, like a brat, I suddenly realised its not all about me. It is quite easy for students, academics, and normal humans to be incredibly narrow minded and selfish. As a consequence, this blog is dedicated to my supervisory team!

There is no I in PhD, literally and figuratively. Although I get the piece of paper and letters behind my name it would not be (pleasantly) possible without an incredible set of supervisor(s). For each person, university, and country the supervisory dynamic and formation is different. My experience is based on being a fully funded, full time, social science MPhil/PhD candidate at the University of Worcester, UK. My supervisory team was made up of a Director of Studies and two further supervisors. Then, I had formal support from my School’s postgraduate point person, the Research School, and the Student’s Union.

I am going to focus on the role of the Director of Studies (I had two) and how instrumental that position is to empower a successful PhD candidate. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Dr Geoffery Kohe (former Worcester, now University of Kent) and Dr Gyozo Molnar (University of Worcester). There have been bumps and challenges on the way but on the whole my PhD supervisory experience has been wonderful.

BSSH_GK_Verity

On reflection a number of moments and mechanisms stand out to me about how they were/are excellent Director of Studies:

  • Set good practices and expectations early:

From my interview in May 2015 to March 2020 I’ve always tangibly and intangibly known the boundaries and rules of the supervisor/student relationship. I think this stems from Geoff and Gyozo clearly communicating with me and offering significant informal and formal contact time. I appreciate everyone is very busy and it is often easy for supervisors to neglect or ignore postgraduate students as they should use their initiative and be self-motivating. However, rather than taking this approach Geoff and Gyozo promoted a positive culture of reaching out and keeping in contact, for example via social media, my blog, attending the same teaching/event spaces. I did often feel needy but with the mechanisms Geoff and Gyozo built I could contact or engage with them directly and indirectly in numerous ways.

  • Supporting not stifling:

A developing pressure on candidates/supervisors is to not simply produce a PhD thesis but produce a well-rounded and employable post-doctoral entity! Geoff and Gyozo have provided and supported numerous teaching and learning, research, and dissemination activities I’ve considered. On reflection I did not appreciate at the time how supportive they were when maybe they should have said no or not allowed me to pursue an activity that detracted from my PhD thesis. This approach allowed me to learn on my own and learn from them about balancing priorities, for example Geoff encouraged me to be involved and contribute to the British Society of Sports History (BSSH) Annual Conference in 2017 (which was both fun and useful), now I’ve continued to contribute and engage with BSSH and recently was awarded an ECR Grant. On the grapevine I hear other supervisors stifle students, however I can say and evidence that this was not the case for me.

  • Providing a safety net:

I am very open and honest about my 2017/2018 struggles to maintain my doctoral project. Again, a developing pressure on supervisors is to spot, prevent, and support postgraduate health and well-being issues. I am advocate for this but equally I appreciate that this is over and above the traditional supervisory approach where the role was to be a critical friend in the realm of your PhD project and nothing more. As I’ve written about previously the compassion and mechanisms Geoff and Gyozo provided allowed me to process challenges I’ve had about postgraduate well-being and state of academia. I tried to articulate my gratitude in the ‘acknowledgement’ page of my thesis but it really does not do justice to the time, effort, and care my whole supervisory team (including Prof. John Hughson) gave to me over the course of five years.

As a couple of follow ups:

Current postgraduate students: if your supervisor is being pesky or you want to chat more then please do Tweet or email me.

Prospective postgraduate students: Consider the current postgraduate opportunities (e.g. MRes Socio-Cultural Studies and PhD funding below) at the University of Worcester and I am more than happy to discuss with prospective students (v.postlethwaite@worc.ac.uk)

Supervisors: Consider the Good Supervisory Practice criteria and guides. My thoughts above are anecdotal but chime into a number of philosophical, theoretical, and practical points made by the UK Council for Graduate Education.

There is no I in PhD, and I am incredibly lucky to have such a great supervisory experience across 5 years. Thanks Gyozo, Geoff, and John. You are all great in different ways.

VPos

P.s. to all the other supervisors/mentors/colleagues in my professional life, you’ve all had a massive impact too 🙂 … I will need to write a number of (gushing) posts such as this in the future! And that is a wonderful position to be in, I am grateful for you all.

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