Avoiding potential difficulties

Institutional policies, procedures and resources are designed to provide support to students and supervisors so that potential difficulties are avoided. For instance, the GSS reporting system is designed for students and supervisors to track progress and note developing issues.

To be aware of and avoid potential difficulties

  1. Make sure you know what is expected of supervisors and students, and what support should be provided by your department or faculty. Details on expectations of supervisors and students are given in the Policy on Research Degrees (see Section 4: Supervision and Section 5: Responsibilities of the student). Each of these sections includes a statement on Responsibilities. These statements are much more than lists of obligations, they amount to concise statements of advice which, if observed, can greatly reduce the chance of academic problems arising in the first place.
  2. Handbooks. For more local information see your faculty's or department's graduate studies handbook, notes of guidance, or equivalent.
  3. Essential Information for Students. Despite its title, this publication is equally valuable for staff. It gives an overview and links on dealing with a wide range of issues that may underlie disappointing progress in a student's research, for instance: health and welfare, accommodation, child-care, disability, and harassment. It also includes policy on matters such as plagiarism, academic integrity in research, intellectual property, freedom of speech, and equal opportunities (see also the Education Committee's Plagiarism web pages).
  4. In case of concerns about helping to improve English language skills, the Language Centre can help.
  5. Student Counselling Service. Supervisors can take advice here and students can contact the Service, either for individual counselling or to join the Graduate students group, which meets weekly to address academic challenges, such as: structuring and pacing work, managing relationships with supervisors, as well as life challenges and planning a future beyond the DPhil.
  6. Other potentially useful resources are Visa and immigration and funding information.

Advice for essentially academic-related issues is usually most readily available from your department's or faculty's Director of Graduate Studies. By contrast, for an issue of a personal nature, it may be more appropriate to seek help from the student's college – from the Senior Tutor (in the case of graduate-only colleges) or from the Tutor for Graduates in other colleges.

Regardless, for any issue that could have a significant impact on a student's progress, it is essential that both the faculty/ department (the Director of Graduate Studies) and the college (the Senior Tutor or Tutor for Graduates) are informed, and that due care is paid to the administrative issues that may well arise, for instance, requesting Suspension of status.

Follow these principles in any supervisory relationship.

Establish clear expectations and good lines of communication from the beginning

Many of the suggestions made in the 'Starting out as a postgraduate researcher' and 'Reasons for delay' sections of this website can help avoid a number of the more common misunderstandings which lead to grievances. Students at Oxford have reported hesitation in raising difficulties given the power differential inherent within the supervisory relationship as well as their concern about being perceived as not measuring up.

This is particularly the case if students are doing collaborative work with others. So, consider how to ensure that expectations and communication strategies are established for tracking the contributions of all parties in order to avoid situations such as the following:

... a fellow DPhil student who unfortunately has a different working attitude possibly due to his different cultural background... makes collaborating efficiently and with high quality results really hard – and costs me loads of nerves! My supervisor, of course a very busy man, ... doesn’t have enough insight how hard it is to keep the quality up in this collaboration and he seemed to have the impression that I was rather slagging my collaborator off when I told him about the problems and my doubts in the results, which gave me a bad feeling. I reflected even more on myself than usual if, possibly, it’s me that sees the things in a wrong way because this stresses me probably more than all others involved (Doctoral student, STEM).

Keep records

Discussing issues but not being able to remember details or dates can be frustrating for all concerned, especially where there is disagreement about details or dates. Keeping a copy of email exchanges, written notes and formal supervision reports as a routine practice is recommended to avoid this potentiality. Especially in subjects where the supervisor and student meet relatively infrequently, it is wise for the supervisor and the student as a matter of routine to write some brief contemporaneous notes summarising what transpired at each meeting. A discussion about a problem is likely to end with one or both sides offering to make some change of practice: it is wise to agree a record of such an outcome along with the time by which the new practice is intended to be in place and a time by which it is agreed that its effectiveness should be reviewed. Such a written agreement can be achieved without too much formality by a simple exchange of sensitively worded emails. Establishing a 'time-line' against which to chart progress is good practice in all aspects of research supervision.

Take advantage of termly progress reports to document any concerns

The termly report is an opportunity for the supervisor and the student formally to express a concern. Students submit their own termly self-assessment through GSS before supervisors. So, supervisors should ensure they use the information the student has chosen to pass on in the report as an additional source of understanding about his or her progress. In fact, this is an ideal opportunity for a discussion with the student.

There are occasions when supervisors have not taken the termly reports seriously, with a cursory sign-off, and then realised later on, when there are concerns regarding a student’s progress, that they have missed this opportunity to document their earlier concerns. Likewise, some supervisors write over-optimistic reports either to avoid discouraging a student who may be feeling vulnerable, or to avoid accepting fundamental problems in a research topic that they may themselves have suggested. Remember, however, that doing research is costing the student time and energy, and often considerable financial expense: experience shows that concerns should be indicated to the student when they are first noticed. Naturally, negative comments need to be expressed with sensitivity and suggested solutions proffered where possible. It is important that the student not learn of negative comments in a report or from a third party.

