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Gorup & Laufer on how control is exercised and abused within relationships between doctoral supervisors and their students, what happens when PhD students challenge this control, and how we break free of this cycle of control.

Meta Gorup

Doctoral researchers represent a crucial group within the academic workforce. They importantly contribute to their departments’ and universities’ research efforts by, among other, carrying out data collection, running experiments, helping with or leading publication writing, presenting at conferences, and sometimes applying for research funding.

In 2018, doctoral programs across OECD countries enrolled over a million and a half doctoral students and granted a total of nearly 278,000 PhD or equivalent degrees (OECD n.d.).

However, this large, vital group of researchers faces numerous challenges connected to managing a several-years-long research project while learning a host of new skills and  coming to terms with the unwritten rules of academia. It is thus perhaps not unexpected – although rarely openly talked about – that around 50 percent of doctoral researchers discontinue their doctorates (Council of Graduate Schools 2008; Groenvynck et al. 2013; Vassil and Solvak 2012).

In this blog post, we explore what is behind this worrying statistic. Specifically, we examine the role the relationship between doctoral supervisors and their students plays in the latter’s decision to discontinue their doctorates.

Melissa Laufer

We first shed light on the existing research pointing to the crucial role of supervisors in and their control over students’ doctoral journeys. Furthermore, we demonstrate that supervision-related issues are a common concern among PhD students. We then show that doctoral researchers’ problems with supervisors are often exacerbated by an institutional environment which discourages PhD students from addressing these issues.

The remainder of the text presents our own study of international doctoral student dropout, revealing patterns of ‘control’ and abuse thereof by doctoral supervisors which in several cases played a decisive role in the PhD students’ decision to discontinue. Drawing upon the empirics of our study, we explore:

  • How is control exercised and abused within relationships between doctoral supervisors and their students?
  • What happens when PhD students challenge this control?
  • And how do we break free of this cycle of control?

Supervisors Play a Central Role

While the reasons for a doctoral researcher’s decision to discontinue their doctoral studies are multifaceted – from personal and family issues to departmental and disciplinary cultures (Gardner 2009; Golde 2005; Leijen et al. 2016) – issues with supervisors often contribute to a doctoral student’s decision to discontinue their PhD (Gardner 2009; Golde 2005; Jones 2013; Leijen et al. 2016).

This is hardly surprising since, to a doctoral student, their supervisor is commonly “the central and most powerful person” who controls many crucial aspects of the PhD trajectory: the doctoral researcher’s integration into the academic community and discipline, the topic and process of their dissertation research, their career path following the doctorate (Lovitts 2001: 131), and sometimes the PhD students’ funding (Golde 2005; Laufer & Gorup 2019).

Doctoral Supervision Needs Improvement

The essential role of doctoral supervisors in the PhD students’ experience and success makes the statistics that report on persistent supervisory issues all the more worrisome.

A global survey of over 6,300 PhD researchers initiated by Nature found that doctoral researchers based in Europe were very likely to list “impact of poor supervisor relationship” as one of their top five concerns (Lauchlan 2019). In the UK, a study of over 50,000 postgraduate research students – which included both PhD-level and research master’s students – found that 38 percent of respondents listed “learning and support” as an area in need of improvement, and out of those, 46 percent referred to various supervision-related issues (Williams 2019).

What is more, the previously mentioned Nature survey found that 21 percent of respondents experienced being bullied. Among those, 48 percent listed their supervisors as the most frequent perpetrators of bullying (Lauchlan 2019)

A Disempowering Institutional Environment

What further hinders those doctoral researchers who experience difficulties with their supervisors is an institutional environment which disempowers them to proactively address their situations. Because PhD students “are in a subordinate and dependent position socially, intellectually, and financially,” they are unlikely to challenge those superior to them (Lovitts 2001: 34–35).

Studies report that doctoral students “fear” raising an issue to or about a supervisor (Metcalfe et al. 2018) and are plagued by “fear of repercussions” because they cannot address their concerns anonymously (Lauchlan 2019). At the same time, universities are generally seen as reluctant to address supervision-related problems (Metcalfe et al. 2018) and academics tend to place the blame on PhD researchers for their issues rather than on the doctoral program or the university (Gardner 2009; Lovitts 2001).

To this point, a survey of almost 2,500 doctoral researchers at the Max Planck Society in Germany reports that only half of doctoral students who experienced conflicts with those senior to them reported the conflicts to an institutional body. Among those who did, over 50 percent indicated the reports were not dealt with in a satisfactory manner (Max Planck PhDnet Survey Group 2020).

The International Doctoral Student Experience

One group of PhD researchers particularly vulnerable to the extreme challenges of the doctorate is international doctoral students (IDSs). They are required not only to adjust to a new academic system but also to a new society (Le & Gardner 2010; Campbell 2015; Cotterall 2015).

