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PhD supervisor: the perfect one doesn’t exist, so where else can you find help?

27 MAR 2014

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Supervisors are not superhuman.

Some give brilliant writing guidance, but are ineffectual when a student reveals that they are depressed. Others become best friends with theirstudents, but never motivate them to put words on the page.

I was fortunate to have a great PhD supervisor who was attentive, communicative and extremely helpful. However, supervisors are often as stressed as their students – disconnected and overwhelmed by their own work. In the rare, worst-case scenario, a supervisor dislikes and undermines a student.

If a supervisor can’t help, where can a student find support? Fellow students are an option, but online communities, blogs and forums are also increasingly popular (and anonymous) sources of advice. What can students gain from online resources that might be missing from the supervisor-student relationship?

Unlimited practical advice

The ideal supervisor has infinite time and unparalleled knowledge. She is patient and always available; she is understanding and constantly supportive.

Unfortunately, she doesn’t exist.

Supervisors have classes to teach, assignments to mark and meetings to attend. They won’t always have time to explain the mechanics of MLA citation… again. However, there are many online resources devoted to the practicalities of research and writing.

During my PhD, I collected and bookmarked advice from respected academic blogs such as Explorations of Style and The Thesis Whisperer(which boasts over 2m page views, and counting). When I got stuck on a practical issue, such as how to structure my thesis introduction, these sites were my first port of call.

Twitter hashtags such as #phdchat and #ECRchat allow students to reach out for advice in a way that would have been impossible even a few years ago. Twitter’s egalitarian platform breaks down barriers between students and established academics, making it easier to seek informal help from experienced researchers.

Emotional support

Recent discussions of mental health in academia revealed that many postgraduate students suffer in solitude and silence. The remarkable explosion of online comment about the issue indicates how much it touched a nerve. Sadly, students cannot always turn to their supervisors or departments when facing mental health crises.

I personally know students who avoid mentioning these issues to a supervisor for fear of seeming lazy or uncommitted. In anonymous forums such as PhinisheD and PhDStudent early career researchers can openly discuss depression and emotional barriers to work such as lack of motivation, impostor syndrome and fear of failure.

The ever-popular PhD Comics lampoons the postgrad under pressure: drowning in confusing advice, fighting off demanding undergraduates and surviving on noodles.

It’s too close to the truth for some. Facing job market fears, low adjunct pay, crushing workloads, debt and uncertain futures, some PhD students are exhausted, poor and miserable. Even lurking on a forum where others express their academic worries can be cathartic.


Read full article: The Guardian