Supervisor Absence

My PhD supervisor has written a couple of blog posts about her experience of pregnancy and motherhood having spent the last term on maternity leave. However supervisors can be absent for a number of reasons, such as illness, research trips away from the university etc. Reading my supervisors pieces got me thinking about it from another perspective which might be valuable to some of you. How do you cope when your PhD supervisor is away? I think I can offer some advice having considered over the last few months how her absence has affected me.

Change can be worrying. The news that my supervisor was expecting came as I was preparing for my upgrade (a very stressful time for me) and as the person whose own research interests drew me to the department, I wondered if her absence in particular during my final year would be a problem. Luckily we had the months beforehand to talk extensively about how it would work. I felt reassured and confident that if I held up my end of the bargain everything would be fine. Below are some of things we discussed, plus my own tips.

1. Don’t panic. Don’t worry. There are plenty of things to worry about as a PhD student, but this scenario should not be one of them. Academic staff can be away for many reasons. Departments know this and plan for this. There is no reason why your research should suffer, and if for some particular reason this does not seem to be the case, there are ways to handle that too. Panicking is unlikely to make things any better. Take a deep breath and instead think about what you can do.

2. Plan ahead (if possible). In my case we had plenty of warning that my supervisor would be away. I appreciate that this may not always happen, but for me it meant that any specific questions were handled months ago.

We talked through the timetable for my research and writing up, and who would be doing what during the leave. This was in fact quite useful. It is only too easy to lose sight of the bigger picture when you are deep in research mode. Thinking through the practicalities  made me plan my work more holistically, and think about what will be required in terms of support and supervisor time over a substantial chunk of the rest of my PhD.

Planning ahead also allowed me to bring up specific worries and concerns. I would recommend this in this case, but also more generally too. Without sharing anxieties about what would change and how, they remain unresolved. Talking them over provided reassurance and helped us to plan the best way forward.

3. Arrange alternative supervision. The main worry for many may be who will be looking after you in the meantime. Will they have expertise in your research area? Will you get on? Can they offer you the support you need at that point? Here is where I have been quite lucky as my department supervises PhD candidates in teams. I have three supervisors who I have already been meeting regularly for two years, so to temporarily be down to two is a lot less of an issue. This is one of the main benefits of team supervision.

If this is not the case for you, I’d say that making sure you get to know the academic staff in your department before any such situation arises is a good thing. It is useful for networking too, but existing relationships within your department mean an absence will not leave such a big hole. It may help you to quickly build a good relationship with your stand-in if you already know them, indeed you may even be able to identify the right person for the role and talk to your existing supervisor about this. It also helps with more general support to have familiar faces around you on campus.

4. Alter your timetable. One of the biggest changes has been a change to the way I work, which is no bad thing. My supervisor outlined that she was still happy to read and comment on my work, but that her previous super-quick turnarounds were no longer realistic. Therefore we decided to work to a two-week turnaround for written work for the duration of her leave. Again, this had a significant upside; making me more disciplined in getting writing done. During a PhD, this is no bad habit to cultivate. 

5. Communicate. In the case of maternity leave in the UK there are ‘Keep in Touch’ (KIT) days, which do exactly what the name implies. They are for my supervisor to keep in contact with the department, including her PhD students. KIT days meant that, in the end, my supervisor only missed one formal supervision during her maternity leave. KIT days apply to maternity leave, but similar arrangements might enable you to maintain contact, perhaps where a staggered return to work is planned.

In addition, if it is appropriate to the situation, other forms of communication can be used. Email can be useful, especially if you have previously discussed the time frame you can expect a reply within and remain flexible. You could use Skype too. Make use of the tools you have available, while keeping in mind what is appropriate in your situation.

If communicating with your supervisor is not an option, talk to someone else about what is going on. It might be best to try the person in charge of research postgraduates in your department, or someone else within your department who you know can provide a friendly ear. Communication beforehand and during leave has been crucial to my experience. If things are not working out as well for you, communication is also part of the answer. Talk to someone about it.

Finally…

7. Have a little faith in yourself. I can understand a certain feeling of anxiety about coping without the feedback  and guidance of someone who is part of your PhD process. Supervisors can be an important compass as we conduct our research. However, it is important to remember that you are the one doing the PhD. Have a little faith in yourself. Do not be afraid to ask questions, put forward a plan or take a bit more control than perhaps you are used to for a while. Be the one scheduling meetings and sending documents well in advance. There will still be plenty of support available to you if you need it.

In closing, I’d say that all of the above notwithstanding, I am glad to have my supervisor back. Her leave has not had any significant impact on my research at all, except maybe to make me a little more organised, which is hardly a bad thing. While I had some anxieties, these all proved to be unfounded and merely a distraction from other, better-founded anxieties about PhD and post-PhD life.

What do you think? What have your experiences been like? Do you think it makes a difference where in your PhD you are? I’m always willing to find out if there are things I can do better, and as I said earlier, I am neither the first nor the last PhD student to have had supervisory absence. How have you handled this? Supervisors – what is your take? What can your students do to help themselves?

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