Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Supervision families

When you do your PhD, you‘re not completely on your own, you have a supervisor. And then maybe a PhD committee and a second and a third reader and so on. However, during the process of developing your research question, diving into literature and possible approaches, making discoveries, and finding a place for your future academic persona, you primarily interact with your PhD supervisor. He or she should act both as a coach and as a mentor to support you on your academic adventures.

Interestingly, in German speaking academia, your supervisor is still rather called „Doktorvater“ (doctoral father) or „Doktormutter“ (doctoral mother). Which implies a more family-like relationship. And which also is in line with the traditional notion of not studying somewhere at a certain university, but to study with someone, i.e., be the (graduate) student of a specific professor. And thus become a member of a specific „school.“ In the old days, the members of an academic family stood together, supported one another, helped with getting promoted, etc. Which is what you would actually also expect from a mentor. So the role somehow fits.

By the way, how are the PhD students called, I‘m not aware of a label as „Doktorkind“ (doctoral child). You are the „Doktorand“ (male) or „Doktorandin“ (female) (doctoral student) of someone. However, this is derived from the present participle of the verb meaning „to do a PhD.“ Which means, after the defense of the thesis, the label doesn‘t fit any longer. You might be a „former PhD student“ of someone, but this person doesn‘t turn into your „former PhD supervisor“ or your „former Doktormutter.“ He or she keeps the label and thus probably also the role, even after dozens of years.

Surprisingly with this family notion, at least on the side of PhD students expectation grows that these ties will last for longer — you cannot get rid of fatherly or motherly duties — and that mentoring or coaching support also will last for longer. So they tend to get disappointed when mentoring-like support stops, no information on (future) projects or even jobs are passed on, no reference letters are written any longer, and so on. Of course, one could argue that during your PhD you should also find your own way, stand on your own feet, and leave your supervision family to start your own. And of course family relationships aren‘t always positive, there is abusive behavior which is hard to report and will stay within the family. And as long as everything looks great from the outside, nobody will believe that the inside isn‘t as bright as current incidents at the ETH show.

Another aspect seems to be gender, actually. And maybe more on the side of the supervisor. Female supervisors (so the „Doktormütter“) seem to be more protective and more supportive, at least they report such actions on social media and they even use selfdescriptions as „mama bear advisor“ and the like. And from what I see (which is obviously a very small snapshot), more female supervisors state how proud they are when their current or former PhD students report success stories (an award, a talk at a prestigious venue, a good job, another grant, etc.). Male supervisors also show success of their PhD students, but with much less emotion, they rather mention this as a success story of their lab/institute/project. Which fits stereotypes of motherly and fatherly support within families, so the German terms actually are apropriate, don‘t you think?

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Back where I started

So, we have 2018 and I'm an e-learning specialist at a university of applied sciences in Switzerland.

Last week I found my old business cards when I was looking for something else in my desk drawers. And I realized that exactly 10 years ago, I also had business cards as e-learning consultant of a university of applied sciences in Switzerland — in 2008, I was at the School of Social Work at the University of Applied Sciences Northwestern Switzerland (HSA FHNW), today I'm with the Bern University of Applied Sciences (BFH), at the Competence Center for Higher Ed Didactics and E-Learning. And the fun thing is: exactly 10 years after, I now have a 50% permanent position as I had then, I do similar things — although I'm not on my own as I was 10 years ago but a member of a wonderful team — , and even my salary is the same (yes, I also found old pay slips when looking for documents needed for the 2017 tax declarations).

So, what did I do in between — and was it worth it when I end up almost where I started? Let's look at the business card circle (the current card is at the top, the starting card is the one right to it and the circle goes clockwise).


The e-learning job at HSA FHNW wasn't my first one, but the first outside the University of Zurich (and I even had an e-learning job there from 2004 to 2008). After that I held various positions and did various things as senior researcher at the University of Basel, as acting professor at the University of Konstanz (I blogged about that experience and most of the posts are still quite relevant, I guess), as postdoc and scientific coordinator at the University of Stuttgart, as scientific coordinator and later as senior researcher at the Institut für Deutsche Sprache in Mannheim, as guest professor again at the University of Stuttgart, and as researcher at the University of Bern. All of those activities where related to my other live as computational linguist and writing researcher — I used e-learning activities and tools for my teaching, but I wasn't active in that area during that time.

I had left the e-learning business in 2010 for a chance to pursue my scientific career and to become a professor one day. Turns out, I didn't succeed.

Yes, I published a lot, yes I finished and defended my thesis (so at least I have a different academic title on my current business card), yes I grew an international network, yes I founded two workshop series (both of them have fallen asleep because of decreasing interest), yes I edited various proceedings (oh, and yes I know a lot about publishing and “added values” by publishers now and I do have an expletive explicit opinion about those and their work flows), yes I was what's called “an active member of the scientific community” (I founded and still run a doctoral consortium, I'm co-leader of a SIG, I was a newsletter editor), yes I was active in various scientific areas (computational morphology, writing research, document engineering, corpus linguistics), yes I taught a lot (as acting and as guest professor I did the usual German 9 hours per week (so 3 to 4 courses per term) teaching load and I taught one course per term at the other places), yes I have been acting professor, yes I reviewed for various prestigious conferences and journals — all those activities you find listed as recommended or even necessary on your way towards professorship. But I'm still not a professor.

However, I grew older.

And last year when I got the chance to “go back to e-learning” I decided to no longer actively pursue the scientific career road — my chances will not increase. I will not apply for grants any longer, I will reduce reviewing activities, I might continue publishing but will carefully chose where and how (considering issues of access and submission formats). I hopefully will continue teaching and I hopefully will get chances to do small scale research at the intersection of document engineering, linguistics, and writing research. I will not apply to scientific jobs — my list of rejected or even unanswered applications is long enough now. I'm not sure whether all of this equals “I'm leaving academia”, but time will tell.

So the question remains: was it worth it? I guess so. I got chances to do research, I taught a lot (and I didn't know that I actually enjoy teaching before!), I could present my research at various places I wouldn't have visited otherwise, and last but not least I got to know a lot of people with similar interests, some of whom I call friends today.