Saturday, 14 April 2012

Managing your supervisor

My supervisor is lovely, but can be hard work sometimes. All supervisors can be hard work sometimes. This is why my University sets up graduate training courses with names like 'Managing your supervisor'. I didn't go, of course (I was probably having an essay crisis that day), but someone who did go told me a little bit about the format of the day. Apparently (and this is very good advice), you must not go into your supervision saying self-deprecating things like 'I know this isn't very good...' or 'I don't know where this is going yet...' - or otherwise apologize for your inadequate work from the start. You must learn to repeat things like 'The reason i wrote this, and said this, is because...' and explain, ad nauseam, why you had a particular idea and why you think it works. Supervisors can sometimes be very quick to look at your idea and say 'I don't see where this is going; what is new about this? what is original here? what is the point of this?' - and, if you're one of those less-confident mortals, then this can feel like they are, quite rightly, trampling all over your idea because it is not good, and it makes you want to scrap the whole thing and go work in Tesco's. The more confident amongst us can, apparently, claw their way up immediately by explaining why the idea is actually good, and what the point of it is. The trick is not to allow yourself to feel that, just because your supervisor challenges your idea, the point you're making is worthless and no good.

Sounds obvious, but it took me a long time to work that one out. Your professional vanity works against you in a PhD context sometimes; you do not want to appear stupid, so you don't always know how to respond constructively to criticism. Very often, in supervisions, I have dismissed my own ideas because my supervisor looked blank when I showed them to her. 'What is new in this? I don't understand this.' Or she might say 'But you say X equals Y and Z. In fact, the definition of Z is not at all correct here, if I've understood (this obscure writer) correctly...' - and suddenly, you abandon your idea, shying away from this difficulty, instead of explaining that, yes, but if you look at Z from this angle, your idea does make sense. It is too easy to tell yourself that the flaw your supervisor has just found in your PhD is not surmountable. If you are already feeling shaky in your knowledge, the temptation is to throw everything away and start again. 

That you should turn up to your supervision well-prepared is a given. When I do turn up with a brilliant piece of work, we have a great chat and I leave with a head full of leads and ideas. But then, for the other times, when I turn up with things that are not so good, there are some things that I wish supervisors would know. When I did a teaching course a few years ago, we were taught about the concept of 'the sandwich'. The idea is that, when you're working with emotional and sensitive teenagers (and what teenager isn't emotional?), and when you're marking their inadequate little homework assignments in their scruffy blue exercise books, you must not just plough in there with the criticism and the 'This is very poor work' line. You must give criticism sensitively, and the way you do that is by couching it in between two layers of praise - hence the 'sandwich'. So first you praise something - 'Well done for the nice presentation/ well done for getting the work in on time/ You clearly gave this topic a great deal of thought', then you offer a criticism - 'I would have liked to have seen more XYZ in your homework'; 'How could you have put in more XYZ?' - and then you praise again: 'Your improved work on the perfect tense is encouraging.'

Yeah, I know, that sounds like taking it too far. But it was a useful course in terms of learning how to not make sensitive, weepy young people feel utterly annihilated, and thereby increase the chances of making them believe in themselves and perhaps allow you to squeeze something out of them in the long term. When you have a two-hour PhD supervision, and your supervisor is going through your chapter with the red pen and criticizing all that is wrong with it, but without offering solutions, or suggestions, or any kind of positive feedback - yes, it's their job, and yes, that's what they're there for, but by the end of the session your nose is almost touching the desk and all you want to do is top yourself.

My supervisor is great, but I sometimes wish I could tell her all about 'the sandwich'.

In the autumn, I handed in a chapter which was no good at all. I had spent months researching it and worrying about it, and weeks and days and nights writing it all up. I didn't feel good about it, I knew there was lots wrong with it. I had no idea what to do. My supervisor's reaction was depressing. 'Well, I was reading this, and here, and here, and again here, I was wondering, where is this going? What is new here? What is the point of this? ... Now, THIS one bit is good.... but, again, I was disappointed. What is the point you are making here? What is it that you want to say?' 

Now, that is NOT what you say to a student who is sitting in front of you saying 'Yes... yes... thank you' and who has just handed in this Godawful piece of work. This is not what I need from her at that moment. Because, you see, when I am in a black hole of PhD despair so deep that the best writing I could come up with is such writing as this, then clearly, asking me 'what is the point of this', will not help me at all. That kind of question kills any constructive brainstorming in its tracks. If my tutor were to swoop in on that one good bit and say, 'OK, now this bit is good. You mention Z. Go and see X's book on Z' - now that would be very useful.* Simple, obvious-sounding advice, telling me things that I should be able to find out myself, but useful precisely because, at this time, I clearly have lost my way and I cannot see the wood for the trees anymore. It's, like, when a baby comes into the world and all around it there are only blurry edges and darkness, and undistinguishable sounds, and helplessness, and all it can produce is noise and poo; you do not stand over the baby and say 'Well, I'm sorry, but I cannot make out that inarticulate wailing noise you are making, I just do not understand the point of this. Perhaps you should go away and think some more about what it is you really want?' You do not stand there, shrugging your shoulders mysteriously and asking 'What do you want from me?' You place the bottle in front of its face and you feed it until it can feed itself. 

But then I can't really try and complain that my supervisor does not feel it is within her job description to come in and change my nappy for me for three years. She is a distinguished academic, after all. 

*[By the way, I had read X's book on 'Z' in the first two months of my PhD. But finding my way back to it through the Black Hole of Despair took me three weeks. ]

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