Why is academic supervision so bad?
Sorry for the provocative title. I’m sure not all supervision is bad – there are obviously some gems out there. But I’m also sure that a lot of the supervision could be a lot better. If we would prioritize it.
One of the most pervasive issues doctoral students deal with are problems with their supervisor. The range of problems is large: from interpersonal conflicts and unfair leadership to total lack of support and supervision.
Research has shown that the issues doctoral students face with their supervisors can lead to stress and anxiety, that not only impacts the quality of life of the doctoral student, but also the quality and timely completion of their PhD. For some, the relationship with the supervisor determines remaining in or leaving the PhD program all together.
Universities should be taking better care of their doctoral students.
Why do these issues occur?
The problem with academic supervision is that scientists aren’t trained to mentor. And not only that, scientists are also not incentivised to mentor.
This means that, some of the faculty would want to be good supervisors, but don’t know how. And others just don’t care, because supervision is not rewarded or considered important for your career.
(Then there are of course those professors, who don’t have to worry about their career anymore but still just don’t care about supervision, because it’s taking time away from research.)
And again, not all professors. I know. But one bad apple is one too many.
So, what should we do?
One way to deal with these issues is from the top down, by imposing structures that focus on supporting and training faculty in supervision and mentoring. We should also give incentives for doing a good job as a supervisor. Or at least encourage it in some way.
At the moment, faculty aren’t even able to put the actual hours it takes to be a good supervisor into their work plans. This is because the hours you are allowed to allocate for supervision are ridiculously low. So, in order to get everything done, they have to either let the research or the students suffer. Most choose the latter.
But another big issue is the lack of appreciation for pedagogical skills in academia, as I mentioned earlier. The aim of doctoral education is to prepare the students for an academic career. The focus of this career is on the three main functions of universities: research, teaching, and societal impact. At the moment, it seems like doctoral education only prepares for two core skills, conducting research and sharing knowledge to the larger public. Pedagogical competence is not one of the core skills doctoral education is focusing on at the moment.
In addition to focusing on supporting current supervisors, one way to prevent or minimize supervisory issues in the future, is to give pedagogical training to doctoral students – teach them how to supervise. It won’t solve the immediate problem, but will help to create better supervisors for the future.
Let’s not only focus on treating the symptoms of bad supervision but start to manage the causes also.