Barely two years ago, I wrote an article that exposed the unhealthy and unhelpful power relationship that exists between PhD candidates and their supervisors in Nigerian universities. The article, published in The Sun on November 19, 2019, was titled “The weird ways of university supervisors”. It highlighted the various ways PhD candidates are exploited and maltreated, as well as the excessive powers held by academic staff who supervise PhD candidates. The first paragraph of that article read as follows:
“Undertaking a PhD programme of study at a Nigerian public university is like lining up to be hanged publicly without committing an offence. PhD candidates are shamed, humiliated, and subjected to human rights abuses. It is odd that universities that admit candidates into their higher degree programmes should be so ruthless and cold-hearted in the way they treat and relate with the students. In research higher degree programmes, there is little commitment on the part of supervisors and schools to provide PhD candidates with all the support they require to enable them to complete their studies on time. Students begin their programmes but have no idea when they would complete their studies.”
Today’s essay draws on some of the issues discussed in that November 2019 article because the abuses have persisted. They are yet to be addressed by many of the universities. There is unequal power relationship, a weird relationship in which supervisors position themselves as lords and the candidates are made to feel inferior, inadequate, worthless, and exasperated. That skewed relationship has destroyed the confidence of PhD candidates, undermined and disrupted their aspirations, and hurt their future careers.
The abuses to which the students are subjected have left them feeling frustrated, abandoned, discouraged and rejected. Surely, that is not a conducive environment in which higher degree students are expected to excel in their research. The prevailing atmosphere does not encourage the students to aim higher, to be innovative, to be supported by their supervisors or to receive the assistance of their school, their faculty or their university. There are far too many obstacles on the way.
Some supervisors often make it difficult for PhD candidates to schedule regular appointments to meet to discuss their progress. Requests for appointments are widely ignored. If the students push harder, they are often pelted with abuses that suggest they are either lazy or that they cannot engage in self-directed learning or that they are completely dependent on their supervisors. This makes it seem like a student is begging for undeserved favour from their supervisor.
In other cultures, a good supervisor is one who assists their PhD candidates to complete their research thesis on time. In Nigeria, however, a good supervisor is the person who talks tough, fails students, appears unapproachable, behaves strangely, frowns most of the time, frustrates students without justification and makes things difficult for students.
The question must be asked: What is the point of university academics agreeing to supervise PhD and other research students, if they cannot reserve at least one hour per week to meet with each candidate to discuss their progress? Do university academics agree to supervise PhD candidates merely to get an opportunity to show how callous or insensitive they are? Research supervision is a duty that every supervisor owes to their PhD candidates and their university. It is a part of the job of every teaching and research academic.
Supervision responsibilities must not be handled haphazardly. They are systematic and are documented for the benefit of PhD candidates. They are also used as evidence of transparency and accountability by the university. Part of the supervisor’s role is to meet regularly with their PhD candidate to assess their progress, and to identify areas that might require a higher level of support or a quicker level of intervention.
In order to consistently track the progress of PhD candidates, some universities require supervisors to provide regular progress reports on the candidates. The reports could be written every three or six months. The overarching goal is to monitor the PhD candidate’s progress. This is done consistently. It is designed to pick up symptoms of problems that could interrupt the candidate’s progress. Like human health, early detection of signs of trouble is key.
A number of problems can impact the ability of PhD candidates to complete their programmes on time. One problem could be lack of adequate and timely supervision. Sometimes, this problem could be addressed through immediate replacement of the supervisor, if the student has documented evidence to demonstrate they have fulfilled their own obligations. Poor supervision is a killer of PhD candidates’ enthusiasm, particularly when supervisors fail to meet with their PhD candidates for a long period of time.
Poor supervision is also evident when supervisors fail to read, for a prolonged period of time, draft chapters of PhD theses submitted by candidates. Every supervisor is expected to read drafts of chapters without delay. They must also provide valuable feedback on the draft chapters. This must be done within a reasonable period of time. Unnecessary delays are unacceptable.
Usually, the Graduate School would outline the responsibilities of every supervisor, as well as the obligations of every PhD candidate. This agreement that is known as charter of obligations covers what every candidate expects from their supervisor and what every supervisor expects from their candidate. The obligations are mutually binding.
These clarifications are intended to eliminate frustrations that might arise during the period of candidature. The extent to which these processes are outlined in Nigerian public universities remain the subject of debate. Compared to our national situation in which PhD candidates lack a voice and are frightened to speak out because they dread the consequences of taking their case to the court of public opinion, PhD candidates in many Western countries are encouraged to express themselves freely and to report inappropriate behaviour by their supervisors.
The academic environment in Nigeria is lopsidedly different. Many students suffer in silence. This spiral of silence is triggered by fear of sanctions that might confront them if they exposed their authoritarian supervisor. PhD candidates are unable to narrate their situation and experiences, or expose improper behaviour by their supervisors. Unfortunately, some of the students were compelled to end their academic programme because of inability to cope with emotional stress, financial pressure, and the difficulty of explaining to their parents, their families, their peers, and their friends why and how they failed to complete their doctoral degree programmes that many others successfully completed.
The same dilemmas confront female students. They are particularly disadvantaged. They are expected to be subservient to their supervisors and their demands. Some of the commands are morally reprehensible. Some supervisors demand sexual gratification. That odious demand in a university milieu in which supervisors are seen as all-powerful and female students are regarded as maid servants frequently places female students in a position of weakness and inconvenience. It is a terrible dilemma that does not lend itself to easy resolution – to accept or reject a supervisor’s sexual proposals.
While this may not reflect a general trend in all universities at all times, experience shows it is happening and on the rise. Overall, apathy by university management to established cases of sexual harassment and abuse of PhD candidates by their supervisors constitutes a significant reason why a growing number of PhD candidates are pulling out of their degree programmes. They are quitting not because of lack of ability but because of the intolerable climate in which they are studying.
This is not to suggest, however, that there are no good and conscientious supervisors in Nigerian universities. They exist. Some have achieved a track record of excellence in supervision, and recognition at home and overseas.