Survival Guides for Supervisees and Supervisors:

A joint, dual-perspective review of Diana Leonard, A Woman’s Guide to Doctoral Studies (Open University Press, 2001), Rowena Murray’s How To Write a Thesis (Open University Press, 2002), and Estelle M. Phillips and Derek S. Pugh’s How To Get a PhD (Open University Press, 1987; 1994; 2000)

This review is a collaboration between Dr Mary Grover, who completed a PhD on ‘Warwick Deeping and the Middlebrow 1919-1940’ at Sheffield Hallam University in 2002, and Chris Hopkins, Principal Lecturer in English Studies and Head of the Humanities Research Centre at Sheffield Hallam University, who was her Director of Studies.

Mary Grover

Chris, the three guides in front of us appear to cater for every student’s need. What is clear from these guides is that they are, in part, written to protect the student from the absence of pedagogical consistency amongst supervisors. I was lucky; you rapidly communicated to me what your role in the process was to be, and what was expected of me. You knew when to curb as well as when to encourage; when I was confident enough to be told that my work was ‘theoretically naïve’; when I needed to be told to stop reading and write and where our different responsibilities lay. I was always given adequate deadlines which were made flexible when personal circumstances required, but your confirmation of my sense of the value of my research helped me assert my needs for the time needed for the work. Not every student experiences the quality of both professional and domestic support I enjoyed. So, when I read these guides I never got the sense that if ‘only had I known’ things would have been different and better. However they have confirmed the impression gained from talking to other post-graduate students that there is, for some, a huge amount of wasted time and unnecessary grief involved in the process of gaining a post-graduate degree. Do these guides offer students a way of avoiding the anguish that three to five unrewarding, and financially punishing years can precipitate?

The illustrations on the covers of two of the books, How to get a PhD and A Woman’s Guide to Doctoral Studies both suggest that the task ahead for the new student is comparable to extreme mountaineering (in the first case) or a game of snakes and ladders (in the second case). Neither image is reassuring. The cover of Rowena Murray’s How to Write a Thesis, on the other hand, suggests that our words will simply be visited on us from above, so that the form of the thesis is envisaged as a kind of crop circle carved out by benign celestial agency. This may not be an accurate representation of the writing process but it is less intimidating than the sense that success requires either super-human endeavour or a lucky fall of the dice. However the books themselves would not daunt the student. In How to get a PhD a useful chapter on ‘How not to Get a PhD’ stands well into the book at Chapter 4 when a tone of pragmatic optimism as been established. However, in the opening pages of A Woman’s Guide to Doctoral Studies, Diana Leonard refers to the whole process as being, potentially, ‘a series of traps’ (Leonard 2). Though this can seem true it may induce the kind of wariness in a supervisee that develops into a crippling paranoia.

Despite first impressions all three books combine well to give the student a sense that self-management is the key to the successful completion of a PhD and that success does not require you to be an intellectual Tenzing, white male or poet. However How to Get a PhD and A Woman’s Guide both raise the student’s awareness of the extent to which the structure or culture of the academy needs as much management as the process of personal study. The warning that ‘women are too inclined to attribute … negative experiences to our own shortcomings (rather than institutional failings)’ (Leonard 4) would alert the student, of whatever sex, to the fact that success will depend as much on the culture of the institution as her abilities and effort.

This is the reason why I would suggest that any student started by reading A Woman’s Guide to Doctoral Studies. Though the book can be criticised for suggesting that the patriarchy is there to ‘trap’ you at every turn, it could be profitably be read by student or supervisor of any gender because, to a greater extent than either of the other two books, it encourages the student to see herself as a member of an academic community rather than as alone on a mountain or game-board. By immersing the reader in a quantity of research, boxed apart from the argument which it illustrates and by keeping the focus of the argument on one set of issues, the book is a closer approximation to the shape of the PhD thesis than either of the others. As such the student learns from the medium as much as from the message. But such consciousness-raising guides would be most usefully addressed to both sexes. Awareness of the destructive effects on women of the kind of ‘chilly climate’ in matters of gender (Leonard 202) would be as well addressed to male students and supervisors. There is a place for another book on the gender issues and the culture of postgraduate studies’ addressed to both sexes. Though I had none of the problems of sexist and abusive behaviour dealt with in Chapter 7, the first five chapters on the way in which unequal power relations can be destructive in the university taught me much about the ways in which the power structures of a university are constructed. Techniques of self-management are only useful when a student has a realistic assessment of what is not his or her responsibility to ‘manage’, whether it be abusive, racist, sexist behaviour or a supervisor’s incompetence or neglect.