Be prepared to explore a change of research topic

The student may need a change of research topic. Since a strong interest in the research that students are undertaking enhances motivation, the match of student to topic is crucial, and there may be good reasons to change topic because of a mismatch that could not have been anticipated. It may also be that the original topic turned out to look unproductive or unsuitable to pursue with the available resources, and here also a change may be appropriate. Changing topic means that a student will likely over-run the funding available or the time normally allowed for the degree, and so it is a decision to be taken with great care and with these issues of timing in mind.

Changing topic may well lead to a student postponing an academic benchmark such as Transfer of Status: be sure that the underlying reason for the student seeking the change is not an inadequacy and a fear of an exam, or the same problems might arise again a year further on. Likewise, a student may seek to change topics simply in order to change supervisor. In either case, the underlying problem should be addressed before considering whether a change of topic is appropriate. These are difficult issues that must involve faculty and college officers and must be carefully documented.

Be open to exploring a change of supervisor

Sometimes, a change in supervisor may be the best option, perhaps owing to the thesis developing outside the supervisor’s expertise or difficulties in the student-supervisor relationship, as the following illustrate:

I was called in to be the assessor at his transfer of status interview, and it was very clear that the DPhil that he’d begun hadn’t worked… it had transmuted into another project that neither he nor his supervisor were actually confident or competent actually to oversee … it was possible to allow him to transfer status, but only by saying, you’ve got to start thinking about this in a completely different way… and so the X Faculty asked me if I’d take him on… and it’s been wonderful to see… what he’s done is to turn what could have been a kind of disaster… into a really well researched and interesting, and potentially quite important, piece of work, and he’s doing wonderfully! (New supervisor, Humanities) So, I started off with a different supervisor in my first year. I had funding from the Government and EU funding …I had this project and it was a quite difficult project to work on. Well, basically, in my first year, I had some issues with my supervisor that got sorted out between my college advisor and the Director of Studies, and the best decision, as I was also suggesting, was to try to change the group. So, following that, I started again fresh for my first year in a different group [with a different supervisor]. (Doctoral student, STEM)

Any change will need to be discussed with the departmental/ faculty Director of Graduate Studies in the first instance. Note the following from Oxford examination regulations:

where the student feels that there are good grounds for contemplating a change of supervision arrangements, discuss this with the existing supervisor, or, if this presents a difficulty, discuss this with the DGS or other appropriate officer or adviser, or with a college adviser (Section 5.3: Policy on Research Degrees: Working with the supervisor)

When a student is having difficulties it is all the more essential that the new supervisor is not just someone with whom the student feels more comfortable on a personal level but that the new supervisor is excellently placed to supervise the work in hand. Beware of accepting compromises on this point: if necessary an expert outside Oxford can be found and supported with more readily accessible co-supervision within Oxford. As well, it is important to keep the student informed as students report lack of information during this time as emotionally draining.

Be attentive to the unusual

It is not uncommon for doctoral students to experience times of difficulty. However, there is ample evidence to suggest that for some this might be more than a passing event simply due to 'the DPhil'. So, be attentive to:

Absence, sustained distraction or lack of progress:

These might occur for many reasons, including family difficulties or health issues, relationship problems or the pressure of juggling work and study.

I think he [supervisor] was worried because he didn’t see me on track last year; I didn’t make as fast progress as he may have wanted… [partly because] I’m not superfast … the other part is much more personal, my sister was killed in an accident, she was like my best friend. So there was kind of a very day-to-day change, a very kind of moment-to-moment change, on top of the just sheer grief factor and traumatic factor… So, that was quite obviously intense, and I kind of just made a lot of space for that, like alright, I’m not really going to be okay and I’ll just do the best – everything’s going to be slow. (Doctoral student, Social Sciences)

Continued ill-health:

Poor physical health, or psychological problems like anxiety or depression.

I have a long term chronic illness that I am currently trying to manage/control whilst completing my thesis. My experiences and frustrations with this illness are often inter-linked with my experiences and frustrations concerning trying to complete my PhD. Both experiences can also cause a significant amount of anxiety and uncertainty, such as will I ever finish my PhD? will my work be good enough or will I fail the viva? will my illness ever go away? will it get worse? how will it impact on my personal life and future career and family life etc.? I find that both experiences can be very lonely, isolating and require huge amounts of stamina. I find this can be exhausting mentally and physically at times. (Doctoral student, Social Sciences)

Strange or inappropriate behaviour:

Mental health problems can lead to unusual behaviours, such as self-harming or misuse of drugs or alcohol.

