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Make the Most of a Supervisor-Scholar Relationship by Striking the Perfect Balance
“Mentoring is a brain to pick, an ear to listen, and a push in the right direction.”
- John C. Crosby, American Politcian
The pursuit of academics is noble and fulfilling as it follows suit of the innate human desire for broadening the vistas of knowledge and wisdom. The ones who seem unfazed in the face of the daunting task of pursuing a PhD know that a promising world of academia awaits them at the end of their stressful and harrowing journey. However, with the able guidance and support of the right supervisor, you will be able to handle the stress and sail through the scholar years like a pro, enjoying the process as well as yielding excellent results.
It is no secret that the future of your PhD rests on the pillars of your relationship with your supervisor – the more balanced it is, the better it is for your academic progress and development. But what exactly is that point of balance? Moreover, how does one define it? For a clearer understanding of an ideal relationship between a scholar and a supervisor, take a look at the roles and expectations from their perspectives.
Every scholar and every supervisor is different as so are their relationships. Having their own sets of idiosyncrasies, each has a different set of power dynamics and ways of functioning. You can often come across stories of some odd professor rarely turning up for the discussions with the scholar or the scholar who played truant quite often with his supervisor. There have been instances of supervisors treating the scholars under them as mere research assistants for their projects and ultimately neglecting their PhD issues and worries or some scholar who would never submit drafts on time, resulting in the late submission of the PhD thesis. However, like in every relationship, a supervisor-scholar relationship works both ways as well and has a set of two-way expectations. Let us first take a look at the basic expectations that a scholar has from his supervisor and vice-versa.
As a scholar, you may expect the following from your supervisor.
- Careful perusal of all the drafts that you submit to him or her
- Prompt feedback and constructive critique of your work that helps you grow academically
- Having a patient ear for your research perspective and queries
- Maintaining a liaison with the university administration on your behalf to help you with any issues or problems, of both academic and non-academic nature
- Engaging discussions on the intellectual level and (possibly) introducing you to his sphere of academicians
Similarly, supervisors have the following set of expectations from the scholars whom they guide.
- Maintaining the deadlines and timely submission of drafts and other work related to your PhD
- Having an open mind and listening to his critique carefully
- Learning from your mistakes and growing academically, paying heed to his suggestions and feedback
- Being assertive and not being intimidated so that you can ask him questions and seek their answers freely, making way for an enriching academic exchange
- Keeping the drafts streamlined and not overburdening him with too frequent requests for meetings and editing help
- Being a responsible scholar with a presentable attitude towards the university administration.
Scholar-supervisor relationships – The issue of power dynamics
Based on the sets of expectations, leading psychologists have identified the variables responsible for so many eccentricities in the scholar-supervisor relationships. As mentioned earlier, the type of relationship that you two share can have lasting impacts on your PhD, and it is essential to understand that the supervisor knows how much of the power rests in his hands. The power dynamics of the entire process is thus crucial for discussion and finding the right balance for the PhD process to work out favorably for both of you.
The variables discussed below affect the relationship between a supervisor and a scholar greatly, and the perfect balance between them is imperative for ensuring a smooth transition from your scholar to recognised academician phase. One glance through the categories and you will easily be able to identify the one where you and your supervisor fit.
- Variables of relationship behaviour
The variables of relationship behaviour explain the type of behaviour and interaction that you and your supervisor share. The places where you meet for the discussions, the kind of words that you use to converse as well as your body language towards each other are the tiny and detailed aspects that consist of the variables of relationship behaviour from a psychological perspective. Having a keen eye for these details and noticing the power-structure of your relationship will help you in the long run as you will know what to do and the ideal ways to behave with your supervisor and what to expect in return. The following are the two major types of relationship behaviour among supervisor and scholars.
- Formal/ businesslike
If you keep your discussions concise and on-point, that is, if you hardly ever discuss anything apart from your PhD topic, research proposal and design, research mechanism and tools as well the philosophy behind framing the research hypothesis, then yours is a businesslike or formal relationship. Note that these discussions usually take place within the campus premises and preferably at the supervisor's office or the university library, rarely ever venturing into general topics like the weather or your families. Inviting you over to his house for dinner or showing an active interest in your philatelic pursuits are not usual occurrences in this kind of relationship.
