I have so far supervised 4 doctoral dissertations, I am currently supervising 4 more and have been asked in the last month to supervise other 4 dissertations. This nice symmetry is completed by the fact that 4 students who started writing their doctoral dissertation under my supervision have eventually abandoned it. The 16 cases teach me a variety of lessons, all more or less connected with a basic situation: gone are the times when Departments were full of young persons combining full-time teaching with writing their PhD dissertations.
I wrote my own PhD dissertation between 1993 and 1996, in three academic years. The first year I taught 24 credits (12 each semester) as a full-time teacher in my third year as an ‘ayudante’, a contractual figure now extinct. The second year, I was in Scotland as a visiting PhD student with a grant from ‘La Caixa’ and so I had all the time in my hands for my research (I didn’t teach for fifteen months!). The third year, I taught my 24 credits in the first semester just by chance, not because I asked, and then I spent from February to July writing non-stop. This means that half the time of my three years I was a full-time PhD student. It also explains why my dissertation is so long.
In those years, I was by no means an exception. I cannot tell you exactly how many of us, junior members of the Department, were both full-time teachers and PhD students but I’m sure it was a handful, perhaps close to eight persons (in a Department of about 35?). Then the Government suppressed the figure of the ‘ayudante’ and the moment we lost the possibility of employing young persons full time, earning a doctoral degree became a very complicated affair. Either you got a scholarship by joining a research group (FI, FPU) or by being awarded one of our only two Department fellowships (which carry the funny name of PIF), or you hanged by the skin of your teeth onto the Department as a part-time associate teacher doings two jobs apart from your research. I don’t know about FI and FPU but PIF and are woefully underfunded, with a salary actually lower in relative terms than what I used to make as an ‘ayudante’ 20 years ago. Associates, of course, are supposed not to do research but what else can one do? How one can balance eating and researching for a PhD is itself the object of a potential PhD dissertation. (You realize, I’m sure, that the implicit Government strategy is to stop people from wanting to earn doctoral degrees…).
I had two supervisors, one in the Department and one in Scotland. Contact with them was no problem: I simply dropped in my Department supervisor’s office whenever we agreed on an appointment (or just chatted in the corridor) and I saw my Scottish supervisor regularly every two weeks for a long two-hour session. I don’t recall at all being anxious about the regularity of these meetings though my Department supervisor used to make me quite nervous by demanding that I submit written work when I was in the early stages of my research and had no clear idea where I was going. My Scottish supervisor was happy enough to see notes, and to discuss with me ideas, my reading list for the previous two weeks, passages from the secondary sources… anything I needed. He would also offer many suggestions for further reading. My third year was, in contrast, quite lonely because my Department supervisor was himself away in Scotland and those were the times before email. I was by that stage, anyway, very busy writing and needed less supervision.
All this has very little to do with my own experience of tutoring doctoral students. To begin with, making appointments is always complicated because they work full-time outside the university. I have ended up using a downtown cafeteria in Barcelona as my second office, since reaching my university often adds many complications. The meetings are never regular, nor is email communication. I have lost count of how often I have asked my doctoral students to email me once a month, no matter what they’re doing, even if it’s only to tell me ‘I have read nothing’. No way, they’re too busy. Add to this that some are not even nearby, either because originally they lived in Barcelona but then moved elsewhere or because they have never been able to move to Barcelona. That’s a lesson I have learned and I have vowed to myself not to accept students who cannot meet me regularly.
Since most doctoral students work elsewhere full-time and they need to go wherever their jobs take them this means that embarking on supervising a doctoral dissertation is now quite an adventure. With BA and MA dissertations the time limit plays in our favour: we start in November, we finish in July. Telling PhD students you are only available for three years, however, makes no sense at all as you never know when they’re going to finish. My most recent supervised PhD student took five years to complete her dissertation simply because she is overworked and had no time to do research. This would be a relative problem only if we could take in as many doctoral students as we wanted. My university, however, limits the number to six which means that you can easily miss the chance to tutor a good student because your oldest tutorees cannot make progress despite their efforts. This is why I am going to try to accept as many students as I can: because I never know when they will finish, if at all.
The 4 students who have abandoned dissertations while under my supervision have done so for different reasons. One started but soon saw she could not combine work and study. A second one started working with me while in Italy thinking he would immediately move to Barcelona but this never happened and he eventually saw no point in continuing with his work (in the fourth year…). A third one simply could not cope with the linguistic demands of writing the dissertation though this only became apparent in her third year. The fourth one came to me after not finishing her dissertation with another supervisor in four years and, as I feared, soon gave up because she needed a job. Now, here’s the other issue: we supervisors get a paltry 52 hours in our teaching account for supervising a PhD dissertation (that’s 3 ECTS or half a semestral subject) and only when the candidate passes his viva. If a candidate abandons half way through, whether this is in the first or the fourth year, we get nothing at all for our pains…
Supervising a PhD dissertation then has become a matter of trust and good faith: you try to do your best to set the student rolling, giving him/her the required conceptual and technical tools and then you meet very sporadically and do the bulk of the job when actually reading the final dissertation. This in my experience is usually very hard work, which needs plenty of editing and revision.
They once told me about a gentleman in Oviedo who was supervising 13 PhD students at the same time–in the Humanities, each with their own topic. I have heard stories of a famous supervisor in English Studies who would accept students only to order them not to bother him for three years and then contact him only with the finished dissertation. Perhaps the Oviedo gentleman uses this method, I don’t know. In my infinite stupidity I thought I could work very smoothly by accepting one student per year as the oldest of my tutorees submitted their final work. I dreamed of a regular turnover, if you get my drift, which would constantly keep me supplied with my maximum of six students. No such luck! I can easily decide how many BA and MA dissertations I want to supervise each year but with PhD dissertations, as you can see, irregularity is the rule.
On the other hand, perhaps using two hours every two weeks for each of my current three doctoral students would be right now an excessive demand on my time. Of course, if they worked in the Department we could meet as frequently as we liked and do what tutors and tutorees should do: keep the conversation going… for three years. And then move on.
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