IDSs make up 22 percent of doctoral enrollments across OECD countries (OECD 2020), with their dropout rates comparable to local students, at circa 50 percent (Groenvynck et al. 2013). However, despite similarities in discontinuation rates, studies point out that IDSs are especially susceptible to disempowerment.

They are more inclined to experience issues with their supervisors (Adams and Cargill 2003; Adrian-Taylor et al. 2007; Campbell 2015) and may encounter discrimination (Mayuzumi et al. 2007). The previously mentioned Max Planck Society survey (2020) for instance found that non-Germans were exposed to more bullying from supervisors than their German colleagues, with doctoral researchers coming from outside the European Union experiencing the most cases at 15 percent.

A Study of International Doctoral Student Dropout

Our 2019 study, The Invisible Others: Stories of International Doctoral Student Dropout, also highlights the vulnerability of IDSs. Specifically, it demonstrates how their statuses as cultural outsiders and academic novices contributed to their disempowerment and the eventual discontinuation of their studies.

We conducted in-depth life story interviews with 11 IDSs who had discontinued their doctorates at a Western European university. Across their narratives, we identified a pattern of ‘control’ that was exercised, and in some cases abused, by those in positions of power as well as institutionalized within the university structure.

Moreover, eight out of 11 participants described how issues with their supervisors to a greater or lesser degree prompted them to discontinue their doctorates.

Supervisors Controlling the Academic Conversation

Below we look at a selection of a broad spectrum of aspects in which supervisors exercised control over their IDSs’ doctoral journeys and show how the scale of power regularly tipped in the favor of supervisors.

Problematic Feedback and Mentorship Practices

Nearly all the IDSs reported some level of dissatisfaction with their supervisors’ feedback and support practices, with some explicitly pointing to supervisors’ control over their progress, learning and even future career.

Some IDSs explained, for example, that it was difficult to get any time at all with their supervisors, in some instances also sharing that this was not a challenge for local students. One PhD student described how they – as internationals – were “all on our own completely, since the very beginning.”

One participant reported how the feedback he received largely focused on pointing out deficiencies and how he was not given opportunities to engage in dialogue about his work. This made him feel that the comments were delivered from the supervisors’ “clearly defined position of power.” Similarly, another IDS explained how he felt he was “not learning anything because I’m doing all that she’s [the supervisor] saying.”

For one research participant, the extent of his supervisor’s control explicitly extended to his future career. Initially, the supervisor agreed with the PhD student’s choice to discontinue and offered to write recommendation letters for his doctorate applications elsewhere. However, our interviewee later found out that his supervisor told a potential employer that he was not actually interested in pursuing a PhD.

Struggles Over the Ownership of the Research Project

A number of IDSs also felt their research projects were largely controlled by supervisors who did not give them the freedom to choose their research topic or decide how to approach it.

One doctoral researcher described how he felt that the “research project doesn’t belong to me,” together with feelings of “working for someone else.” Another IDS shared that she was successful in winning an external grant which was supposed to give her the freedom to choose her research topic. However, in reality, she “couldn’t make any decisions [about] my own work”.

Some IDSs also reported the supervisors’ micro-management and lack of trust in them. One research participant explained how her supervisor

was completely behind my back, all the time. Like if I was coming in from an experiment, he would be like, what are the results? … He was all the time behind me and there was no trust in what I was doing, I was surveilled all the time.

This doctoral student was not alone in experiencing a constant pressure to perform and feeling surveilled. One IDS even shared he thought his supervisor “feels like she owns a person.”

Funding in Supervisors’ Hands

Another aspect where the supervisors’ power abuse was very apparent was finances, likely more so because at the case study university, supervisors were in large part directly in control of the PhD students’ funding.

Some IDSs reported how they were promised funding for a full PhD of four to five years, but were told after a year or two that their contract would not be extended. One research participant shared:

during the job interview on Skype and on site I have been told that there was funding for a PhD. That they would make a contract until the end of the first year, at the same time I would apply for an external grant … but not to worry because there was the funding for the entire project. … Which turned out not to be true.

In a couple of cases, doctoral researchers were offered only short-term contracts – of a few months – after their initial one or two-year contract expired. One research participant described what his supervisor did when she perceived at the end of his first two-year contract that he might not be able to finish his PhD:

she [supervisor] told me that she was only going to sign my contract for three months. … So that will give me like the added pressure and should be like a testing time, if I was going to be able to finish my PhD.

Following an evaluation after the first three months, the supervisor planned to continue extending this IDS’s contract every three months rather than offer him a longer-term contract.

Supervisors Using the PhD Students’ Status as Internationals

For IDSs coming from outside the European Union (EU), the supervisors’ control over their funding was also linked to the control over the PhD students’ immigration status. To stay in an EU country, non-EU students need to prove they have financial means to do so – and if their contract ends, that is put at risk.

