This cruel month of May is turning out to be quite peculiar in my academic life as regards doctoral dissertations. Today is 23, and in the three weeks of May I’ve gone through: an examining board for a dissertation supervised by someone else, the defence (or viva) of the second PhD dissertation I’ve supervised, the thorough editing of the my third supervised dissertation. Yes, that’s plenty.

Just check this: it’s taken me 20 hours to read/correct/comment on this third doctoral dissertation (380 pages), now on its final stage. Yet, my university supposes that the total amount of hours spent on a doctoral student is only 30 (computed when the dissertation is submitted, nothing along the 3 or 4 years we’ve been working together). This means that supposedly I’ve helped my student only 10 hours along the rough path he’s chosen. Well… (MA dissertations count as 5 hours – the one I’m supervising now, 55 pages long, has gone through 5 complete rewritings so far).

So here’s my question: where’s the limit? How much energy should one invest on someone else’s dissertation? Of course, we supervise PhD students for the glory of our CVs, since we get no economic reward whatsoever for them and those paltry 30 hours do nothing except engross the amount of hours I already give my university for free. If one is lucky and the student writes and thinks well, the whole process is logically easier and reading the final version amounts to making a note, say, once every 10 pages. Now, if the student has problems thinking and writing well the process of reading his/her intermediate and final texts may be agony (say 10 notes for every page…). But, where do we draw the line? As I’ve been explaining in diverse entries, in Spain it is assumed that both the student and the supervisor have done their best; furthermore, the supervisor is supposed to prevent dissertations deserving less than an A from being submitted (to a board of tired, overworked colleagues). Ergo: faced with a problematic dissertation, which might never get an A, the supervisor is placed in practice in a very tight corner. Every typo, every wobbly section subtitle, every neglected secondary source will count against him/ her. The only solution seems editing the candidate’s dissertation to one’s thorough satisfaction, as if we were his or her examiner or even the candidate him/herself.

Yet, I wonder whether editing is part of the supervisor’s job description. I’ll remind my readers that I work in a second-language department mainly with PhD students for whom English is not their native language. It’s practically impossible to discuss ideas without discussing the kind of English in which they’re couched. I don’t know how this will work with the two native speakers of English I’m supervising, but whether you ask for a sample of writing in advance or not, there’s no guarantee that the PhD dissertation will be immaculate. In this, possibly our worst enemy is that we must always rush. PhD students are all exhausted at the end of three or four years and want to get rid of their baby as soon as possible, often before it reaches full term. We, as the midwives, face the difficult task of risking a still birth… or finish the pregnancy ourselves!!

A friend told me recently that his own PhD supervisor warned him that he’d only accept supervising his dissertation on condition that he was never bothered with it. Yes, you heard me. When my friend called him to ask for help he needed badly, his supervisor (who never ever met him) reminded him of his initial warning. As my friend is brilliant, his supervisor got for free, as we say in Spain, another medal for the collection.

Cheeky, awful, yes, but maybe a system that thinks that supervising a PhD dissertation along 3 or 4 years and helping to make it outstanding takes ONLY 30 hours deserves this, I don’t know.


  1. And why would someone try to work with a supervisor who doesn’t supervise? Well, I know a possible answer to that question. Christ himself said, «unto those that have, more shall be given». There is a kind of professor who tends to absorb everything, like a vortex: influence, research projects, supervisions…. and if you want the remotest chance of an academic career, you’d better begin by contributing your share to HIS (or HER career). The Catedrático gets all the PhD candidates who are able to really write a dissertation on their own, that’s why they work more and their job is easier. And the second-best or third worst are left to those whose job is to push and pull the candidate until s/he makes it… an exhausting job if you ask me, I almost said a fool’s game. The academic dice are loaded.

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