Of course, academic supervisors play very important roles for students especially thesis students at Masters, Ph.D., and Post-doctoral levels. Academic supervisors are indispensable for thesis students. They guide and assist students with intellectual supports to the completion of their thesis papers. The quality of a thesis considerably depends on the roles and supports of supervisors. Indeed, students can not only learn how to solve thesis or research-related problems but also get guidance on many other aspects including career development from supervisors. Because of their sincere and appropriate guidance, many moderate-level students may perform excellently. Undeniably, many supervisors provide adequate and responsible guidance to students across universities in the world.
Thesis students at Masters, PhD and Post-doctoral levels are usually brilliant at varying degrees. After getting their degrees, they develop better careers in academic and other fields. In fact, a portion of thesis students becomes academicians and contributes to the knowledge industry, families, communities and the overall society. As expected, they are important for families, communities and the overall society. But, undesirably, many thesis students, especially at Masters and PhD levels, unreasonably suffer because many supervisors exploit their thesis students and bring enormous harm. In fact, thesis supervisors can bring harm to students in different ways. In this writing, I will take into account some major unacceptable causes for concerns of the thesis students and provide some suggestions for addressing such concerns.
Most importantly, some academic supervisors put unacceptable constraints on the desired degree, especially PhD. Of course, some students do not get the degree for many valid reasons including a failure to produce a thesis with adequate standards, quitting the degree by students for personal reasons and a lack of academic ethics. But, on some occasions, students find it very difficult to get the degree or do not get it at all because of many other reasons including the disliking of the supervisor(s) and personal anger of the supervisor(s) over thesis students driven by the unfulfillment of his/her unreasoned desires. Supervisors sometimes use techniques like providing no or inadequate supports, undermining or degrading works, harsh personal critique, providing extra works of other projects, etc. to hold the thesis hostage, delay the degree and frustrate students to terminate the PhD project. Sometimes, as criticized, supervisors manage other thesis examiners and the thesis defense board or committee to cancel the degree.
Thesis supervisors can bring harm to thesis students and their careers in some other ways. In fact, there are some other notable criticisms such as forceful authorship or co-authorship of articles prepared by thesis students, undermining good works of thesis students intentionally for de-motivating students, irrelevant work pressures or pressures for doing personal tasks of the supervisor(s), sexual exploitations, bullying and racism. At times, it is criticized that thesis students are treated as personal employees of the supervisor(s) and there is a lack of minimum respect for a PhD thesis student. Besides, even if thesis students are sometimes sexually exploited by the supervisor(s), it turns to be difficult for them to reveal such exploitation due to the fear of reducing the chance of getting the desired degree or some other forms of potential harm.
Of course, there is a considerable power imbalance between a thesis supervisor and a thesis student. Exploiting such an imbalance, an academic supervisor who has good links with different universities and research and other scholarly organizations can easily bring harm to thesis students through the usage of their channels. But they can bring more harm to those students who are willing to build academic and/or other forms of scholarly career. Situations can be worse for students in those countries where thesis supervisors prefer patron-client type relations with students and opportunities are limited. But careers of some thesis students are more hampered by bad-tempered supervisors. Thesis students at Ph.D. levels can be especially hampered by their supervisors, even if some Master’s level thesis students are sometimes significantly harmed.
Expectedly, addressing all the above concerns and make the persuasion of higher education harassment-free, an institutional mechanism should be strengthened. A major cause for concern, nevertheless, is that universities, on many occasions, have not an adequate institutional mechanism for addressing all the above-mentioned concerns and do not bring bad supervisors to justice. Even if there are some sorts of internal mechanisms, these often remain unimplemented and, even if such mechanisms are implemented, these mostly favor the thesis supervisor(s). This is because such mechanisms are mostly implemented by faculty members who may have good relations with, or are known to, the supervisor(s). On some occasions, other faculty members including co-supervisor who may or may not be involved with the institutional mechanisms favor the supervisor(s), thereby, making students unable to do anything. Thus, effective measures are important, especially for bringing bad supervisors to justice.
In this respect, a separate body — consisting of some high profile faculty members, officials from university grant commission-like institutes and people’s representatives — may be effective, especially for facilitating complaints, investigating complaints and bringing supervisors into justice based on the authenticity of complaints. In fact, such a body is especially needed in universities where the internal mechanism is less functional or does not function at all. But, of course, strict implementation of the institutional mechanism is vital. Besides, securing reasonable assessment of thesis papers and giving opportunities for students with an institutional mechanism to change supervisor within the same university or, if necessary, to move to another university by keeping similar persuasion and accomplishment may be effective on some occasions.
Of course, thesis students have very limited options to get rid of bad supervisors in reality. As noted already, supervisors, who usually enjoy unreasoned excessive power, have more credibility and influence within the academic circle and research hierarchy. If any thesis student complains, there is limited authority to report them to. In fact, students have principally no influence on these. Nonetheless, students can be more cautious and can identify good supervisors before getting enrolled in PhD program (if possible); furthermore, students can take some other measures through approaching appropriate channels (including the PhD committee), changing supervisors within the same university (if available), changing the university or finding out another university in the same country or another country to get rid of exploitative supervisors.
Not less important is that different organizations including universities, research organizations and other scholarly organizations sometimes seek a thesis supervisor’s recommendation letter from the applicants. Of course, a supervisor can say something reasonable about a student, but problems arise when he/she provides an ill-intent recommendation letter for harming a running or a former thesis student. In this respect, universities and other organizations should avoid a recommendation letter from the supervisor(s) for a further degree and a job, whenever possible. Besides, educational and other organizations should develop a mechanism for a fair assessment of any complaints from the supervisor(s) against an applicant before making any decision on the application — either for a higher study or a job — and secure a fair assessment of all applicants.
Since the asymmetrical power relation increases the vulnerability of thesis students, the moral standing of the thesis supervisor(s) is very important. Of course, supervisors should avoid abuse of power over thesis students and play their roles and responsibilities with the reflection of integrity. In fact, supervisors have some undeniable responsibilities to their students and they should realize that only a portion of students or scholarly professionals becomes thesis students especially at the Masters and PhD levels for making better careers or improving the existing ones.
The views and opinions expressed in this opinion article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Eastern Herald.