How to Get a PhD by Estelle M. Phillips and Derek S. Pugh is the only guide I read when I was beginning my research and it appears to start at the beginning of the process. The first page suggests that it is to be read both sequentially and as a reference book. This dual function immediately poses two of the problems facing the writers of such guides: the way they will be read and who will read them. Though the writers acknowledge that the experience of science and arts students differs widely, in fact, their section on ‘writing-up’, is, I imagine, more relevant to the arts than the science student (Phillips and Pugh 66-73). At the end of the book there is a revealing section on the pressures on science students who are members of a research team to both compete and cooperate with other members of the team. This is useful warning about the kind of culture operating in science departments but there is no guidance of how this culture might affect the nature of one’s writing; presumably the writing process is shaped by the need for reporting within the group. Though the authors have researched the pedagogic culture within the science academy their book is inevitably coloured by their own background in the social rather than the physical sciences. So it is difficult to imagine a science student using this book as a reference book, though read at a sitting it does convey the need for self-reliance in the completion of any PhD. Chapter 8, ‘How to Manage your supervisor’, is a particularly effective attempt to free both supervisor and supervisee from the expectation that the student is the passive recipient of direction. In fact that is more likely to be the case in a science department where the student’s choice of topic and method is far more constrained by the nature of the department as a whole. It appears from university web-sites that science departments are usually more transparent about the roles of responsibilities of students and supervisors than are humanities departments. Science departments offer many more on-line guides to the management of a PhD than do Humanities Departments. This book would help students entering a department where such roles are ill-defined and equip them to develop a set of reasonable expectations of their supervisors.

Unlike the other two guides How to Get a PhD does not use the format boldly to distinguish between different kinds of discourse. The headings and sub-headings, though logical, do not articulate the direction of the book. This suggests that the reader should read it as a continuous argument. This way of reading does not, however, suit the material, both because the nature of a PhD differs so profoundly depending upon its academic content and because PhD students comes from such widely divergent backgrounds. There could have been different pathways through the book for science and arts graduates and for the foreign and indigenous student. Though all the relevant information is there for both groups, it is easy to start skipping when material irrelevant to one’s own subject area arises or when the information is familiar. It is then a difficult book to return to when the skipping is done because it does not, despite its format, have a structure which reflects a progressive process but a set of aspects of the experience of ‘getting’ a PhD most of which are interdependent rather than sequential. Many students I know have dipped into the book in this way and therefore found it rather unsatisfactory in spite of the sound advice and information contained within it.

Of the three, only How to Write a Thesis suggests how it should be read, ‘strategically to locate the “problem” or challenge that you are facing at any given time’ (Murray xiv). Because of its format it is easy to dot about this book, sampling advice (based on extensive knowledge of pedagogical research in this field). It is a helpful book both because of the clarity of the focus at each point in the book and its acknowledgement that different skills are acquired simultaneously, not always sequentially. At every point, at the beginning and end of each chapter and in the use of boxes and sub-headings the structure of the book is clearly articulated. My problem with it, which reflects a problem I had with writing in general, is that there are sections which deal so lengthily with process that I got bored. I suspect my impatience with method, process and technical conventions may handicap many would-be researchers. This book makes it easy to return to if the reader has been tempted away from the uncomfortable acquisition of basic skills to the morass of half-digested material which is the unique ‘stuff’ of one’s PhD and which can flatter the ambition (of an arts student, at any rate) that the form of one’s thesis might be as idiosyncratic as one’s material. Rowena’s Murray’s style is direct and authoritative; as a reference manual the value of her book is obvious. However, the space allocated to free and generative writing is, perhaps, counter-productive. I did begin to feel that the author’s enthusiasm for ‘unlocking’ techniques was so great that my day could have been spent limbering up; but I suspect that again this reflects my impatience to engage directly with the material and to ignore my technical deficiencies. I did wonder whether the techniques described were more relevant to the writing of an arts thesis than a science thesis where the conventions vary minutely according to the subject area. Perhaps the book needed to be explicitly addressed to arts students.