It may be difficult for supervisors to determine whether a student is 'just having a slump' or in fact this is the beginning of something more serious. As with many such issues the best advice is, 'If you think there is something amiss, do something'. The student may already have sought help in College. Nevertheless, the supervisor could alert the College which could make a confidential approach to the College Doctor and/or the College Advisor. Often, detecting and acting early can save a candidate considerable distress. Students may need encouragement, even assistance, in seeking advice in the same ways that they need help and encouragement to seek advice or help regarding writing, presentation skills, etc.

A useful resource is the Oxford Student Mental Health Network which helps university staff and others, such as students with college or OUSU welfare roles, who wish for advice on dealing with mental health issues affecting the students they teach or work with. The Network runs courses open to all university staff and its website offers advice to staff concerned about students and students concerned about their own health or that of a friend.

If a student is unwilling to accept advice and help, and if the situation is judged to be dangerous, there are procedures by which a student can be suspended from the University (in Oxford, see Section 2: Fitness to Study of the Student Handbook).

Overall

  1. Act early: As with so many things, if you see a potential issue, act quickly before the situation can escalate and get out of hand.
  2. Act locally whenever possible: Whether it is the student or supervisor who is expressing concern, it is usually better to start with a discussion between the two people immediately concerned, i.e. the supervisor and student.
  3. Seek advice: Talk to colleagues, especially in a co-supervision arrangement, the DGS, and if appropriate direct students to the appropriate university resources.

The conduct of research by its very nature involves difficulties. So, for instance, doctoral students working 'in the field' can face isolation from the usual supports, challenges related to access, and unexpected factors that need to be incorporated into their research plans. Those dealing with archival data or large data sets can also experience difficulties related to access. Similarly those doing lab-based or desk-based research may run into experimental or analytical challenges. And nearly all students experience issues related to writing. Learning to cope with these challenges is an essential aspect of doctoral work.

But, beyond such challenges, students report the following issues: differential access to research cultures, e.g. fitting in; procrastination and resulting anxiety; supervisory difficulties beyond conflict, e.g. absence, lack of availability and sometimes a concurrent combination of constraining factors. Overall, in this literature there is a student-institution dichotomy that can unproductively assign blame to students for what may be structural issues that persist in the culture of the doctorate. For instance, supervisors often have difficulty specifying examples of personal issues students might experience (Gardner, 2009). Further, where difficulties are a concern, supervisors report watching for cues related to students' academic work only, whereas students note personal issues as primary concerns but are reluctant to reveal these for fear of not measuring up (Manathunga, 2005). Studies such as these show a normative assumption that supervisory resources and structures are adequate for all students; they thus make invisible the structural and systemic problems that may exist.

One of these structural issues is the invisibility of supervisory change. Students frequently report their fear at initiating change, not understanding that it is a not uncommon process and one for which procedures exist (if not always easy to find). A student survey (Heath, 2002) demonstrated that change was not as rare as frequently supposed: 18% of students had a change in principal supervisor and 11% a change in co-supervisor. Further the change was not always the result of student concern: 52% of changes were due to supervisor departure and 10% to a change in topic; only 13% were linked to breakdown in relations. In other words, it is sometimes appropriate to consider supervisory change; what needs to be borne in mind during the transition is that students wish not to be left in limbo for too long while new relationships are arranged.

The above text is based on:

Ahern, K., & Manathunga, C. (2004). Clutch-starting stalled research studentsInnovative Higher Education, 28(4), 237-254.

Aitchison, C., Catterall, J., Ross, P. & Burgin, S. (2012) 'Tough love and tears': Learning doctoral writing in the SciencesHigher Education Research and Development. 31(4), 435-447.

Deem, R., & Brehony, K. (2000). Doctoral students' access to research cultures - are some more unequal than others? Studies in Higher Education, 25(2), 149-165.

Gardner, S. (2009). Conceptualizing success in doctoral education: perspectives of faculty in seven disciplinesThe Review of Higher Education, 32(3), 383-406. NB - full text not available from Oxford.

Heath, T. (2002). A quantitative analysis of PhD students' views of supervisionHigher Education Research and Development, 21(1), 41-53.

Leon-Beck, M. & Dodick, J. (2012) Exposing the challenges and coping strategies of field-ecology graduate students. International Journal of Science Education, 34(16), 2455-2481.

Maher, M., Ford, M., & Thompson, C. (2004). Degree progress of women doctoral students: Factors that constrain, facilitate and differentiateThe Review of Higher Education, 27(3), 385-408.

Manathunga, C. (2005). The development of research supervision: "turning the light on a private space"International Journal for Academic Development, 10(1), 17-30.

McAlpine, L., Paulson, J., Gonsalves, A., & Jazvac-Martek, M. (2012). ‘Untold’ doctoral stories in the social sciences: Can we move beyond cultural narratives of neglect? Higher Education Research and Development. Published iFirst, February 23, 2012.

Wright, T. (2003). Postgraduate research students: people in context? British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, 31(2), 209-227.