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The Australian National University

Problems: prevention & coping

Research overview & references

What to do when things go wrong

As the saying goes 'it takes two to tango' and generally when things go wrong during candidature, there are generally a few basic principles, whether it be the candidate or supervisor who is expressing the concern.

Act early:

As with so many things, acting quickly before the situation can escalate and get out of hand, is generally a positive step.

Act locally:

Whenever possible: whether candidate or supervisor, it is usually better to start with the person immediately concerned and then work out to people further removed from the situation - e.g. postgraduate convener, Head of Department, Dean of the College, or Dean of Students.

Keep records:

Discussing issues but not being able to remember details or dates can be frustrating for all concerned.

Seek advice:

Before proceeding with a formal grievance it is worth seeking advice, this is for candidates as well as supervisors.

Of particular concern in the postgraduate research environment is the very personal and generally private nature of the candidate/supervisor relationship and the power differential inherent within that relationship. The potential for misunderstanding is considerable. Having said that it is interesting to note that in most surveys of research student satisfaction, generally about 80% of candidates state that they are satisfied or very satisfied with supervision. However, that leaves approximately 20% who are not satisfied and it seems that when things go wrong they are likely to go very wrong.

Most universities have informal and formal grievance procedures. Informal procedures generally involve talking within the supervisory panel of the department or the research group, to sort out the difficulty. For students it often means talking with peers, particularly those in the Postgraduate Students' Association. In universities, such as the ANU, where there is panel supervision, often other members of the panel make excellent 'sounding boards' for concerns, of either candidates or supervisors.

Formal procedures are usually outlined on university web sites, and might vary slightly, but generally follow the process outlined below:

For candidates:

There would be an expectation that the issue would have been addressed at the local level before being taken further. Following that, there would be an expectation that the candidate would have discussed the matter with the postgraduate coordinator or head of unit. If the matter is still not resolved, then candidates would take their grievance to the Dean of Students or the Dean of Graduate Studies.

For supervisors:

The Annual Reporting process is an opportunity for the supervisor and/or panel to formally express a concern. There are occasions when supervisors have not taken the Annual Report seriously and given it a cursory sign-off, afterwards realising concerns about candidate progress that they have not explicitly documented. Concerns are then generally raised with the Postgraduate Convenor, followed by the Delegated Authority (Head of School or Dean). If the issue cannot be resolved at this level then it generally progresses to the Dean of Graduate Studies or Pro/Deputy Vice-Chancellor.

How to prevent problems during candidature

Some indicators of poor health

Anna Weatherly of the ANU Counselling Service suggests that supervisors might need to address a number of concerns regarding candidate health and wellbeing. These include:

  • Distress: this might for many reasons, including poor health, psychological problems like anxiety or depression, family difficulties, relationship problems or the pressure of juggling work and study.
  • Disturbed behaviour: such as self-harming or misuse of drugs or alcohol. Mental health problems can lead to behaviour that might appear strange or inappropriate for the situation.
  • Ill-health: personal health or that of a family member.

It is not uncommon for doctoral students, in particular, to go through a 'purple patch'. However, there is ample evidence to suggest that for some candidates this might be more than a passing event simply due to 'the PhD'.

Candidates often need assistance in seeking advice regarding their physical and mental well-being in the same way that they need help and encouragement to seek advice or help regarding writing, presentation skills, etc.

The series of fortnightly cartoons titled "Piled Higher and Deeper", which chronicles life (or the lack thereof) in grad school and pokes fun at the life of a graduate student. For some students however, it is far from a joke.

It is difficult for supervisors to determine whether a candidate is 'just having a slump' or in fact this is the beginning of something more serious. As with many issues, the best advice is 'If you think there is something amiss, do something.' Most universities have confidential counselling and health services where a supervisor can phone and seek advice about a candidate who they are concerned about. It is often useful to suggest that you (the supervisor) will go with the student if they are reluctant to attend on their own. Often, detecting and acting early can save a candidate from considerable distress and ill-health.

A particular time when students can feel under stress is when they are away on fieldwork. They can experience a feeling of being forgotten or cut off from a supervisor during this time. Furthermore, some students can undergo disturbing or even traumatic experiences while on fieldwork, hence it is critical that supervisors demonstrate care and concern for any student in this situation. The evidence shows that it is not just the traumatic event itself, but the network of support for people following a trauma that contributes to their psychological resilience and recovery.

A suggestion from the Counselling Centre is that supervisors meet with their students when they return from fieldwork to talk about how things went from a personal and emotional perspective, in addition to any 'content' discussions.

It is worth acknowledging that living away from Canberra and then returning to Canberra, can both require some psychological adjustment time. This is because, not only are accommodation and social networks disrupted, but sometimes the individual's whole outlook on life may change.

about this site Updated: 8 March 2012/ Responsible Officer:  Director, CHELT / Page Contact:  Web publisher