Supervising supervisors

Many postgraduate students have difficulties with the supervision they receive, judging by the emails I received in response to my article in last month’s Getting Ahead.

These difficulties include supervisors delaying or halting students’ progress by failing to keep appointments and by providing inconsistent or even demoralising feedback. One student suggested that supervisors, and universities themselves, should be held accountable for the quality of supervision.

In the 1990s a number of postgraduate students in the United Kingdom successfully sued their universities for failing to provide adequate research supervision. There has been at least one such case in South Africa, as far as I am aware. Surely it should not get to the point where a student feels that his or her only recourse is through the courts? Universities should have internal structures and systems to ensure that supervisors are held accountable.

When a supervisor is uninterested or unprofessional, this often reflects a larger institutional culture that does not adequately meet the needs of postgraduate students. Such a culture is usually manifested in other ways as well, such as a lack of adequate academic development and support systems.

The adverse effects of institutional cultures such as these are often exacerbated by the lack of transformation at many South African universities. As one student wrote, his experiences have led him to conclude that his university does not care about “students whose names are too long to pronounce”.

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