At the Graduate Research School’s recent Networking function I had the pleasure of talking to a PhD candidate, Sim KwongNui, who I discovered was happy to write a post about her experience as a thesis candidate at Otago. Sim said, ‘but it’s not a bad news story! I really like my supervisors and I like doing a PhD”.
It’s really easy to focus on the negative; on the hiccups we have along the thesis journey, on the troubles we have with writing or with our supervisors. It is important to acknowledge these issues and to speak openly about our difficulties and to examine possible solutions.
However, it is also important to celebrate our successes and to acknowledge the awesome work and the fantastic collaborations that are happening all the time across the University. No thesis experience should be just a bad news story!
This is Sim KwongNui’s reflection on the role her supervisors play in her study and a chance to celebrate a good news story.
Claire Gallop, Graduate Research School
“PhD study is like a seesaw ride full of ups and downs but I am blessed to say that my PhD study is a well balanced seesaw ride where my three supervisors keep it calm and steady at all times.”
When asked why I pursue my PhD study in the same department at the same university, an answer I always give is “Because I have great supervisors!” Honestly, I do.
Undoubtedly, all my three supervisors are quite different in their ways of carrying out a research project, providing supervision or giving feedback. Here are some examples of their different ways of talking to me in a similar scenario:
Supervisor X: “I hope you are spending the afternoon celebrating reaching this important milestone!”
Supervisor Y: “All good. Just one suggestion.”
Supervisor Z: “You are progressing fine. However, I would suggest that to finish in time you will need to be investing more time in writing.”
It is fascinating to see the differences in my three supervisors’ personalities. Somehow those differences complement each other and balance my PhD seesaw ride nicely. After all, my supervisors are not all the same as individuals so why would they be all the same as supervisors?
I really appreciate my Primary Supervisor’s empathy, motivation, enthusiasm, immense knowledge, and, above all, her untiring assistance and unerring support of all aspects of my PhD study. I will always remember the many times that I go to her and she has never failed to be there for me.
I am also indebted to my talented and highly motivated co-supervisor, for his generous and unequivocal support of my academic pursuits. I could not continue my efforts without his consistent encouragement and enthusiasm.
My sincere gratitude also to my other co-supervisor, for persevering with me as my supervisor from the time I started my Masters study. He has played a vital role in developing my understanding of research and he has provided me with a deep appreciation of this field of study. I attribute the level of my current position in academia to his excellent guidance, effort and patience throughout my research journey.
In short, all of my three supervisors’ encouragement and depth of knowledge, as well as their availability, have been major catalysts for my PhD study. For their contribution and good-natured support, I could not have wished for better or more approachable supervisors.
I understand that many postgraduate students have issues with their supervisors (or vice versa) but I wonder if it is due to the supervisor(s) and/or the student’s misconception of this seesaw ride? The reason a seesaw was made for two parties is that when you go down, there is always someone there to lift you up again.
Undeniably, I am lucky to have three supervisors who not only lift me up but also work as a team to keep my ride safe and stable. Nevertheless, I believe it is a joint effort between the supervisor(s) and the PhD student that makes this seesaw ride a good one – our most difficult task as a working partner is to offer understanding when we don’t really understand.
So, perhaps let’s not allow one bad apple to spoil the rest of the basket: there are always good apples for us to enjoy.
Sim KwongNui, PhD Candidate, Higher Education Development Centre
Science gets up in Claire Gallop’s grill and she shares the fall out and the lessons.
The last science controversy I was involved in was when I refused to go on the 7th Form (Year 13) Biology Camp on the grounds that I didn’t like the outdoors. Since then I have managed to avoid the difficulties inherent in the sciences by staying indoors, working alone and sticking to non-problematic subjects like politics and philosophy.
My recent science scandal crept up on me, but in hindsight was entirely predictable. It’s been Science Fair time. Or, as it perhaps should be known, take a newly minted teen (NMT) add a science project and watch the family chaos ensue time.
The first issue arose when the NMT decided to do a project with a friend. Coordination problems and disputes over who was going to do the glory experiments meant that collaboration was dissolved in less than ideal circumstances.
These issues paled in comparison to the real difficulties that emerged. Chief among the problems were intellectual property disputes, legitimate authorship and inequitable commercialisation. Given that the mother-child collaboration is not so easily dissolved, these issues have required resolutions focused on mediation and compromise (mostly by me).
A tame academic (Dr X) came up with the idea for the experiment. After considerable negotiation, and the school teacher giving the project the nod, it was deemed acceptable to the NMT.
After consultation between Dr X and me, the hypothesis was honed and the method was devised. The NMT demanded I bought the necessary materials. I then bought the materials. The other half (OH) then built the testing apparatus.
After some energetic negotiation, the NMT performed the necessary experiments. Some further even more vigorous, and ultimately unsuccessful, negotiation took place and I found myself writing the project up. The NMT cast an editorial eye over the work and indicated where I needed to make corrections; the outcome of that interaction is probably best forgotten.
Nevertheless, something was produced and OH got to work on sticking the work on to the Science Fair board. The NMT did some excellent work on decorating the board including the addition of the author’s name (“you forgot to put my name on! How could you???”).
With promises of a cut of any prize money that was won (a cut that instantly got reduced the moment it looked like real money was going to change hands) my brush with science came to an end.
The whole process left me thinking about some of the conflicts I have seen between students and supervisors. Issues around legitimate role in the project; was I the PI because I’d fronted with the cash? Was Dr X the PI because he came up with the idea? Was the NMT the PI because, let’s face it, the rest of us were simply acting as research assistants? Even when it is clear who the PI actually is, disgruntlement can occur when people reflect on their actual levels of involvement as opposed to what they were expecting to happen.
Add a publication to the mix and real issues arise if people perceive they have received inadequate recognition for their contribution. Mid-way through the Science Fair project was not the time to work out the division of labour, authorship order or royalties. By that time, we were all sure of our entitlements in the project and were less able to view the issues with an impartial eye.
All of these things speak to the need to establish guidelines before work begins. We are all hopeful at the beginning of any project that things will pan out without any need to give any real attention to tricky matters of who does what and what that means for how the project will go.
Relying on shared understanding of expectations and norms rarely works out well. Conflicts may occur and without any recognition of rules to deal with them, small niggles can escalate and bitterness and anxiety can easily develop. A lot of energy gets absorbed resolving issues that feel dreadful but were initially quite manageable.
A Student-Supervisor Agreement and an honest assessment of expectations at the beginning of any thesis journey will not rule out conflict, but a willingness to engage with the possibility that the ride won’t always be rainbows and unicorns certainly helps to set the right tone for a productive collaboration between student and supervisor.
And what did I learn from all this? Well I’ve started drafting a Supervisor-Student agreement for next year when Science Fair comes around again. I’ve also learned to have a bit more faith in group projects. When it came time for the NMT to explain and defend the topic, I was slightly concerned; beyond effective project management, what on earth had they actually learned? I was pleasantly surprised to discover that they had a clear overview of the methods, results, and conclusions of the project. Moreover, there was a new found enthusiasm for and confidence about science.
Who knew? It seems Science does have a few things to teach the Humanities after all.
Claire Gallop, Graduate Research School