Were the editors at the Open University Press to start again I would request a hand-book, shorter than Rowena Murray’s, which was explicitly sectioned to offer techniques for various discrete purposes or aimed directly at a particular subject area. How to Get a PhD could be issued in two versions, one for arts and one for science students. However Diana Leonard’s book should remain as it is but with the title, ‘Gender issues in Doctoral Studies’. If the book were directed at both sexes this would have the benefit of heightening awareness amongst men of how discriminatory many styles of supervising can be and how departments can institutionalise gender bias. It is also a book that can be read at the beginning of the process and which would then remain in the consciousness of the student. That is difficult in the case of the other two.

In conclusion, no guide can fully compensate for the skills of a supervisor who takes teaching seriously. A student is never ready for a bookful of information about process when they are at the beginning of the experience of a PhD. Students need an active supervisor upon whom they can trust to raise their awareness of different aspects of the process when they are ready to respond. As all these valuable guides suggest, the relationship with the supervisor is the key ingredient to successful completion of a PhD because a student cannot intervene in her own learning process. So I would urge the Open University to produce a book, perhaps a companion to Pat Cryer’s The Research Student’s Guide to Success (Buckingham: Open University Press) which helps heighten awareness amongst supervisors of the power their interventions have and to equip them to discharge responsibilities to students who have entrusted them with three to five years of their lives.

Chris Hopkins

Mary, I think, looking back, that I enjoyed supervising your doctoral work a great deal not only because of the stimulating and original subject matter, but because our ‘power relations’ were not (generally) problematic to either of us. We came, I think, to understandings which enabled us both to carry out our roles in concert rather than in opposition or misunderstanding. Of course one might expect supervisorial co-operation generally to be the case: the doctoral student pins their hopes on completing sucessfully a challenging project, the supervisor is an expert in a relevant area, has shared intellectual interests, has usually been a research student him/herself and will usually have a professional reputation to grow, enhance or maintain. It would seem logical that both supervisor and supervisee should want to progress together, and I have known of many instances where this has been true. But it does not always work out that way, as you suggest, as these three guides confirm, and as I know from my own somewhat unhappy experience of being a doctoral student some twenty years ago. You had, by nature, and through the experience of your teaching career, a co-operative approach to work, but also had skills in negotiating, and, at times, of ensuring that you did follow your own line rather than mine (given that your thesis was on middlebrow negotiations of and resistances to ‘cultural authority and ‘cultural capital’ in the interwar period, perhaps this was not surprising). I recall that I had a strong idea of what your final chapter ought to contain, and that in the end you did something very different and, as it turned out, entirely valid. Though I was Director of Studies, there was also a supervisory team of two other colleagues, and a completion team who had not been involved in the supervision up to that point. You did take colleagues’ advice, which sometimes offered different perpectives from mine, and acted on it. It was not a relationship without differences or challenge, but these were focussed on the project rather than on our own positions, or anxieties about our identities.

So, I entirely agree with your sense in your review-article that there can never in a supervisory relationship be an absence of negotiations about authority. The superviser should have the expertise in what constitutes valid academic discourse in their subject and area to be able to advise their supervisee on how to get their work to PhD standard, but they must also allow (or better, enable?) the student to develop their own ideas, and, indeed, their own personal version of the discourse of their discipline. This involves both an exercise of authority or authorisation and a willingness to draw back, to see students make their own readings (or misreadings) and at some stage to see the student as someone who will have equal authority with the supervisor (and, indeed, greater authority on their particular thesis subject). This willingness not to exercise power directly, is, of course, desirable in all kinds of teaching and learning in higher education: the goal is to enable students to make their own meanings, not to reproduce the meanings which a priestly caste have already authorised, and yet those student meanings must in the end make sense in terms of a discourse which is accepted as having authority. Part of the problem here is, of course, that there is no single authoritative or utterly dominant discourse within any discipline (though this may perhaps be less true of science research), but there are parameters beyond which work is not valid. The mixture of ‘validation’ and ‘licence’ is particularly vital in doctoral study where originality is so important and where relationships are so clearly between individuals rather than between a group and a tutor. Many research students and many supervisors have had experience of situations in which the balance between authority and liberty has been problematic. Estelle M. Phillips and Derek S. Pugh’s How To Get a PhD give the striking example of a Professor who does not believe in ‘spoon-feeding’:

