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Detachment versus involvement in students' personal problems

How far should I, as a PhD supervisor*, involve myself in my students' personal problems?"

The most common view among experienced supervisors is that supervisors should not involve themselves at all in studentsí personal problems. They argue that the unloading of personal problems onto supervisors can all too easily get out of hand; that supervisors who try to emulate professional counsellors are behaving irresponsibly and can do more harm than good; and that supervisors are individuals with their own personal and professional needs, which cannot involve being all things to all people.

However, another common view is that, as the quality of the student-supervisor relationship is crucial for the success of a research programme, it is second nature for supervisors to adopt a sympathetic and helpful stance towards students airing their personal problems. For supervisors holding this view, the dilemma is not whether to get involved, but when and how much.

In order to do justice to all their students, the rest of their work and to themselves, supervisors need to set a limit on the time and emotional energy that they invest in their studentsí personal problems. They also need to be able to recognise when the problems have gone too far for them, as non-professional counsellors, to be able to help, and also where the students concerned are taking advantage of regular sympathetic hearings.

Institutions generally employ professional counsellors, and supervisors must, in the interests of everyone concerned, refer to the professionals earlier rather than later. In the meantime, it is worth finding out where the professional help is, so as to lose no time directing students to it, as and when necessary. It may also be important to find out whether the institution has any codes of practice on the matter.

edited extract from no 2 in the Guides series

Resolving Common Dilemmas in Supervision
by Pat Cryer

© Pat Cryer

* 'Supervisor' is a shorthand for 'research degree supervisor', 'advisor' or 'tutor', and applies to varying extents for all research degrees: PhD, DPhil. MPhil, Prof Doc and even undergraduate and masters' projects. In some countries, notably the USA, a 'supervisor' is known as an 'advisor'.