One research participant shared how his supervisor explicitly referred to her control over his stay in the country:

she [supervisor] told me if I didn’t meet … all the deadlines that she had made for this project … she wouldn’t sign my contract and … that would put my residence here in [the country] and in Europe at risk, if I didn’t do exactly what she said. So that was openly like a threat. … so I think she used that. I mean … like a point of power, like … your stay here [in this country] relies on me.

Another narrative underlying some of our interviewees’ accounts was their perception that IDSs were more vulnerable to exploitation by their supervisors. One interviewee explained that he was “an easy target for her [supervisor]” because “[s]he thought it doesn’t matter how bad she treats me or any other international students.” He speculated that this group of PhD students was less likely to discontinue their doctorates because it was more difficult for them to find another opportunity in a country away from home. Thus, they were likely to put up with more mistreatment than their local counterparts.

Challenging Supervisors’ Control

As the previous examples illustrate, supervisors exercised and abused their control in various aspects of the PhD students’ lives. Although in most cases, doctoral students were aware of this control and openly spoke about it, it also seemed to be understood that there was little they could do to counter it. In the words of one IDS, “nobody ever dared to talk to the professors.”

Those who brought up issues to their supervisors were often disappointed and disillusioned with the results. Some IDSs reported that challenging their supervisors resulted in the supervisors becoming furious, storming out of the room or threatening the PhD student with no contract renewal.

Another problem identified by our research participants was that there was simply not enough oversight of what was actually going on behind the scenes. An IDS shared,

apparently I was one of the many who had been quitting in this lab, which is strange because I thought, come on, there has to be some kind of follow-up on this … In the same lab, you have all these students quitting, don’t you think you have a problem? With this group?

At the same time, this PhD researcher seemed resigned to the situation. When asked if she had officially approached anyone about her issues, she responded,

I didn’t because who’s my reference? … I mean what is going to change, really, you know? I didn’t see it was going to help me out. Or who to go to, to begin with.

This notion that professors were somehow ‘untouchable’ was echoed in a number of doctoral researchers’ accounts. As a result, in relation to issues with their supervisors, only two of our interviewees used official university resources such as filing an official complaint with the faculty ombudsman or speaking to the internationalization office.

Moreover, these university resources did little to help the PhD students who approached them. One IDS who got in touch with the internationalization office and the office overseeing her scholarship was told they could not help her because “this is quite a [personality] problem. So it’s not very academic. So they can’t really interfere.”

Another doctoral student shared how the faculty ombudsman dismissed and joked about his complaints when his supervisor offered him a series of short-term contracts in place of a longer one. Moreover, the intervention had no effect on the supervisor and his supervisor later explained to the PhD student that this practice was legal – and therefore acceptable.

Breaking the Cycle of Control

In the doctoral researchers’ accounts above, we see how supervisors, due to their seniority and institutionalized positions of power, may exercise and abuse their control over various aspects of the doctoral journey. For a number of our interviewees, this abuse was made worse due to their international status.

The fact that supervisors have the power to undertake the actions like those we illustrate above with limited to no consequences speaks to a much larger issue. We are no longer talking about a few bad apples in the barrel, but a systematic problem occurring across academia, as evident from the abovementioned surveys initiated by Nature (Lauchlan 2019) and the Max Planck Society (Max Planck PhDnet Survey Group 2020).

But this cycle of power imbalance does not need to continue. The change begins by rethinking how we characterize the doctorate. In academia folklore, the doctorate is often fashioned as a trial, a time of enormous hardship, of which only the fittest survive – but not without battle scars. Instead of seeing the doctorate as a grueling rite of passage, we need to shift our focus to building confident, empowered scholars, who value collaboration over competition.

Such change can be sparked by focusing on practices embedded within the institutional environment. In our practitioner-geared publication, Pathways to Practice: Supporting International Doctoral Students, we discuss in detail the small and larger steps institutions, supervisors and (international) doctoral students can take to create an inclusive doctoral experience for both international and local PhD students.

In this blog post, we would like to highlight two steps university stakeholders can take to ensure a more empowering institutional environment:

  • We encourage institutions to set up training for supervisors to reflect on their supervision styles and the assumptions embedded within them. Supervisors should also gain insight into giving constructive feedback and building professional partnerships with PhD students.
  • We propose a number of formal and informal support structures institutions may make available to doctoral students, ranging from setting up an independent ombudsperson to forming peer and collegial support communities, such as study groups, workshops and online forums.

However, the concerns we raise in this blog post about power imbalances in the relationship between doctoral supervisors and their students are symptomatic of a phenomenon occurring across all levels of academia: the privileged few have power over the subordinate majority. Consequently, the larger question at stake is: how do we change deeply ingrained behaviors in academia that perpetuate inequalities?

Some of these issues are complex and may require a system-level overhaul, but others are within our reach. The relatively simple change actions we propose above can be a good starting point for how we want to shape the next generation of scholars. Let us begin by bringing the discussion of power abuse in academia into the light and, step by step, empower doctoral students, supervisors and institutions to break free of the cycle of control.