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Handling grumbles, complaints and appeals

How should I, as a PhD supervisor*, handle students who complain to me, particularly about other staff?

In recent years universities in the UK have tightened up their complaints procedures and it is important not to fall foul of yours. So when students complain to you about anything at all, it is important to find out whether they are just in a bad mood and grumbling or whether this is something for action on your part. The simplest way forward is to ask the direct question:

"Are you making a formal complaint?"

The difference between grumbles and complaints

The answer to the above question will probably be no. The student is just grumbling. However, if the answer is yes, the student is making a formal complaint then it is your obligation as a supervisor to take action.

How supervisors should act on formal complaints

When a student makes a formal complaint to you, you should refer him or her to the academic who has responsibility for the research students in the department. That academic must decide how to sort the matter out, probably informally in the first instance.

If the problem persists, the academic has recourse, through channels which are normally well-defined, to the higher authorities which will be named in the institutional regulations. It is the responsibility of this academic to be familiar with the channels, and to deal with the issues sympathetically, diplomatically and firmly.

What if supervisors agree with the grumble or complaint?

General information

Supervisors and academic managers not infrequently acknowledge privately that they feel a sneaking sympathy for students who grumble to them about certain supervisors. However, the considered view seems to be that academics have a loyalty to their departments, their colleagues and their professions not to encourage students to elaborate on grumbles about other people. If the grumbles turn out to be formal complaints, the advice in the previous paragraph holds. Either way, it is unprofessional for supervisors, to encourage or join in gossip.

Differences between complaints and appeals

There are technical differences between complaints and appeals. Complaints have to be dealt with immediately and can be in terms of what is judged as bad supervision. Appeals are for after a event such as the upgrade or the exam, and have to be in terms of regulations not being followed. They cannot be made about bad supervision because that ought to have been recognised earlier and generated a complaint which would have been dealt with.

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'.