Professor Shepherd is a supervisor very few of whose students finish their PhDs. This is surprising, because he is a very well-known academic in his field, has a lively intelligence and an outgoing personality – which is why he continues to attract students to supervise. But Professor Shepherd believes in treating research students as adults, as he puts it – forgetting that students are babes in research terms! He believes that it is the supervisor’s job to challenge his students, to shake them up mentally, to bombard them with new ideas. He goes on doing this throughout the duration of the research, even when more convergence, more limitations are required to complete the study. Because of this overestimation, many students find they have taken on too large a project, which they do not see becoming more focused. They get disheartened and drop out. (p. 40).

(Professor Shepherd clearly has no sense of the pastoral aspects of teaching . . .). There are many variations on the theme of exercising too much power, too little authority, or of curious combinations of domination and abdication. Moreover, this is true for supervisees as well as supervisors: there are many ways not to negotiate supervision successfully. Thus some supervisors cannot listen to anything which does not accord with what they would say about this research topic; some supervisees find it hard to listen to any of the suggestions or cues made to them; some supervisors are unwilling to exercise any authority, saying that everything is fine, absolutely fine (often resulting in a failed or referred thesis); some supervisors fail to suggest any sense of possible structure (often preventing the research student from getting anywhere near the point of submission) and so on. Perhaps then it is not surprising that in these three guides to the experience of studying for a PhD, the relationship between doctoral student and supervisor is often emphasised (if not pictorially – with one cover illustration, as you observe, seeing the process as a solo climb, another as a visitation of words from above and the third as a game of chance, though here the supervisor does appear on two game-board-squares as an obstacle).

I agree that there is much that is useful in each of the three books, though I felt initially the very different senses of the academic world given in each which, naturally, affect their representations of the doctoral and supervisory experience. Estelle M. Phillips and Derek S. Pugh’s How To Get a PhD suggests a rational world where clarity in method will enable you to overcome obstacles; Rowena Murray’s How To Write a Thesis also envisages an orderly approach to the problem of writing a thesis, though acknowledging that the vagaries of the mind must be harnessed, and ‘fear and loathing’ (p.193) overcome; Diana Leonard sees a world full of traps almost everywhere, a slightly paranoid universe where one must ‘escape the hectic world of the new higher education’ even to write such a book (Acknowledgements, p. ix), where ‘understanding what now seems a series of traps is essential’ (p. 1). Nevertheless, there is also much in common between all three books – particularly an acute awareness that things can and do go wrong for PhD students, that supervisors do not always know how to manage their relationships with you, and that students can, and indeed must, assume agency within an understanding of what doctoral study means.

I thought that A Woman’s Guide to Doctoral Studies was in an immediate way the least tightly focused on the doing of a PhD. by an individual student, since part of its project is to give an account of the wider power relations within which women, and actually, male research students study:‘ while the book is aimed mainly at women, it has a lot in it of interest to men, since many problems are common to both sexes, though with a gender dimension’ (p.3). However, it does give a very engaged sense of the histories of power in higher education which a doctoral student may well find being played out as part of their experience. Thus though the first chapter ‘Understanding the Rules of the Game’ seem at first to give a rather macroscopic view, the ideas here about power and purpose and gender in UK higher education since the 1960s do valuably inform all of the following chapters which deal more specifically with the experiences of the doctoral student. The quotations throughout the text in shaded boxes, sometimes from published sources, sometimes from Diana Leonard’s own anonymised interviews with research students and supervisors, usefully interweave the larger picture with the individual’s possible experience of its consequences, and vice-versa.

