What happens when you know your study better than your supervisor does?

This is a tricky post for me to write – it feels risky in a way. I know my supervisor reads this blog, and I don’t want to offend her in any way. But I’m going to take this risk (and I think she would probably agree) because this is an issue that I don’t think we talk about enough, and that can be really challenging for PhD students to deal with when it happens. The issue is what happens when you realise, usually towards the end of the PhD process, that you know your work/study/theory better than your supervisor does. How do you navigate that, and deal with it constructively?

I confronted this challenge when I was working with my supervisor through my first full draft, and then some of the further revisions. Reading through my analysis chapters again, I noticed a few serious errors I had made that she had not picked up. Now, this may be because she skimmed some parts of the chapters and missed the errors (and I picked them up so all was well in the end), but that experience made me wonder: did I know better than she did what I was talking about? Had we reached a point where I needed to rely less on her advice and more on my own knowledge of my study and its parts, like the theory and data? I was not the most confident PhD student – I was plagued, really, by neurotic doubts and panic about my ability to produce a great piece of work. So, getting to a point where I had to rely more on me than on her, a scholar I truly respect and admire, was a bit terrifying. What if I was really wrong? But what if she was also wrong, or didn’t see what I saw because I had read more of the theory or seen more of the data than she had and so had a different and more intimate relationship with my study (which, of course, I did)? This was a serious quandary. Largely as a result of my own scaredy-cat, non-confrontational personality it was a real dilemma because I found that I did not know how to actually talk to my supervisor about this. I was scared of offending her, and I was not yet confident enough to really claim my own strengthening sense of my study and what I was writing about.

I don’t think I would have offended her – I recall her saying at a Doc week seminar around the time I started my doctorate that as student-researchers working on our own research we should get to a point where we know more about it than our supervisors do, and that this is a good thing because it means we are becoming more confident and able researchers, thinkers and writers who will eventually be able to supervise others, write books and papers, etc. I remember thinking that this was a really encouraging thing to say to us, because my vicarious experience of supervision, listening to many of the student-tutors I have worked with in the last few years who have been writing their own doctorates, was quite different. In many of these other supervision relationships (and to be fair I only know the tutors’ side of them), the supervisor seemed less than willing to hand over the power in terms of the knowledge and who holds it. Many of the students I have worked with have found working with their supervisors frustrating, largely because their supervisors don’t seem completely willing to allow the student space to take on the role of more confident knower, or the power in the relationship in terms of making decisions about what to write and what not to and how to present the final argument. In these situations, I wonder if the student finishes the doctorate feeling confident enough to go on and publish, present and build on their work.

In converse situations, I have worked with a few PhD students whose supervisors, like mine, actively encouraged them to own their work, and claim that researcher/knower role. These students presented their work-in-progress at conferences before the end of their PhDs, and co-wrote papers with their supervisors during and after the doctorate. They had a very different experience of their PhDs, and have gone on to have quite successful post-PhD careers thus far, largely because (I think) of the enabling and confidence-building supervisory relationships they were part of. They were encouraged to know their studies as well as, or even better than, their supervisors. They became researchers in their own right towards the end of their PhDs especially, and were not just apprentice students in a lower position to the supervisor in an unequal power relationship.

I am not sure that all students can take ownership of their PhD studies and their new roles as researchers and knowers in their field without encouragement and guidance. Those students who need very little supervision and pretty much do the doctorate regardless may well be able to claim these spaces more easily; but those of us who need the guidance and the advice, who need the feedback and support, also need to be told that it’s okay to know more than our supervisors do about our research by the end. We need to be told that it’s okay and even a good thing, because it means we are ready for the next step where we move out of the student-researcher role into the academic researcher role many of us do the PhD for, and where we can begin to share our research through publishing, presenting and building on what we have discovered. It’s a bit scary to realise that your supervisor has missed things you think they should not have. But rather than freaking out, try to realise that you saw those things and corrected them. You know your work that well. This should be an encouraging, exciting stage to reach, rather than a scary, doubt-full one – and I hope your supervisor will agree. I’m sure mine will :-).


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