Pros: Increased efficiency in delivering the tasks, more time devoted to the research topic and areas of focus, and careful consideration of the submission deadlines
Cons: Too formal relationships leading to increased dissent regarding the research areas, research design and methodology as well as missing out on networking opportunities with academic contemporaries
- Informal/ personal
The informal or personal relationship structure of the supervisor-scholar relationship is a wholly different world where your supervisor treats you more like a friend than a scholar pursuing his PhD under his guidance. If you meet over drinks, discuss politics, family, and he has introduced you to the contemporary academics of his time and field, then you two share a camaraderie that is quite sought-after and hard to come by. However, in these kinds of relationships, the discussions on work tend to take a backseat and might be ignored for days. In these kinds of relationships, you will share a greater level of frankness with your supervisor and have a healthy exchange of ideas on practically all topics under the sun, bringing in a refreshing working ambience for both of you. While it can be fulfilling in many aspects, these kinds of relationships require a lot of effort from both the supervisor and the scholar to keep track of the academic aspects of the PhD in check.
Pros: More free and healthy exchange of ideas and developing a bond that can be cherished for a lifetime
Cons: Lackadaisical attitude on behalf of both the supervisor and the scholar, resulting in sloppiness and tardiness in submission
These variables significantly influence the power dynamics of the relationship between the scholar and supervisor. While sharing drinks with your supervisor over healthy discussions on world politics might seem like an alluring idea, there have been instances of supervisors taking undue advantage of all kinds (from unpaid babysitting jobs for their kids to sleazy proposals of taking the relationship to a whole ‘new’ level) from the scholars. On the other hand, too stand-offish and distant level of interaction between the two hampers the free flow of ideas and healthy exchange of points of view that is necessary for an academic pursuit of the higher levels.
- Type of task execution
The type of task execution covers the logistical aspects of the relationship. The task execution sees the exact process involved in the interaction pattern between you and your supervisor. The attitudes in the discussions, the frequency of such meetings and the eye for detail regarding your research are the key factors that affect the task execution factor of your relationship. The following are the two major categories of task execution in a scholar-supervisor relationship.
- Product-driven task execution
If your supervisor is very diligent about the meetings, keeps a regular tab of your progress and always encourages you to turn up for the meetings armed with the scores of drafts you have written so far, then the task execution aspect of your relationship is product-driven. In these kinds of relationships, the supervisor is more into discussing the product and ensures that there is no option for you to have a laidback attitude towards the writing aspect of your thesis. However, he might even cancel or reschedule the meetings in case you miss deadlines and be overtly neglecting in his duties if you show the slightest signs of sloppiness. These kinds of relationships keep the scholar on their toes all the time, giving them little or no scope for writer's block or other issues.
Pros: Keeping a tab of all the deadlines and timely submission of drafts
Cons: Very rigorous task execution process, giving the scholar not much space for innovation or detailing the process with the supervisor
- Process-driven task execution
The process-driven task execution is a comparatively freer form of scholar-supervisor relationship and allows space for the scholar to have his say regarding the research design and drafting. The supervisor is more of a friendly mentor and helps the scholar resolve the issues of writer’s block or helps them cope with the stress of writing through sharing the experience of their PhD days. The process-driven task execution aspect of the scholar-supervisor relationship keeps the flow of work dynamic and healthy. However, the supervisor and the scholar might both get a bit lackadaisical with their attitude towards the deadlines that results in burning the midnight candle on the nights before the important submission dates and a lot of cramming on the part of the scholar. Scheduling frequent meetings with the scholar to help him through the entire process and not only focusing on his drafts, but the supervisor also takes the relationship to newer heights and offering his hand as more of a friend than an intimidating figure in the world of academics.
Pros: Prompt resolution of the stumbles faced in the writing and drafting process as well as a thorough and mutual understanding of the research design and structure between the scholar and supervisor for better scholastic expression of the discipline
Cons: Occasional negligence to the deadlines resulting in issues with the administrative bodies as well as meandering and long-winding discussions driven by the process with less focus on product that hinders the qualitative aspect of the PhD thesis
The variables of task execution are directly linked to the variables of relationship behaviour and together create the framework of the type of relationship between the supervisor and the scholar. While each supervisor-scholar relationship is unique, the general traits of all of them fall within the structure of the variable framework formed jointly by the relationship behaviour and task execution aspects of the relationship. While having an open mind towards the constructive critique of your work is what you should continuously strive to achieve, your supervisor too should be open to discussions on the problems you faced while drafting a particular chapter or how you want your research design to be like ideally.
Expert tips to strike the perfect balance
Playing a vital role in your academic career, your supervisor is a go-to person who supports you right from the first draft to final submission of your PhD and beyond. In many cases, the scholar and the supervisor form bonds to cherish for a lifetime. These enriching relationships help both of them grow academically and personally, drawing insights and lessons learnt from their time together, spending hours on directing the course of the research in the right direction for the best outcome of all the hard work put in.
