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Is There Such a Thing as a Bad Supervisor?

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Over the course of my education and teaching career, I have had the experience of being both a supervisor and a supervisee. Both experiences have provided me with the opportunities to develop personally and professionally, but of importance, being in each role has allowed me to gain an understanding of what it’s like to be on each side of those relationships.

While I was studying towards my BSc and MRes psychology degrees, I completed dissertation projects under the supervision of two different staff members. Before studying, I thought that all supervisors would be the same and would offer the same level of support, but I have never been so wrong. When I was working on my undergraduate dissertation, the supervisor was really supportive and I was guided through the process, from developing a clear research topic to then running the analysis (I’m sure it was some form of multiple regression).

As an undergraduate student, I was not confident in statistics at all, and I made this very clear to my supervisor. To support my development, when the dreaded time of data analysis came, I had a meeting with my dissertation supervisor. We took my data and had a ‘dummy’ run-through of the analysis with the condition that nothing was saved during the meeting. After the meeting, I went away and re-ran the analysis and I found that I could do this more confidently and actually understood what I was doing and why. So, my question is, would all supervisors offer this level of support? To put it simply, no.

Supervisors work in many ways and each supervisor has their own way of supporting students. You may also find that even within one supervisor, their supervision style and techniques may change over time and the style may also depend upon the students that they are working with and supporting. For example, if a student needs more support in one area of a project, the supervisor may be able to offer more support to just one student rather than everyone within the group.

According to AdvanceHE, the supervisory relationship is built on clear communication and mutually agreed on expectations in terms of progress. Working in partnership with the student, a supervisor assists in the definition of a research topic, the design of a programme of study and the implementation of this. They also provide expertise at the writing stage and support in the face of deadlines. So, this definition does not give supervisors clear guidance on how they should work and that’s a good thing. The supervisory relationship is a unique one and both supervisor and students need to be able to work together to achieve the outcomes of the project being undertaken.

I have seen a number of supervision styles over the course of my educational career and my own supervision style has changed since becoming a dissertation supervisor myself. I now have a deeper insight into how the student-supervisor relationship can be unique and this can help me to understand that students are different, therefore each student may need an adapted form of my supervision style. For example, the students that I worked with in 2020 were not the same students I worked with in 2021 meaning I had to consider my supervision style. In terms of communication with students, at first, I would always offer individual meetings with students, however, as the years have progressed, I now offer a combination of group meetings and individual meetings. What I did not realise is that group meetings can be a great part of supervision as they allow students to communicate with each other to offer peer support, while the supervisor is on hand to offer guidance on the topics discussed.

During the first meeting with a student, there are a few things that a supervisor could cover. These are aspects such as methods of communication (email, telephone, type of meetings) and what expectations the supervisor has from each student. These expectations can range from being independent in developing a research question, to simply being honest when more support is needed. Personally, I’d prefer a student to let me know if they are struggling with an aspect of their project rather than me finding out at the point of completing the marking. Saying that part of this first meeting should also be a discussion of what the students expect from their supervisor. For example, if a student expects the supervisor to complete all of the work and respond to questions during non-working hours then this would give the supervisor a chance to explain why this is not possible and how the students would be supported.

So, in general, I guess I’m saying that the student-supervisor relationship is such a unique relationship that it’s difficult to say whether a bad supervisor exists. Yes, as staff, we can all get things wrong and we can misjudge how much support a student may need, but part of this is also on the student to ask for help and communicate when they find things difficult.

Laura Jenkins, PhD is a teaching associate in the School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences at Loughborough University. 


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