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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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I mustn’t say too much in public about this, for fear of being unprofessional. However, I wanted to jot down a few notes about “being a PhD supervisor” and what it means and what it’s like.

I am always terrified when my students come up for viva. (I was also scared witless by my own viva at that point, but that was a different matter – in the end, it went brilliantly.) I feel anxious, nervous, and worried on their behalf when they go for examination. This partially stems from the situation itself, in which two people will hold in their hands the fate of my student. This means that a lot rests on the viva itself. It is a gross mistake to think that the verdict has been cemented before the conversation in that room. However, by the time of the viva, the student must know more than I do about the topic. That is, if the student has done the work properly, then they should be the person on the planet who knows the most about their subject. This means that the position of the supervisor is always one of having been exceeded and surpassed. You are always a little in the dark by the end of a PhD supervision course, if it has gone as it should. In turn, this generates an anxiety in me; I do not really like the feeling that I must trust a candidate to know more than I do about their area and to know sufficiently to pass. Yet this is what one must do.

It is also notable that it is the student’s decision to submit the work and to make that judgement call. Yet I am also responsible for “supervising” the project. I have to have given my view on whether the work should pass. What if I say that, yes, I think the work is ready and good, but then the examiners disagree? Is this a “failure” of supervision? It cannot be, really, because it is the student’s responsibility to produce the work and to appraise their own progress against the benchmarks of new knowledge. It is the student’s responsibility to check for typos, grammatical errors, and other formatting quirks that might irk an examiner. It is the student’s decision to submit. But what if it all goes badly wrong? What if I give the nod and the work is ripped apart at examination? This can happen. All I can do is give my verdict, as if I were examining it. I’ve examined enough PhDs to know what the various categories look like and feel I have adequate judgement in this area. But it remains nerve wracking.

So PhD supervision is a funny business. I haven’t ever had anything go terribly wrong for any of my students. I have an immense feeling of pride, also, when they pass, knowing that I helped in some way with the award of the highest possible university degree.

But it doesn’t get any easier with the butterflies in my stomach.