Estelle M. Phillips and Derek S. Pugh’s How To Get a PhD is less polemical in tone, and engages more immediately with the detail of what it means to be a doctoral student (particularly in a very useful opening chapter, ‘Becoming a Postgraduate Student’). But it does, in fact, raise related issues to those covered by Diana Leonard’s book, as the following chapter titles suggest: ‘How to Manage Your Supervisor’ (chapter 8) and ‘How to Survive in a Predominantly British, White, Male, Full-time Academic Environment’ (chapter 9). Both ‘ How to Manage Your Supervisor’ and ‘How not to Get a PhD’ (chapter 4) explore key issues, and suggest ways of building productive relationships between the project and the research student and between research student and supervisor. At the end of each chapter is a concise list of action points, summarising what you, the doctoral student, can do having read the chapter’s discussion of the issues; for example at the end of chapter 4, there is the rather stark action point 2:

You need to educate your supervisor continually. First, on your research topic in which you are fast becoming the expert. Second, on ways of understanding how the supervisory role can best help in your own professional development (p.119).

However, the book is very much aware that it is not always all the supervisor’s problem; the chapter on ‘How not to get a PhD’ makes its points with a persuasive irony:

We want now to examine some very well established ways of not getting a PhD . . . In our experience, these tried and tested ways of failing apply to all fields and have to be pondered continually by all research students. You have to be clear what your position is on each of the seven ways of failing that we shall discuss . . . (p. 33).

Each of the seven ways of failing seems entirely recognisable, and I felt this was a very valuable chapter, raising awareness of both the level of the challenge and the ways in which we can delude ourselves, not hear advice, not understand the task and so on. The seven paths to not getting a PhD are worth quoting:

Not wanting a PhD

Not Understanding the Nature of a PhD by overestimating what is required

Not Understanding the Nature of a PhD by underestimating what is required

Not Having a supervisor who knows what a PhD requires

Losing Contact with your Supervisor

Not having a Thesis

Taking a New Job Before Finishing (section headings to chapter 4).

It is notable that these paths include misconceptions on the part of the student, but also the possibility that supervisors may have misconceptions, which the doctoral student needs to identify for their own preservation.

It should be said from the outset that Rowena Murray’s How To Write a Thesis has a more specific project than either of the other two guides reviewed. It is not about the whole doctoral experience, but is focused on the central issue of writing the thesis. It thus refers to many of the issues covered in the other two books, but is more specifically focused. The first (and substantial) chapter, ‘Thinking about Writing a Doctorate’ does, however, explore quite widely in order to lay the ground for the book’s later discussions of writing. Thereafter the chapters are devoted to enabling research students to become good at writing. I felt the chapter on ‘Becoming a Serial Writer’ was very valuable, showing cogently that writing needs to become a central part of life, a way of thinking and an activity which you do preferably every day. The advice is highly practical but is also based in pedagogic research about writing – as is illustrated by the suggestive quotation from R. Boice’s Writers as Professors: A Self-Help Guide to Productive Writing (1990) at the beginning of the ‘Becoming a Serial Writer’ chapter (p.150): ‘Writers fare best when they begin before feeling fully ready. Motivation comes most reliably in the wake of regular involvement’.

Each of these books is equally useful, I think, to supervisors and supervisees. If I had to recommend just one to either the beginning research student or beginning supervisor, I would differ from you in choosing Estelle M. Phillips and Derek S. Pugh’s How To Get a PhD, as giving the most useful overall account, although I take your point, Mary, that it does not use layout or formatting as effectively as either of the other two guides. I found Diana Leonard’s A Woman’s Guide to Doctoral Studies stimulating, and sympathise with its critique of what has happened in the past and more recently in UK higher education, but I would worry that a beginning research student might feel that things are so hopeless that it might be better not even to attempt to play the doctoral research game. Rowena Murray’s How To Write a Thesis is instructive on how to write successfully, though I too felt that there was in the end a lot of time spent on specific approaches to generating writing, which might not be the major issue for all students: I would recommend it to research student having difficulties in writing.

In the past some PhD supervisors have got away with things which would not have been tolerated in undergraduate teaching even in more relaxed days, but I think supervisory arrangements and expectations are becoming more explicit nearly everywhere (if not always lived up to). So I hope that the most blatant examples of neglect discussed in these guides might be on the decline. I think, Mary, you are entirely right to say that good supervision is really a matter of taking teaching seriously; any supervisor who reads these guides would benefit from their discussion of the dynamics of a kind of teaching which is for the student (and I would have thought for the supervisor) so potentially highly fulfilling and yet if mishandled so high-risk.