When panels fight

This post is by Associate Professor Inger Mewburn, director of research training at the ANU and one half of the Supervision Whisperers editorial team.

I love working on supervisor panels. “Never supervise alone” is my motto – but sometimes, well… let’s just say it isn’t always easy.

There are any number of reasons why supervisory panel dynamics can go wrong – people are complicated and some academics just cannot work well with others. I must admit to having experienced panel trouble more often than I would like. To date, I have never had a relationship breakdown with a student, but I have been the bystander to relationship breakdowns on four ocassions now. I have made some mistakes in dealing with these problems in the past and would like others to benefit from my experiences. I would also like to prompt some discussion about this issue as I know a lot of it goes on, mostly behind closed doors.

The only good thing about experiencing supervisor panel trouble is that it does sharpen your ability to see it coming. Two key warning signs are when you start disagreeing violently with the advice that another panel member gave the student and/or find yourself regularly handing the tissues to your student who is devastated by a colleague’s critique. In one case, I watched a student cry in my office on a regular basis for around six months before I took action. Believe me when I say this was way too late – for the student and for my relationship with that particular colleague.

In a supervisor/student context, waiting for it to get better and for other people fix their relationships is risky and highly likely to be fruitless. I think it’s your responsibility as a bystander, even if you don’t have primary care of the student, to take action sooner rather than later. Here’s some things you can try.

Take everyone out for a coffee (you’re buying – sorry).

You’ll need to be buying at least two coffees. It’s best to start by talking to the student about how they are feeling about their supervision and make a list of any problems they feel they are experiencing. But remember – there are always two sides to every story. Your colleague may well be frustrated with the student’s progress for good reason. When you take your colleague out, listen carefully to see how their account relates to the student’s story.

Respect your colleague’s experience and don’t be too quick to judge – sometimes communication styles just clash and everyone’s feelings are hurt for no real reason. If it’s a matter of mismatched expectations, see if you can help them both communicate their expectations more clearly. If the problem seems to be about the work itself and the direction that needs to be taken, the problem can be more intractable.  In my experience the coffee approach rarely works if the problem is really serious, but it’s worth a try.

Have the difficult conversation

Your next step is to call a panel meeting and put the problem on the table for discussion. After being a bystander to a particularly painful, protracted supervisor/student breakup last year I signed myself up for a class in ‘difficult conversations’. I found this class so useful that I signed up for two more.

After twelve hours of training I now know what I did wrong in at least two of my bystander cases: I put off the difficult conversation way too long. By the time these conversations happened, they were unnecessarily heated and everyone’s feelings were hurt. With this training under my belt, and a bit of practice, I feel much more confident to pull the conversational bandaid off, so to speak.

There are two things to remember about a difficult conversation: (1) stay as unemotional as possible and (2) keep the conversation task focussed. Stick to the facts, but remember that raking over the past to try to assign blame does not help anyone. Try to keep the conversation focussed on finding ways to solve the immediate problem and get everyone back on track. NEVER do this difficult conversation via email. Email lacks nuance and tone – it’s too easy for people to fire off angry responses which only inflame the situation.

If you are dreading the difficult conversation – don’t. It doesn’t have to turn into a screaming match if you handle it right. Surprisingly, as I become more confident in my ability to have difficult conversations in a productive way, I almost look forward to them. It’s like having a brisk massage – painful at the time, but you will feel much better afterwards. So just saddle up and get on with it.

Call in the cavalry

My work is mostly student focussed, but my fellow Supervision Whisperer editor, Evonne, has the unenviable job of being the mediator in supervisor panel arrangements that have gone horribly wrong. I always know when she’s had one of these sessions because I can hear it in her voice – it is extremely stressful work. However, I am very glad that people like Evonne exist to help us all find resolutions to panel trouble, because sometimes the problem cannot be solved without outside help.

If you’ve tried the coffee cure and had the difficult conversation it’s now time to fess up to management. Be the first person to call in the head of school or whoever is responsible for research students in your area. Don’t avoid making management aware of the issue, even if you have to take some portion of responsibility for what is happening. Again, leaving it too late to have this difficult conversation will only make matters worse. There are ways out of every problem – solutions are not always easy, but they can be found.

What about you? Ever had panel trouble? What did you do to solve it?

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