The UKZN Griot. Of Theses, Supervisors and Public Investment
When students tell me that the thesis is ‘all their own work’ I ask them to consider the multiple investments in their thesis by taxpayers, the university, administrators, committees, supervisors, examiners, mentors, peers, classmates, funders, deans, academic co-ordinators, lecturers, school boards, senate and other support mechanisms too numerous to list here.
The supervisor puts in time, shapes the thesis’s structure, provides significant intellectual resources and often closely copy edits and even sometimes assists in writing aspects of the work.
If it takes, on average, 10 000 hours to complete a PhD, supervision could total a notional 1 000 hours. This figure does not include co-supervisor time, seminars and reading groups. These are the kinds of ratios that need to be considered.
Accepting donor and taxpayer funding places obligations on recipients. Amongst these are: i) completion; ii) sharing of data and information with other researchers on a team project; and iii) acknowledging sources of assistance and funding. Subject communities also want acknowledgement and benefit.
Research should be accountable to the public which largely financed the student’s candidature. A dissertation/thesis is the student’s work and is issued in the student’s name but it has resulted from a collaborative process involving many people. National infrastructures underpin each and every thesis student.
Think of the complexity: assessment and processing of applications and registration, letters of recommendation, funding support letters, grant application templates and quarterly supervisor reports. Then there’s discussion of topics, approval of proposal drafts, presentation of proposals to school colloquia, allocation of proposal discussants - often from external institutions at their own cost, writing up of reports on presentations, submission of revised proposals to supervisors, and submission to school higher degree committees (HDCs). After all that it’s on to ethical clearance committees and final approval by College and university Research Offices. This is before the actual thesis even starts.
Then there is the financial support from universities and especially supervisors when they invest their own research funds into student research projects and sponsor their conference participation. Sadly, this supervisor presence and support are often forgotten by the candidate in the published article.
Behind-the-scenes administration additionally includes bi-annual reports required by HDCs and funders, all of which consume massive amounts of time and effort on the part of supervisors and schools. More reports, filing of comments, discussion at staff meetings, consultations with candidates, sometimes with their parents and their counselors also. In difficult cases, students make no progress, disappear for years on end, have to be tracked down, reminded that they have legal obligations in terms of their registration contracts, and often counselled through dark periods of writer’s block, depression and lethargy.
All this falls on the supervisor’s back, who is harassed by the institution, wanting to know why progress is not occurring. This may require more reports, correspondence and meetings with university managers. All the while the dean is barking at supervisors because she herself is being barked at by institutional auditors who are themselves subject to national policy on throughput, subsidy and timely graduation – whether or not the student is ready, or signed off by the supervisor.
Blame is apportioned all round – and all the while the student may be blithely unaware of these considerations or the unremitting stress being absorbed by supervisors, HDC, academic leaders and deans – all of whom may be coming up short on their own performance management key indicators due to these stresses. The consequences of not meeting their ‘outputs’ is that staff may be denied sabbatical, forego annual pay increases, and deprived of superannuation or honorary status on retirement. Academics are the only class of professional who are systematically punished for doing their jobs against all odds.
When the miracle of submission occurs, after supervisors have recurrently read, edited, and advised on every single sentence and full-stop, the student can finally take a break. But for the supervisor, no breaks are permitted as she/he might have 10 other students still to supervise at various stages of their degrees.
In due course the examiners will report – all the while anxious and impatient candidates nagging away at why the process takes so long. Some examiners couldn’t care less, which is why the supervisor and HDC must select with care and experience appropriate and reliable examiners. Examiners cede their intellectual property rights at no cost to students who draw on their reports to make revisions, but ironically, some students refuse to play the game.
Examiner payments are pathetic. Examining is an act of professional commitment and love of academia on their part, not always appreciated by (a few) students who squander the time, effort and extreme dedication put into the process by these highly educated slaves-who-are-examiners. While most candidates will knuckle under and do the corrections thereby improving the work, some opportunistically scream ‘foul’, threaten legal action, and a few opportunists do take the university to court – a South African past-time. In which case they are no longer students but litigants as they have learned nothing during the process. The intellectual effort, time, administration and committee work invested in each and every thesis student is quite extraordinary, with checks and balances at every level, oversight at programme, school, college and university levels. While things sometimes go wrong, usually they go right if everyone is doing their jobs – while students play the game - in this highly inter-reticulated web of complex relations.
No one works as an individual. We are all embedded in supporting networks and infrastructures. And, don’t forget the heavy investment put in by the supervisor. We must all pay our dues.
- Keyan G Tomaselli is Distinguished Professor, University of Johannesburg and Professor Emeritus and Fellow, UKZN.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this column are the author’s own.