Supervision, goodness and thumbprints

A foundation of my PhD was deconstructing ideals of goodness. One of the things I learned after being immersed in the language of goodness for many years is that always trying to be ‘good’ is anxiety-provoking.

‘Good’ is hard with little contentment at its core. Any success is tenuous – you clutch at it with white-knuckled fear and through grim determination.

‘Good’ is somewhat terrifying.

Reading Inger’s recent piece on The Thesis Whisperer ( has made me think about goodness again. Inger asks: what are the responsibilities of being a (good) supervisor? What should we ask of them? What should we expect of them? How many superpowers should they possess just in being? She uses Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer as an example of what a good supervisor could be like.

God, I love Inger’s writing – a Buffy reference just makes me deeply happy.

I am absolutely not a superhero. I would trip over my cape and fall flat on my face at the very first hurdle. But then, even Giles put Buffy in danger with his demon-filled past and bad tattoo (“The Dark Age”, Season Two, Episode 8, should you be interested). Even the most committed and well-intentioned of supervisors can lead their charge astray by not being open about their past, their baggage, and their vision for the future.

Mark of Eyghon or not, it makes me think of how academic lineages (for want of a better word and without sounding too much like a Game of Thrones character) can be created and what they can inspire in people as they make the journey from candidate to graduate. In asking whether we have done a ‘good’ job as a supervisor, the list Inger dissected makes food for thought – so much of it is important because the PhD journey is not just an intellectual pursuit. If only it was just an intellectual pursuit – it would be, in so many ways, something far more nourishing. A PhD though is an emotional journey as well – as you increasingly dissect an increasingly narrow and focused question, to create some beautiful piece of previously unknown knowledge, you find out so much more about yourself as well. And – although this will never inspire songs and poetry – at the very end of the day, it is an administrative process. Margin width and font size and reference style and paragraph formatting. How is it that getting tables to stay on one page and page breaks to remain consistent is just as difficult as actually doing the project itself? Sometimes harder – I entirely gave up on my graphs.

These journeys in their culmination of new knowledge, a heavy document, and a change in title impact us. How could they not shape every facet of our life? We will never be the person we were before we started the PhD, which is by no means a bad thing, but it is something that needs to be acknowledged. I am not the person I would have been if I’d not read about goodness for so long. I certainly wouldn’t have watched so much Buffy, or worked my way through baking almost all of Nigella’s Feast.

We are each of us impacted, for better or worse, by our supervision experience and the journeys we make in attaching ‘Dr’ to our name.

So how do we then recognise whether we are a good supervisor? How do we know whether our Mark of Eyghon is more pronounced than not? How prepared are we to rid ourselves of marks which could put our students at risk? Or, at the very least, acknowledge just how important a team of supervisors are chosen for their ability to contribute to a team effort. Alone, we may never be super heroes but well pt-together teams could be unbeatable.

This week, I have seen one PhD student submit her thesis and another officially have his thesis passed – and passed with a Chancellor’s Award. Excitement has been mingled with shell-shock; breaths have been exhaled; excess champagne has been drunk. And it’s been this strange thing to see the PhD journey from the other side for the first time – first completions, first submissions, first full drafts, first wanting to throw the whole thing in the river. It’s made me realise a number of things.

  • How lucky I have been in my supervisory teams where I have been mentored in this new role as much as I have mentored my students.
  • That PhD journeys will always be hard, regardless of supervision style, superhero or not.
  • Difficult journeys don’t always have to leave lasting scars though. Sometimes recognising the warning signs of when a student is in trouble (or might be on a precipice of trouble rather than having fallen in) is just as important as helping them with methodology.
  • That a good academic is not necessarily a good supervisor. A PhD has to be owned by the person doing and a supervisor has to empower that ownership and celebrate it. For this reason, ownership might look very different to how you initially envisaged. Buffy certainly wasn’t the Slayer Giles was expecting but they ended up saving the world (a lot). Supervision is guidance and, especially towards the end, much more listening.
  • That I can’t always protect my students (official and unofficial) from the stresses of their PhD, no matter how hard I try or how much I want to. What I can do though is be as human as I can with them – share what I can, listen, empathise, concept map, and work through drafts together.
  • And that there is still a way to go as well. I will always be learning how to supervise, just as I will always be learning how to do better and more innovative data collection methods and analyse the findings, just as I will always learn more and more about writing. And that constant curiosity, the need to always strive to be better, even when I make mistakes, will help me grow into being a ‘good’ supervisor in the tradition of Giles. Will at least keep me on my toes If any bad tattoos start tingling.

Sometimes in academia, it seems to be all too easy to look for perfection and assume, if it’s not there, that something has gone wrong and whatever exists needs to be discarded and started again. But a presumption of perfection, the need for ‘goodness’, can squash the intellectual curiosity that should be driving us. Research might never truly be perfect – we do the best we can amidst constraints of time and money and energy and how our data appears at the time. There is a tradition in Japanese aesthetic called wabi-sabi where beauty is located imperfection – that what exists is transient and should be seen in the moment. There is a simplicity to what is created. Sometimes, a potter will even push a thumb- print into a piece of pottery to ensure a mindfulness of this imperfection and impermanence. Maybe as supervisors we need to be able to allow the wabi-sabi of research to occur – to trust our students as they place their thumb-print into the thesis. That, right then at submission, everything that could be done is done and that the goodness is as much as can ever exist.

Mostly though, it makes me realise just how much I want my students to have their heart beat with their projects, even when there are days where the thesis gets thrown in the river. I want them to feel inspired by the wabi-sabi and the endless curiosity. Just as I want them to remain in my own work too, because students are amazingly inspiring too.

So – what do you think?