However, the reality is not so rosy at all and many struggle to find the right ‘fit’; what ensues is chaotic and often causes myriad unforeseen problems in the academic sphere for both of them. What, then, are the ways to prevent or overcome these issues in a relationship between a supervisor and a scholar? With one’s heart at the right place and the perfect amount of determination and perseverance, it is possible to have a supervisor-scholar relationship that benefits them both and is one to cherish all through your life.
Here are a few tips that will surely come in handy if you wish to achieve that perfect point of balance in your relationship with your PhD supervisor, who is not only your mentor in the academic sphere, but also has the potential to become a friend, philosopher and guide for life.
- Frankness is the best policy
Lay down your cards at the outset. If you want to establish a fulfilling relationship with your supervisor, it is always best to clearly outline your research topic, research question and area of focus on the very first day that you meet. After the initial ice-breaking session, when the conversation takes a more scholastic turn, gently yet firmly establish your views on your research topic and at the end encourage him to give his feedback on your views. It may be possible that you two have a difference in opinion or that you do not agree upon the focus area, but be sure that the notes of dissent are all discussed and resolved through further meetings instead of being kept all pent up. Unresolved points of dissent, like in any relationship, come back to haunt the power imbalances between the scholar and the supervisor and you do not want to be the scholar who gets strong-armed into an area of focus where he had no intention of shedding light upon through his particular research.
- Keep in touch
Keeping in touch with your supervisor is one of the essential factors in maintaining a perfect balance in your relationship. This is especially effective if your supervisor happens to be a renowned academician with frequent trips abroad on his academic schedule. While it is not feasible for you to chase him through the world, tailing the conferences he attends and the international assignments he is on, an email or text every now and then helps to keep your research at the top of his mind. It is important that you express your interest in taking your research forward under his able guidance. However, be careful to not go overboard with communication – you do not want to irk him with three emails per day detailing every little development in the course of your research while he is away on a foreign assignment.
- Stick to deadlines (well, most of the time)
While this is not rocket science, maintaining deadlines can be hard at times, especially when you have been facing a writer's block or have some doubts about the style of writing in relation to your research question. Remember, it always scores a point with your supervisor if you are prompt about the deadlines that are set and if you actively seek his advice and guidance regarding your drafts. Make sure that you maintain the deadlines as much as you can so that there is more time left for redrafting and thorough proofreading towards the end of your research.
- Be open to criticism
As a scholar in pursuit of greater knowledge, you should always keep an open mind to the critique of your work. One of the persistent problems that rock the power dynamics of a scholar-supervisor relationship is the issues arising from the points of dissent regarding the quality of focus of work submitted by the scholar. In extreme cases, the supervisor gets overtly critical and rejects all the drafts, editing the original piece of work out of sight. But most issues arise when a suggestion of the slightest of editing irks the scholar. As a scholar, you should always be open to the criticism for your work and try to incorporate your supervisor’s suggestions (unless absolutely preposterous) in your PhD drafts.
- Assertive all the way
Let’s face it – your supervisor has full knowledge of the amount of power that rests in his hands as far as your PhD is concerned. This does not mean that he can take you for a ride and make you assist him in his research projects while totally neglecting your PhD work. In the cases that situations like these arise, handle them maturely. Assert your views firmly and gently in a meeting or discussion session with your supervisor. Do not set him off with direct allegations of negligence; instead, you may hint at the deadlines looming large and guide his focus towards your work for a change. If you are not firm on your ground, you will have that ground taken away from you, as is the rule of the world and your supervisor will not be an exception. So be assertive with him as much as you can to keep the power dynamics of your relationship on balance.
- Be on your guard
Unpalatable as it may seem, there have been instances of supervisors trying to establish a "too friendly" relationship with the scholar under him or her, throwing caution and work ethics to the wind. Lest you fall prey to such sleazy proposals, it is always advisable to be on your guard. May you not face any such issue with your supervisor, but in case you do, be prompt and report the incident to the authorities. While many might advise you to "handle things delicately" and "not go about making a fuss", you must put your foot down in resolving issues such as these. Remember that it is because too many scholars were scared of "what might happen" to their PhDs if they reported incidents of this nature to the authorities but from the supervisor's point of view, it is a gross abuse of his position of power over you, and no one should get away with that.
One of the most fulfilling and enriching of relationships, the scholar-supervisor bond, if maintained along with the perfect balance in power dynamics and levels of interaction, might reap benefits for both of the people involved. The scholar should ideally get a guardian angel-turned-guide for life in his supervisor, and the supervisor should receive an engaging colleague in the similar pursuit of academia in the scholar. The supervisor-scholar relationship thus works out perfectly with the proper amount of balance and camaraderie.
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