Today a PhD student came to see me after a quite long hiatus. It was unlike him to be so distant. He explained that his absence was due in part to the fact had been going through a 'low period'. It all had been going so well then he became frustrated with how long it had taken him to re-draft one of the chapters of his thesis. Disenchantment and disillusionment are part and parcel of the doctoral enterprise. For this student there was no point trying to talk about it: he just had to ride it out. "The thing is if you went to the doctor and explained that you'd been experiencing highs of elation and euphoria [when the thesis was going well] and then bouts of resignation and depression you would probably be diagnosed as suffering from a mental health problem," he said. Living with and through a PhD can certainly feel like some kind of bipolar affliction.
PhD supervision is one of academic life's year round staples, but what is supervision and when do you know it is being done well? These are things that are rarely talked about on campus. There are the obligatory 'professional development' courses that address the topic but I have rarely heard anyone comment on them being useful. Part of the problem is that supervision is an allusive skill but equally our cognizance - as either supervisors or students - of what is actually happening in the room when supervision is taking place is at best partial. I often find myself describing supervision as a kind of intellectual friendship that often extends
far beyond the time it takes to write the thesis. This is not necessarily how it seems to doctoral students who recount a wide range of experiences. It is not uncommon for students to complain that being supervised is akin to a monthly intellectual interrogation that crushes rather than fosters confidence. For sometime now I have been canvassing opinion, including that of my own supervisor Professor Pat Caplan. Pat was an extraordinary supervisor and discerning reader who helped many students along the doctoral road during the dark days of Thatcherism and though the austerity of the 1980s when I studied with her.
We hadn't seen each other for a while but meeting Pat always bears the antecedent trace of the many productive and fraught supervision sessions. This time I wanted to ask her about supervision itself. How would she describe it? "You listen to them, you care about them.... you give them time. You say the difficult things if you have to." In many respects I have simply tried to emulate these qualities as a supervisor. She facilitated the opening up of intellectual space in which my interests were admissible and legitimate. As supervisors I think there is an ethical responsibility to act as our best teachers and examples have acted. Pat was very supportive and encouraging but she was never afraid to say difficult things. I remember visiting her for a supervision at her north London home in the midst of a very bleak period of educational cuts during the mid 1980s. It was a time not unlike the