“You must be very intelligent”: Vulnerability in academia and the impact of the PhD student/supervisor relationship

Wednesday 18th of October, 2017

I recently finished reading You must be very intelligent: The PhD Delusion by Karin Bodewits, which reads as a harsh (but deserved) critique of the European University system. While the system is, in fact, ‘broken’ in some ways, the book reads more like a warning about the importance of the PhD student/supervisor relationship. The book is also part autobiographical and part fiction – ultimately labelled as fictional overall, which I found somewhat problematic to navigate through.

As a researcher and writer myself, I was rather uncomfortable with the potential ethical implications in how similar some of the details in the book are with the publically available details of Bodewits’ real-life academic experiences. For example, in the book, Karin conducts her research in lab 262, while she credits lab 229 in her thesis. The acknowledgements in her thesis also read as a carefully constructed dig at her primary supervisor (“I want to thank XXXXX for giving me the chance to do a PhD in his research group. I am grateful to YYYYY who has always been actively involved in my project”[1]) – though I could be reading too much into this given my context for reading up on her thesis was the character development of the PhD supervisors in her book. That being said, I think enough small details have been changed to bring into question the reliability of the narrative (‘which facts are based on truth and which have been changed to create a more compelling, humorous narrative?'). In regards to how uncomfortable this question of truth has made me, I also think this could have been deliberately executed; I think this question of truth allows Bodewits to bring attention to many problematic practises in academia while writing, ultimately, a lighthearted and humorous novel.

For me, the conflict in the book centres around the fictional PhD supervisor, Mark McLean, who is disengaged with his research students, has unrealistic expectations and shows clear favouritism for projects that will raise his profile or provide grant money and career progression in some way. While Bodewits’ disillusion is with the academic system in general (finishing the book with “And so it goes on, unchecked, oppressive, soul-gnawing, enervating little slave empires run by tin-pot paranoiacs preying on gullible, hopeful, dreamy youth” [Bodewits, 2011, p.336]), I think the real lesson to take away from the book, is that “for many PhD students, the supervisor-supervisee relationship is pivotal to the successful completion of their PhD” (Lynch, 2008, para. 5). If one considers Jonathan Downie’s post on The Thesis Whisperer, which focuses on the prevalence of feelings of insecurity, vunerability and imposter syndrome in PhD students, one must consider the potentially devastating impact a breakdown of this kind of mentorship could be. Downie comments, “Outwardly capable, productive PhD students walk around with this nagging feeling that they really aren’t good researchers and that one day, someone will find them out” (2016, para. 5).

I should disclose now that I did complete my PhD in a vastly different environment to Bodewits—in humanities, not science, and in the Australian University system. I also had, and still have to this day, a wonderful relationship with both of my PhD supervisors. I think Gina Wisker, for The Guardian, sums up the polarity in our experiences quite well, stating that:

“Some PhD students have positive tales of supervisors who are good managers and become lifelong friends. Others, however, have horror stories. These are the supervisors who do not see students regularly, show little interest in their work, make unrealistic demands on their progress, don’t put them in touch with other students or networks, and provide harsh, confusing or no feedback.” (Wisker, 2014, para. 1).

This article, therefore, isn’t a comment on these university systems specifically, as I have had little to do with the European system, other than attending a conference at the Imperial College in London. Rather, it draws on something common to all systems and disciplines—the PhD supervisor, and how the breakdown of this relationship can intensify or even, in extreme cases, create feelings of vulnerability and imposter syndrome in PhD students. A lot of the vunerability in Bodewits’ novel, even the overwhelming sense of imposter syndrome that is drawn on throughout the book, I believe stems from the conflict, and lack of support, with Mark, the PhD supervisor.

While the PhD supervisor is not responsible for coddling you (see this article for an idea of what not to do when it comes to your relationship with your PhD supervisor), their support is crucial in helping you navigate the rough terrain that is academia. It’s normal to have doubts; making a new contribution to knowledge can be incredibly isolating. Your supervisor should be the one throwing you a life saver as the ship goes under. They are the ones who should be pulling you back to shore. You should not be completely alone in your quest for knowledge; there should be at least one other person on that boat as you search for knowledge lost at sea and seek to discover new land.

I had two other people in that boat with me and I believe that, unlike in Bodewits’ experience, my supervisors would fall into what Susanna Chamberlain describes “Colleague in training” (2016, para. 16):

“When a PhD candidate is treated as a colleague in training, the relationship is always on a professional basis, where the individual and their work is held in respect. The supervisor recognises that their role is to guide through the morass of regulation and requirements, offer suggestions and do some teaching around issues such as methodology, research practice and process, and be sensitive to the life-cycle of the PhD process. The experience for both the supervisor and student should be one of acknowledgement of each other, recognising the power differential but emphasising the support at this time. This is the best of supervision.” (Chamberlain, 2016, para. 16)

It is this support that helped me combat my feelings of inadequacy; my supervisors were like the support crew passing me water and towels during the Tour de France, only it was constructive feedback, the occasional compliment and open calls for publications instead.

On the other end of the spectrum, in discussing bullying in academic contexts (arguably, one of the key focuses in Bodewits’ book) Sam Farley and Christine Sprigg suggest that it exists as the result of extreme competition for few opportunities across academic fields (2014, para. 13). This is something reflected in the book as Bodewits notes that she is told not to talk about her research at conferences in case it gets stolen (“Be careful. Do not share what we work on. Your data isn’t safe here” [Bodewits, 2017, p.122]), going on to describe how boring conferences are as they are just full of academics rehashing already published articles (Bodewits, 2017, p.122-124). While this not only correlates to Bodewits’ fictional account of the PhD experience, there are also parallels with Wisker's article, “PhD Students: what to do if you don’t work well with your supervisor”, where she states, “There are darker stories of selfishness, power and meanness, where supervisors use their students to produce the supervisor’s work, take all the accolades for publications and results, and belittle student’s different approaches” (2014, para.7).

You must be very intelligent: The PhD Delusion, for me, is a cautionary tale of the importance in shopping around for your PhD supervisor. This relationship is more important, in my opinion, than the prestige of the university you do eventually attend.

Are you considering beginning a PhD? I cannot recommend this article strongly enough: https://thesiswhisperer.com/2017/06/07/supervisor-shopping/



[1] While this information is readily available online, I felt uncomfortable providing a reference and linking this post directly to it, given the nature of some of the representations in the book.



Bodewits, K. (2017). You Must be Very Intelligent: The PhD Delusion. Munich, Germany: Springer International Publishing.

Chamberlain, S. (2016). Ten types of PhD supervisor relationships – which is yours? The Conversation. Retrieved on 16th of October 2017 from: https://theconversation.com/ten-types-of-phd-supervisor-relationships-which-is-yours-52967

Downie, J. (2016). The Lies We Tell Ourselves. The Thesis Whisperer. Retrieved on 16th of October 2017 from: https://thesiswhisperer.com/2016/03/09/the-lies-we-tell-ourselves/

Farley, S and C. Sprigg. (2014). Culture of cruelty: why bullying thrives in higher education. The Guardian. Retrieved on 16th of October 2017 from: https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/blog/2014/nov/03/why-bullying-thrives-higher-education

Lynch, S. (2008). Happy days: Why PhD students need a helping hand from their supervisors. Independent. Retrieved on 16th of October 2017 from: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/higher/happy-days-why-phd-students-need-a-helping-hand-from-their-supervisors-781842.html

Wisker, G. (2014). PhD students: what to do if you don't work well with your supervisor. The Guardian. Retrieved on 16th of October 2017 from: https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2014/dec/29/phd-supervisor-university-research-tips-relationship-work

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