The hidden perks of bad supervision
What to do when your supervisor does not believe in you? Years on, I still can’t understand why she accepted to supervise me. Had she been a much younger professor, eager to get her first PhD student, I would have understood her desire to enter academic adulthood. But a full professor? Even at this stage of my career, I would not take someone whose topic falls so far from my own interests. If the person seems talented, I’d suggest a couple of doors to knock on, hoping that my colleagues have time to supervise them.
“We are craftsmen,” said a friend of mine. To learn to do the job we need someone more senior to teach us. “But what can she teach you?” he asked. I did not know at the time and I still don’t. But I am grateful to her anyway: she showed me the kind of power games that I would never want to be involved in; she showed me what careless supervision could do to a student and inspired my “do nots” list as a supervisor.
I am far from being the perfect supervisor myself but, you see, calm sea has never made a good sailor. I am grateful to all those who made my path more difficult. You need to face hardship to develop (professional) antibodies and stay healthy enough to cope with the challenges of your work environment.
I will always be grateful to her for her boycotts behind my spine when I was doing things that were not convenient for her politically; for her overemphasizing details without concentrating on the “real stuff,” or focussing on ‘form’ while apparently ignoring the content of my work. With a bit more support from her side, I would have stayed there and would not be what I am now.
I’ve had many informal advisors compensating for the fact that I was under-supervised for a long time. Whenever I would meet someone praising my work I would ask for advice. An interested and constructive discussant at a conference, a slightly more senior colleague I would be working with, a professor who coached me into a special issue of a journal. Any contact point was an excuse to get back to the person and ask “What do you think of this chapter/idea/article?” Would I have done it if my supervisor was more supportive? I do not think so. When your home is warm and cozy you rarely go out looking for challenges. But when they switch off the heating, you need to go to places and create your own path, as J. K. Rowling is said to have done, finding shelter from her under-heated flat in an Edinburgh pub, where Harry Potter was born.
I am also grateful to my second supervisor for dropping me after a few months. He was the real expert in the field but he was perhaps too busy with other things. So, in the end, the message I got was that he thought I was too dumb, unprepared or worth of his attention.
What to do when you realise that your main advisor is not really interested in your work? Find a second supervisor that has energy, competence, and interest. This is what a colleague, who guided and advised me informally during my PhD, told me. I had learned about him upon my supervisor’s suggestion. We met and he made it clear that he would not supervise me. “We study the same country but I am a historian,” he said. I respected him, he respected me. We are friends now.
Following a convincing introduction from our mutual colleague, my second supervisor invited me to deliver a presentation and then discuss the terms of our collaboration. He seemed cool, down-to-earth and was available to supervise me so we agreed I’d send him a chapter by the summer.
He never replied with feedback. After three messages, I eventually got a response: “I am busy; more soon.” We eventually met in person at a conference some months later.
I don’t like intercontinental travel. I travel a lot but try to limit long haul flights and I had flown across the Atlantic mainly to meet him but the outcome was not what I expected. His feedback sounded more or less like this: “You do not have the level I expect from a PhD student. Were you based at my university, I would ask you to take a few courses, flood you with homework and you’d eventually learn. But you live too far away so I can’t do anything. Goodbye.”
I was back to the initial situation; none of my advisors believed in me. What to do? Well, you can think they are right and drop it. But you eventually need only one person to believe in what you do and this person is you. Eventually, luck comes to those looking for it: at the conference, our discussant (a big name in my field) commended my work and gave me hope. Perhaps I was not that dumb, after all.
By the end of the conference, I understood that I would never finish my PhD under the current conditions. I was motivated to see the end of the process but I did not feel that my supervisor could offer any substantial guidance or advice so was not motivated to “write to then share with her my results.” Nor did I want to ask (once again? I was too ashamed of how my second supervisor had dropped me already) for another supervisor.
The tipping point eventually came. She said that I had enough material and I could think of formulating a theoretical argument. Not only did I do that, I even found myself thinking, “Wow, now that’s a great argument! Is it really me formulating it?” What I suggested at that time is at the center of my research focus today and I am proud of it. But she did not understand it or, also possible, did not really listen. And it is her not understanding me that forced me to make a choice: If your supervisor does not believe in what you do, would you follow them to change your path or not?
I decided that I’d rather change my supervisor. I contacted a professor at the end of her career. She worked at a less prestigious university, was virtually unknown to most of my colleagues, but was nice. She facilitated my transfer to her university that December and, thanks to a loophole, I was allowed to defend my thesis in no time. She read with passion what I wrote and was ready to correct my style. Each month I would submit a chapter, travel to Brussels and get the feedback she pencilled on my freshly printed chapter.
I submitted my thesis in April but my defence was not allowed. Two of the five people she chose for my committee declined her invitation. They claimed that my topic fell “short of their expertise” (translation: your supervisor is no longer powerful, even if I was her PhD student myself I do not fear upsetting her). Another member said my thesis was missing some important references. I agreed to meet her to learn about the missing references and discovered that she just wanted her works to be cited. Was this all academia was about? Satisfying egos of people higher than you on the scale?
But, again, here came another life lesson. If you are in trouble, do not be ashamed and admit it. Asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness and everyone gets there at some point of their life. However, if people around you do not know about your situation, why should they propose their help? A great limitation of my defence was that it had to be in French. But it is by talking openly about my “failure” to defend and my frustration that two senior colleagues (one of whom I did not even know could speak French) offered to come to my defence.
My supervisor was retiring next year so the defences of several students became a matter of urgency over quality for us. I could have written a better thesis. My chapters’ logical sequence was not flawless at all, my written French was criticized. My defence looked like a street fight, with grenade questions thrown in from all fronts.
But I made it and it was the last time I had to place my work in the hands of academic power games that I could not understand or alter. Once on the other side of the barricade, I don’t mind getting harsh critiques as a Dr. instead of a student. And that changes it all.
We celebrated in a small Greek restaurant in the Matonge (the Congolese neighbourhood in Brussels), not far from where she lived. I have not seen her for years but I will always be grateful for her help, for caring so much about me. When I defended, I was already working as a scientist and had benefited from feedback from so many colleagues. But the moral and emotional support she could offer was priceless and, in many respects, unique. I would never have reached the end without it.
To different extent, most PhD paths are riddled with obstacles, crises and turbulence (or open conflicts). Conflict, disagreement and rejection are part of life. But it is in those moment of crisis that you have the chance to learn lessons that will accompany you for life. Chances are that most of the negative things you’ve lived, once drained from emotions, will become lessons. And these lessons will teach you patience, empathy, solidarity, endurance and eventually to be content about your life.
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