Editor’s note: this article, published in 2015, makes reference to a previous edition of the AUT Postgraduate Handbook that is now out of date. The most recent edition can be downloaded here (student login required).
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a research student in possession of a good idea must be in want of a supervisor.” – Not quite Jane Austen
Pride and Prejudice applies that line to a young man in possession of a good fortune seeking a wife. But the fact that it can apply quite easily to a supervisor suggests that spousal and supervisory relationships must have something in common.
Indeed, the folks at PhD Comics have tracked the similarities:
The major difference between a supervisory relationship and a marriage is that in many cases, and in almost all cases at AUT, you’ll have more than one supervisor. That means you’re trying to maintain harmony with multiple very significant others, who will have their own attitudes towards one another.
Phew! Supervision takes work.
As with marriages, there are good supervisory relationships and bad ones, plus all kinds in between. So how can you give yourself the best shot at an academic happily-ever-after?
Get a prenup
Prenuptial agreements aren’t just for celebrities anymore – plenty of engaged couples are signing them to ensure that their personal interests are secured within their marriage, and protected in the event of a divorce. You can set up a similar agreement with your supervisors to determine exactly what you each expect to put into the supervision relationship, and what you expect to get out. A supervision agreement typically lays out what each person’s responsibilities are, how often you’ll meet, what will happen with any intellectual property, and so on. There’s a template available for download here.
Share the chores fairly
The happiest marriages are those in which chores are shared. It’s scientifically proven. Unfortunately, you can’t ask your supervisors to each write an equal share of your thesis. But just as you have a responsibility to do your research, your supervisor has a responsibility to do their “chores” as well. At AUT, supervisors work to a Code of Practice (see p.91 in the Postgraduate Handbook) which states that they must (among other things) give timely and constructive feedback on written work, meet with you regularly, guide you through any ethics applications, and advise you throughout the research process.
Get counselling if you need it
Most relationships will occasionally need a tune-up. If your supervision relationship could use a little work, the first step is to try talking in an open, calm, and honest way with your supervisor. If you’ve tried that (or the problems are such that you don’t want to broach them directly) you can talk to the postgrad team in your faculty to set up a mediation or air any grievances. Your Associate Dean (Postgraduate) may be able to help – find contact details here. Check page 36 in the Postgraduate Handbook for more info on resolving grievances. You can also get professional counselling from the Health, Counselling and Wellbeing Centre.
Some problems are bigger than a simple grievance. There have been cases of sexual harassment and exploitation in supervisory relationships, and that’s not OK. If you’re experiencing anything like that, escalate the situation – go to your faculty Dean, Associate Dean (Postgraduate), and/or the Dean of Postgraduate Studies.
Divorce & remarriage may not be ideal, but it’s an option
You can apply to change supervisors. Sometimes that’s appropriate for entirely academic reasons – for instance if your topic has evolved and your supervisor’s experience is no longer the best match for your new research. Sometimes a change is appropriate if, for personal reasons, your current supervisory relationship isn’t productive. Whatever the case, it’s important to deal with a change above-board. That means going to your Associate Dean (Postgraduate) and Dean of your faculty, who will ensure that the change of supervisor is handled correctly. This Thesis Whisperer post has some great tips from a student who has been through the process of “breaking up” with a supervisor.
Don’t suffer silently through a bad relationship
It can be incredibly difficult to articulate problems with your supervision. Your supervisors are meant to be your champions, mentors, and future referees, so of course you don’t want to sully the relationships. But ultimately, if your supervision is not working for you, then it’s in everybody’s best interest to sort it out – including your supervisors and the University, since your success reflects on them. So if your supervisory relationships aren’t as they should be, don’t be afraid to work (diplomatically) towards a resolution.