Dear PhD Supervisors,
On Thursday, 26th August 2021, at 2:00 pm, I got off the phone with my friend doing a PhD in another institution who explained to me his horrific experiences with his supervisor. My friend has been struggling to get his family into Australia since he started his PhD journey. Like everyone else, he was supposed to apply for an exemption for his wife and child. Although he had every document required, he needed a letter from his supervisor to support his application, but apparently and in his words: “the man does not want to have anything to do with my personal life and my family”.
This is the premise of my letter to you. While I understand that there could be many reasons why you might not want to meddle in the personal lives of your students. This is different. It is different because my friend only needed a letter to help him get reunited with his family again since he left Nigeria in 2019. In the midst of all these, you have continued to push your students to submit the draft of their manuscripts, you hound them with deadlines. Arguably, your primary responsibility is to ensure that the student progresses academically, but how productive will your student be when their mental health is negatively impacted?
These issues are compounded for international students who secure scholarships to study. Sometimes we are voiceless and powerless because we get caged in the pain of not standing up to you who supported our application to get a scholarship. Sometimes we mask the pain with the hope that it will get better. If you look deeper, we are bleeding.
Recently, a friend with whom we submitted an application could not ask his supervisor for a reference. Not because he did not want to but because he did not trust his supervisor to paint a good picture of him as a result of the toxic relationship. In 2017, a friend of mine on a PhD scholarship in the UK dropped out because of his supervisor. This is sad. This is painful.
After listening to my friend speak today, I reflected on my own experience with my supervisors, whom I remain absolutely grateful for. My supervisors (Dr. Julie Anne King and Dr. Jo Durham) are a template for what “GOOD SUPERVISORS” should represent. I know this because:
- Every supervisory meeting I have begins with “Aaron, how is Ezinne (my bride) and Zoe ( my daughter) doing?
- The meeting ends with “Please say hi to your family for us.
- If it is a virtual meeting, they will usually say, “Aaron, if Zoe is not sleeping, can we see her and say hi?”
- My principal supervisor sometimes takes time to ask “When is Ezinne starting her PhD? Hope she still has those plans?”
In many meetings, we spent more than 30 minutes discussing family before coming back to my PhD.
Apologies if you feel upset that I have used my supervisors to make a point but I have only had the courage to do this because they are nothing short of AMAZING. In fact, they have been so kind to me and my family that my bride calls them “MY PHD MOTHERS”. Please do not be shocked by this, and No! It is not a breach of professional boundaries but an expression and appreciation of how deep their humanity goes. As PhD Supervisors, you should be parents to us. You are literally our academic parents who nurture us towards maturity.
My appeal to you today is to adopt a template that works for you in supervising and caring for your PhD students. Feel free to learn from my supervisor’s template, part of which is shown in points 1-4. Whatever template you choose, “BE HUMAN”.
In closing, your duty to your student is to ensure they excel in their PhDs, and since health and success are inextricable, it is important you care more for their health, without which they cannot function.
If your focus remains ONLY on the number of papers your student can publish with outright neglect of their wellbeing, as is the case of my friend, YOU HAVE FAILED AS A SUPERVISOR.
I do hope you reflect on my letter and treat PhDs better. In my case, I am fortunate, as you can see in the attached picture of my supervisor and I.
Thank you for attending to my letter, and feel free to share this with your colleagues.
QUT School of Public Health and Social Work