When one’s absent supervisor gives good advice anyway

So. Hadn’t heard from principal supervisor in recent weeks, had sent her heaps of stuff to read, including my last and nearly complete narrative, my autoethnography and my nascent attempt to categorise everything from my narratives according to my research questions.

Was getting a little antsy because she had not replied in a few days to my latest email. And I understand when someone is furiously busy and can’t always fit one’s students into one’s busy schedule, but it has been seven weeks since my last meeting and I was just getting to that slightly frustrated, muttering under my breath stage, feeling like I can’t easily find my own path through without supe’s hand guiding me.

Anyhoo, she has written to me today with excellent advice, once again, and it’s becoming more and more positive (always nice to hear) and thought provoking. Her emails, although they might seem hard for some without added face-to-face contact, are usually very detailed. I’ve told her how I really appreciate the written comments, and even when they are critical I don’t mind because it helps clarify what I am trying to articulate. I know some of her students cry when sent an email – apparently her emails and critiques of written work can seem a little harsh or uncaring. These days I don’t have that reaction – I used to, before I realised she was just trying to do her job quickly. Often busy people aren’t good with pastoral care, but I’ve nutted out why she responds the way she does, and I do not take offense. It’s never meant to hurt, only to challenge my thinking. For this I am supremely grateful. She also offers via email some excellent solutions to problems, which is helpful.

I had a look through my email trail to supe, and I write to her every two weeks or so now. This means I am on target with my work output and that I need to discuss questions resulting from my analysis. It also shows that I actually do need more face-to-face time with supe, given this unexpected synchronicity.

Having devoured the PhD Comic Piled Higher and Deeper, I can for certain say there are many PhD candidates who feel as I do regarding the availability of their supervisor. Jorge Cham spends quite a lot of time lambasting his fictional supervisor, who appears to be much worse than mine. My supervisor just suffers from a surfeit of things to do and a corresponding deficit of time in which to do them. So if one is not particularly insistent or correspondy, one can get pushed to the back of the pile.

I think the role of the supervisor is a particularly difficult one. My better half supervises post-graduates, and he finds most of them really annoying because they have peculiar ideas about what makes a good thesis. Some submit drafts they think are the finished product, only to discover it is only the first in a long line of drafts. Usually these early drafts are poorly written, with terrible grammar and spelling the first among many culprits of bad work. Some submit ideas that really do not work in the long run or do not seem to make sense in the light of the whole thesis. Most submit work that is at times careless and hurried, with missing references and bad formatting. In a very few cases, his students come well prepared, with decent questions, work completed to a high standard and sensible ideas about what makes good work. He loves those students. For him it’s the opportunity to talk with them about higher order thinking, the nitty gritty detail of their study, and not be not bogged down in the mundane of poor writing and worse editing. He also notes that life invariably impacts on the work of his students and he spends quite a lot of time in counselling mode. Which I totally understand.

Although I’ve been to umpty-do seminars on how to write a decent thesis and a trillion confirmations and conferences, I still struggle to make sense of my work at times. I can take all the courses I want, but until I start writing, none of it really sinks in, and even then I have to go back over my old notes. And I’m one of the smart ones who can spell and write good (sic!). It’s at these times I need my supervisor.

Our supervisors are more than just critiques of our work – in many instances we need our supervisors to show good relatedness and pastoral care, especially at those times when we are feeling uncertain about the worth of our work. That is the thing I sometimes miss, but I appreciate the wisdom of my supervisors at these important times when I am about to embark on the last, most intensive part of my study. This is the pointy end, where the joy of discovery gives way to the despair of hard slog.

And I always need to remember that I am the product of my supervisor’s supervision. If the supervision is poor, my work will then be poor, because good teaching is vital in work of this nature. If my thesis is of a poor standard, it does not augur well for my supervisor’s reputation and standing, so it behooves my supes to maintain good connection with their students and to give 100% to them when needed. I am glad to say, this is what my principal supe does, when she has the time. I know that in the end my work will be better for her detailed critique. She knows, too, that I can take criticism and will alter my work to better meet her high standards.

So. Hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to corrections I go.

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