And then the supervisor goes to work on the text

2015-10-26

The first thing the supervisor can do, to get the process started, is tell it like it is: the doctoral student needs to brace herself and start balancing against the waves. After the first few years of relative peripheral participation and relaxed encouragement, the supervision style changes and the real work starts. This change can be flagged during the discussion about candidates to sit on the doctoral student’s Final Seminar Committee.

A supervisor can make it apparent very quickly how much work is left to be done on the dissertation. ‘Do the committee members have to be people from our institution?’ the doctoral student can ask naively. ‘Ummm,’ responds the supervisor, ‘It’s easier if they feel some sort of obligation to us. Somehow we have to get them to read 250 pages of disjointed text.’

Gulp. Up until that point, the doctoral student hasn’t realized that she has 250 pages of disjointed text. She maybe suspects it isn’t perfect, yet, but she didn’t think it was really that bad. She had sort of thought at this point that it wouldn’t be too difficult to finish up a dissertation. She is about to learn otherwise.

Step two comes a month or two later. They find people for the committee, and the Final Seminar goes okay, but the doctoral student starts to get a real feeling for what was awaiting her when she meets her professor at the first supervision after the seminar. Thinking she’d pretty much understood the comments made during the seminar, the doctoral student innocently walks into the supervisor’s office and closes the door. One should envision a butcher rubbing his hands together, here, getting ready for the slaughter. Or Mr. Miyagi warming up for a training session.

‘This is when it gets fun!’ the supervisor says to the doctoral student. And then she goes to work on the text. For the next five months the doctoral student’s life is dominated by ‘The Lists’: page after page of hand written notes on things to change on every page, every paragraph, every sentence, several points that should be changed for each thought, logic that needs to be cleared up (or created), grammatical mistakes to fix, and most of all, boring bits of text to cut away. To give you a general idea of what I mean, a supervisor’s list can include points like:

  1. CLUMSY!
  2. Rephrase
  3. SIGH! Several too long sentences after each other!
  4. Too convoluted and already said!
  5. Structure of chapter confusing
  6. Be more humble about it being your interpretations
  7. Too vague
  8. Boring!

Only the real lists are actually much, much longer and there are many of them.

(Blog post 6 of 8 about being a PhD student in Sweden. Adapted from: Johnson, E. (2005) ‘Learning Karate, a metaphor for Ph.D. training’ in Mellström, Ulf (ed.) Kunskapens vägar och forskningens praktik Lund: Arkiv pp.87-96)