Case study 2: An academic minefield


Read the following case study, then type in a list of factors that you believe created problems for this student and her supervisor. Don’t worry about thinking up solutions yet – just try to identify the problems.

Submit your thoughts. You can then compare your own list of factors with those identified by workshop participants who have used this case study.

Case study: An academic minefield

The discipline is one which does not often attract postgraduate students. Staff are anxious to improve this deficiency and, indeed, have been under some pressure to do so. A student of foreign background applies to enter the PhD program. She suggests a thesis topic which is challenging and unusual, but which could prove ‘unpopular’ with at least one faction in the subject area. It is almost certain to be controversial, but one member of the staff, a senior academic, is interested and feels that she can supervise and offer appropriate guidance to someone who may be entering an academic minefield.

The student is not, however, the strong applicant the supervisor might have hoped for. She had completed a Masters (by research) but achieved only a pass degree. Her English expression had improved throughout that candidature but it is still not good. However, she is persistent and keen – and a little vain and hard to discourage. The supervisor warns her of possible failure but agrees to support her application believing that there is a real possibility of her succeeding.

The work progresses slowly. The supervisor worries about its quality but at no stage does she feel certain that there is no hope for the student and that her candidature should be terminated. Nevertheless, she frequently tries to warn the student that the work has serious deficiencies. The student does not heed these warnings. Annual reports are lukewarm but recommend continuing.

After five years the thesis is submitted and fails; two examiners fail it outright, the third says he does not wish to rule out re-writing without interviewing the candidate, but he is willing to be guided by the other examiners’ opinions. On several specific criticisms the examiners disagree with each other, one praising a brief section of the work and another condemning it, for example. All find it repetitious, poorly presented, and ‘thin’ in terms of content. The student writes an anguished letter questioning the justice of being failed outright when there are such inconsistencies in the reports. She also accuses the supervisor of, at best, misleading her, and of making no effort to defend her.

Go to formulating your recommendations

A response to the above was

A senior academic who takes on a student who has poor preparation and poor English, to do a controversial topic, is someone who has put vanity ahead of her responsibilities to others. Nobody has a magic supervision wand, and this person should have been discouraged from attempting a degree for which she was ill prepared.

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