Supervisional support should be more than just symbolic

The University needs to invest more time in the assistance of third years’ future careers and the provision of transcripts

Cartoon: Sarah Jilani

Cartoon: Sarah Jilani

One of the last things you think about as a fresher is the role that your supervisor plays. While in education, academic accountability is a constant concern, but the longer you spend at University the more you realise that the only person who is going to moan at you for getting that substandard grade is you. The University of York extols itself for its high level of pastoral care – those twice-termly emails that compel you to sit in your supervisor’s office whilst you talk vaguely about whether you enjoyed your seminars, or whether you actually bothered to turn up.

But I know few people who manage to achieve a teacher-like relationship with their supervisors, where a student feels comfortable enough to tell them that, no, they haven’t done enough work because they have been sat in a student newspaper office or rehearsing in Central Hall for most of term. Or have been spending time at home because they don’t get along with their housemates and feel isolated. But honesty with a supervisor should be crucial.

This realisation only dawns when you reach the academic abyss of third-year, when you begin to recognise that those extra-important extra-curricular activities are actually probably not going to get you a job or a degree.

But the role that your supervisor plays and their opinion of you as an individual becomes an imperative part of the application rigmarole. And somehow the news that academic departments are doing little to help ease the stress and unnecessary bureaucracy of graduate job and Masters applications is unsurprising. The disregard academic departments have for providing transcripts is not only impeding a student population facing limited employment prospects in the current economic climate, but shows an ignorance and apathy for the care and attention students expect from their department.

A third-year friend of mine recently became upset because throughout his time here his supervisor has never once asked what he does in his free time or what he wants to do as a career. Wanting to be a journalist, he went to his supervisor armed with a portfolio and CV, only to find that as soon as a ‘Journalism Masters’ was mentioned, the supervisor became disinterested and told him to write it all down on a ‘personal development’ form to be handed in at the departmental office. Surely the entire purpose of a supervisor is the personal one-to-one interaction and correspondence, the knowledge that in the emotional whirl-wind of University life there is someone there who you can talk to – who maybe doesn’t understand, but is there regardless?

You would presume that supervisors strive to ensure that their students become the best that they can be. Student happiness and success is surely the truest reflection of their role as an academic member of the department? Assistance in the final stages of our time here, when providing something as important as an academic transcript, should be expected and standardised parts of academic supervisor practice.

For humanities students, the measly four hours of contact time we are blessed with a week shows no correspondence with the fees we pay, so the least we can ask for is organised and marginally passionate supervision.

The situation is even worse for Joint Honours students – the burden of contacting both supervisors is stressful and time-consuming. Students need assurance at a time of mounting pressure, which will help the departments in achieving academically flourishing individuals, rather than bitter and frustrated supervisees.


  1. 23 Nov ’10 at 3:09 pm

    Neanderthal Man

    Anecdotal evidence isn’t indicative of a wider problem. Just cos your mate expects the world at his/her feet doesn’t mean the rest of us are upset.

    I haven’t heard of nearly as much discontent (equally, I can’t say either that this is reflective of general experience). However, clearly some academics are better suited to such roles than others. This is unfortunate, as some may have excellent, motivated supes who invest a great deal of time and attention in their supervisees, while others may miss out. I’m not sure there’s a huge amount students can do about that, which I agree, is unfortunate.

    If you want careers advice, go to the careers service. Don’t expect a politics/english lit/sociology/history etc lecturer to have useful advice at hand – that isn’t their job, nor the role of a supe.

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  2. 23 Nov ’10 at 4:38 pm

    Just This Guy

    I’ve met a lot of students who’ll off handedly complain about termly supervisions being a case of “so you’re still alive, then?”. How many have actually ever tried asking their supervisor a question or for help with something, I wonder? Something tells me the majority of supervisors will ask if you have any problems and the majority of students will just shrug and say no, even if it’s not true. Don’t expect them to be mind readers.

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  3. YOU need to be pushy to get the most out of your supervisors! think about how much you’re paying (ok, in debt really, but still!) for tuition fees and think about how to maximise the return you get on it…

    if it means emailing your department/supervisor for meetings every 2-3 weeks then do it! if you’re upset about a grade go to them and ask for some detailed feedback. most supervisors are happy to do this, but really do you expect them to offer the feedback to every student who pops in their door? no, they’d be eternally busy and would die through frustration in a day. and i think a lot of them are callous to lazy students who skim through on the bare minimum. if you’re an honest, hard working student your supervisor will spot it and will be v. accommodating of your requests. if they’re not, then you need to request a transfer!

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  4. 25 Nov ’10 at 9:21 pm

    The Man from Earth

    “A third-year friend of mine recently became upset because throughout his time here his supervisor has never once asked what he does in his free time or what he wants to do as a career.”

    Maybe that’s because a supervisor isn’t a parent or a careers advisor. In my experience supervisors are generally helpful, but you have to actually ask them for feedback and advise. Students have such an entitlement complex sometimes it’s unbelievable – they have to actually talk to people and plan ahead, not just expect supervisors (who are also busy with lectures, seminars, admin and their own research) to bow to their unspoken and unspecified wishes. Many don’t even bother to book slots for supervision meetings.

    “The situation is even worse for Joint Honours students – the burden of contacting both supervisors is stressful and time-consuming.”

    Seriously? Contacting two people? God help them in the real world.

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  5. This is just a pointless rant, typical of the author.

    As the other four comments have said, ASK a supervisor and they’ll help.

    I had issues with an injury last year. My supervisor was very helpful and got me extra time etc after I ASKED, they didn’t just wake up with a jolt in the night and realise I had an issue and rush, superman style, to sort it – they need to actually know what it is you want from them. They’re not magicians, and I think some students really need to realise that they’re NOT children, you are expected to show some initiative and empower the people who are there to support you.

    Not really sure how you link this with the academic transcript part either? Yeah, that was an issue in the edition this was a comment piece for, but its the departmental admins who sort those out, not your supervisor…

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  6. Actually, asking supervisors for help doesn’t guarantee they’re going to help you. I’ve had three different supervisors within the space of four terms because they kept leaving, not the University’s fault I know, but it still left me feeling that there’s no one who actually knows that I’m a student here. I’ll admitt initially supervisor meetings to me were just something I had to go to but when I actually engaged and asked for help it was no use, I told my supervisor that I was having trouble with one of my modules and asked if there was anything I could do to catch up in the next term, or if there were any books that I could get (knowing that he was the head of that department) but his response was simple ‘no, just pay attention in the next lectures’. Great. Thanks.
    I know this might not be representative of all supervisors but a lot of my friends have had similar problems. You say that it’s not their jobs to sort out our lives, but for those of us who aren’t sure where we’re going with this degree, or we’re struggling, or we just need the persepctive of someone who has been through the same process then a supervisor who actually cares can make a massive difference. Why advertise supervisors as people who are there to support you and to supervise your life at University if instead you’re simply going to be fobbed off onto about twenty different people at careers or welfare which offers no continuity or coherence and ultimately, no help?

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