helen-louise (baratron) wrote,

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Uncomfortable realisation.

Hmm. Lately I have been thinking about "the ideal" supervisor-student relationship, for various reasons. Essentially, I want to go on with research next year, so I need to find someone to be my supervisor. And because I have to pay my own fees, I am in the fortunate position of being able to go to a particular academic who does research I'm interested in and say "Do you want to have me as a student?", rather than having to find someone with a studentship in an approximately related discipline and being stuck with whatever project that studentship has been set up to fund, as well as whatever personality happens to have the funding. (In retrospect, I realise that sentence alone should tell you why so many PhD students end up failing or dropping out before completion :/ ).

The relationship I had with my last research supervisor was So Utterly Broken that I don't actually know what a healthy supervisor-student relationship is supposed to look like. Are you supposed to be scared of your supervisor, or supposed to go out to the pub with them? Are you supposed to avoid their office like the plague, or invite them & their partner/s round for dinner with you and your partner/s? Are you supposed to be friends?

I posted the following as a comment in a custom-locked post, but I think it could do with being a post in its own right. Text in italics by aquaeri.

My vision of the ideal supervisor/mentor/personal tutor is of someone who doesn't teach so much as help the student/mentoree find the best ways for them to learn, and improve as a human being overall. It's of necessity a very personal and intimate kind of relationship, and both what the student can gain and how the supervisor can provide it depend entirely on the specific individuals, thus you may learn very different things from different supervisors, and have to do very different things (and yourself gain very different kinds of insight) supervising different students.

This is making me sad. I agree with what you say about the ideal relationship, but it's further emphasising how utterly, utterly, utterly broken my relationship with my ex-supervisor was. It wasn't just broken, it was fucked up beyond all recognition. And part of the problem was me, and part of the problem was my depression - but a lot of the problem was HIM. He wasn't an easy person to get along with. None of his students found him easy, although most of the others found him easier. (They, at least, were interested in watching football and could talk to him about that.)

I was scared of him when I started the studentship. I assumed it would eventually ease, but it didn't - it got worse. He would shout at me for not knowing things that he thought should have been obvious - never mind that I wasn't him, and had a different background. The less I understood, the more afraid of him I got, and the more I would avoid him, and the less work I did. It became a vicious spiral, each time getting worse and worse and worse. The one person who should have been helping me to learn more and get more confident in my own abilities was the one person I couldn't actually bear to see. The more upset and vulnerable I was, the more I had to avoid him because just a couple of cross words could reduce me to tears. It got to the point where, even though the normal route for getting from the lift to my office would have taken me past his, I walked the long way round the building to avoid it (unless I knew for certain that he wasn't in). And although his office was next to the nearest women's toilet, I would go to the other side of the building so as to not risk seeing him.

He had no concept of human emotion. He couldn't understand that I had feelings and wasn't just a brain on a stick. He didn't understand that someone who is absolutely terrified of punishment will lie without thinking. (I pretty much never lie in everyday life, but things like "I know what I'm doing!" and "Of course I've done some work!" came out of my mouth automatically). He just about got that depression was a medical problem rather than only a "weakness", but thought that if I had a medical problem I should be at home ill rather than trying to work - when I was so badly depressed I thought I was never going to get better, and my brain in that state was the best I was ever going to have. I thought that I would give up the PhD on medical grounds, go home, and that would be the end of all of my hopes and ambitions. I would never get better, and no one else would ever give me another chance.

Neither of us had ever been taught what a supervisor-student relationship was supposed to be like. I had a booklet, but it didn't really set out a list of rights and responsibilities or anything like that. I don't believe there was any written rule that said I had the right to be treated with dignity and respect. I was a student - in other words, disposable.

Part of me has always blamed myself for the relationship being so awkward. If only I'd been a better student. If only I'd been a stronger person and not "given in" to the depression. If only I'd been less stubborn. If only I'd tried harder to get along with him. Blah de blah de blah. I think this is the first time I've ever realised that it really was unfixable and it wasn't (entirely) my fault.

And it's certainly one of the first times I've ever realised that he should have tried harder to fix things. He had access to university resources that I didn't. He could have actually found someone to teach me the stuff I didn't know and needed to know rather than expecting me to teach it all to myself from a book. He could have traded students with another supervisor, or got me co-supervised, or something like that. He could have thought about my learning style and abilities rather than making me feel like a failure for not meeting his.

And now I feel horrible, because it makes me feel that I really did waste several years of my life. I learnt a lot about myself, sure. But sometimes I think the emotional scars will never go away.
Tags: college, life history, when i was mad

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