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Supervisor Helene's story

Helene is a 50 year old professor who has supervised twelve PhD students. She has experienced the changes that supervision and the graduate school have gone through over the past decades, changes that she feels ambivalent about.

On the one hand, she appreciates the more structured organization of the graduate school and the fact that there is a time limit for writing a dissertation. On the other hand, she regrets that a PhD student’s path toward a role and identity as a researcher has become too regulated and instrumental. These changes, she thinks, are reflected in the people who are accepted as PhD students. In general, one consequence of the tougher financing requirements has led to a situation that many of the PhD students are on a higher academic level than before. Another situation is that many might not have been accepted for PhD study , or might drop out under the increase in pressure.

Additionally, what it means to write a dissertation or thesis has changed with an increasing pressure to publish articles. Sometimes, that pressure makes the PhD students uncertain and they come to Helene for direction, and ask for clear answers about what to do. They ask what questions would be the right ones to ask and what answers would be preferred. In the light of this, Helene believes that PhD students sometimes put themselves in too dependent a position in relation to their supervisors and place unreasonable demands on them.

She emphasizes that she really tries to give the PhD students clear answers and tries to be there for them. However, she also thinks that some of the PhD students who she supervises need to be more independent in their way of thinking, and should try to find their own research questions and research practices. In her supervision, Helene regards herself as a sounding board and adviser rather than as one who has the correct answers.

Helene thinks that she does what she can to encourage her PhD students to become more independent in their research. When they come to her with suggestions on perspectives, questions or theories, she always tries to respond in a positive and constructive way.
At the same time however, there are limits to the kinds of project she is willing to support. She once had to ask a PhD student to change to another supervisor because, in that case, she could not support the type of study that the PhD student wanted to carry out which went against her advice.

According to Helene, one of the most important parts of supervision is to help to give a dissertation a structure and to be an “early” peer review of PhD students’ writing.

She summarizes her view on supervision as a balancing act between supporting the independence of doctoral students and avoiding falling into traps that can hurt their work and future career as researchers. Helene feels she is not in competition with her students and that she does not lose prestige herself if a student publishes in a prestigious journal, rather it reflects well on her for supporting their work. At the same time that she asked one of her students to change supervisor, another student who persisted, carried out a study and managed to publish it in a prestigious journal, which in her view was evidence both of their successful independence, and her support in the right places.

Helene sees strong students with enough independence to argue for their ideas as something positive. She does not think that graduate school is primarily and solely about writing a dissertation, but instead it should ensure that PhD students build up a researcher identity and independence which they can rely on in the future.

Contact person for Advice for doctoral supervisors

Margareta Jernås
Phone: +46 (0)31-342 94 33
Send e-mail to Margareta

These web pages were created by Silwa Claesson and Gina Wisker.

Page Manager: Olof Siverbo|Last update: 1/17/2013

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