PhD Student Supervision

This is a bit of a rant, so apologies in advance.

Why do people agree to take on PhD students if they’re not willing or able to provide at least bare minimum supervision support?

I know everyone in academia is busy – I am too. But by the same token, a student should not be going over 10 months without a single meeting with their supervisor. Not through any lack of trying by the student, but because the supervisor is “too busy”, or has taken up another pet project.

I am on soft money on a fixed term research contract. My ability to take on official student supervision is limited due to the nature of my employment contract. So when I’m spending a great deal of my time dealing with basic student supervision issues, because the PhD students in question are unable to meet with their actual supervisors, it’s a problem. I don’t mind stepping in and doing someone a favour, but they need to remember that it’s just that – a favour. I am getting absolutely zero credit for dealing with these students, because I am not their supervisor in any kind of official capacity. I can’t put it on my CV, I’m not getting paid for it, it’s time consuming, and I have my own research to do.

Another thing is that most of us are in very specialized areas of research. If one supervisor drops off the radar, it’s unlikely that there’s someone else in the department who knows enough about the topic to act as a replacement in a topic specific context. Yes, every student is required to have a co-supervisor on paper, but the co-supervisor rarely knows enough about the topic to be of any help academically. Co-supervisors tend to be assigned to sign off on paperwork if the primary supervisor isn’t around. In my experience, co-supervisors tend to care even less than primary supervisors. They have their name on projects due to a university policy, not because they’ve got any interest in the project.

Projects come and go, but supervisors need to see their students through to completion. Just because you find another pet project 6 months after you found your last one (and got that student working on it), doesn’t mean you can just forget that student exists. The number of times I’ve had students complain to me about this in the last 2 years indicates that this is a systemic issue – not something isolated to one supervisor, one project, one department, or even one university.

I don’t know why they’re coming to me about it. I know the Australian university system very well, so perhaps that’s it. That being said, as far as I’m aware, every single department, in every single university Australia wide, has a postgraduate coordinator of some description – or at the very least, a postgraduate student association. This is largely why the postgraduate coordinators and associations exist – to deal with issues regarding appropriate student supervision. The fact that they’re still coming to me indicates that these mechanisms for dealing with such issues simply aren’t working.

It’s reached the point where I’m having to tell students that I can’t help them anymore. At the end of the day, I’ve got my own work to do as well. There’s students threatening to quit when they’re 2 to 2.5 years into their PhD’s because their supervisors have simply lost interest. This is unacceptable.

If you’re not prepared to take on minimum levels of supervision, then don”t agree to supervise the student in the first place.


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