It was a cold and windy day. At least, that’s how I remember it. I knew my supervisors both had announcements to make. I had no idea what to expect, so I was apprehensive. Then it happened. Within the space of a few minutes, both of my supervisors had vanished.
I should probably start at the beginning…
I had a senior lecturer (SL) and a Professor (P) as my supervisors. There were a few other PhD students in my department, but not many, and in my first year, I had relatively little contact with any of them. It was a fairly lonely existence, but I still had my supervisors and a third academic called my advisor, that I could go to. I didn’t really get on with my supervisors on a personal level, but there was no doubt that we had, on the whole, productive research meetings and conversations. At the end of my first year, both of my supervisors mentioned that they had something important to tell me. These announcements were made not just to me, but to other staff and students in the department. By the end of those announcements, not only did my supervisors vanish, but my whole career as a PhD student was in jeopardy.
The first announcement came from P. P had decided to retire, effective within a few months. The second announcement came from SL. SL had accepted a job offer on the other side of the country and would be leaving, effective within a few months. This second announcement was followed by the words “As you are still in your first year, I will not be continuing your supervision by distance-learning”. It was therefore up to my university to assign me new supervisors.
This was a big blow to me – both supervisors gone at once??!! It took me a while to absorb the implications of that. First, there was a danger I would no longer be able to receive the subject-specific guidance I needed to continue. Second, if that danger was realised, would I have to drop out of my PhD?
My university assigned my advisor to take over as one of my supervisors. The advisor’s field of study was very different to mine, so there was only a certain amount of guidance that person could provide. P on the other hand remained on my official documentation as supervisor, despite being retired from the University. This produced the added complication that even though P was listed on the documentation, because P had retired, P could no longer be held accountable by the university, so there were no regular meetings and getting a hold of P to read my written work and give feedback for example, became very difficult.
So, how was I going to deal with this? One supervisor who wasn’t a subject expert and one who was, but not within easy reach?
Partially due to the issues I mentioned in parts one and two of this blog post and partially due to academic necessity, I made contact with many academics both within and outside of my institution. I asked several experts in various areas to read a relevant thesis chapter and I had several appointments with a statistician to check my calculations. Sometimes, rather than reading whole chapters, I would give experts a bit of background and ask them to comment on specific ideas or pathways in my thesis. I found these experts to be quite generous with their time, probably because I never asked anyone beyond my immediate team to read more than a chapter so as not to be a burden. I received some useful feedback and several interesting suggestions on the wider thesis, despite the fact that some people I reached out to were not experts in my field. Last but not least, for the practical things like learning how to use SPSS and getting willing volunteers for me to practice some of my experimental techniques on, my fellow PhD students and Research Associates were an invaluable resource. The number of times I asked a fellow PhD student about a calculation or about an interpretation of something; it was wonderful to have them there. It seemed like everyone in my support network was willing to help me fill the gap that losing two supervisors had left.
Although there were plenty of other helpful and knowledgeable people around, being proactive was key! I was the one who had to reach out. I was the one who had to provide relevant written work for these people to feedback on. I was the one who had to interpret their feedback and decide how to move forward. I was the one who still had to meet PhD deadlines, perform analyses, make conclusions and write all of this in a coherent thesis, even when feedback from P was not forthcoming. So in that sense, it would have been easy to let the vanishing supervisors murder my thesis. I could have decided that it was too difficult to continue and dropped out. In my case, I think three things helped make my PhD success possible: 1) my attitude of not wanting to quit; 2) my willingness to proactively seek out other forms of guidance and 3) my fantastic support network.
Even if you are not experiencing a case of the vanishing supervisors, being proactive and inviting the feedback of others, like those you meet at a conference for example, will enrich you as a researcher and will no doubt enrich your thesis. Equally, never underestimate the value of having and building a support network, plus the ability to maintain a positive outlook, even when things look bleak.
So that’s it for this three-part blog post. Now you know how loneliness, supervisor relationships, bereavements, relationship breakdowns and vanishing supervisors all conspired to murder my thesis. If I could leave readers with one key message, it is that if I was able to finish this PhD journey successfully and stop my thesis from being murdered, you can too 🙂