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Support comes in many ways

A friend recently told me that her partner had accused her of not being supportive of a business venture her partner was undertaking. My friend was surprised by this, she “had been completely supportive” and I was subjected to a detailed explanation of the ‘supportive’ things she had done: critical appraisal of the business plan, querying questionable information, presenting alternative strategies… blah blah.

For the record, I am not by any means a relationship counsellor. Generally, I wouldn’t allow this sort of conversation to evolve. At the time, I think it was after a coffee, my brain was just working with some clarity and I decided to humour my friend. This discussion though made me think about ‘support’ in a professional sense; in my case as a PhD student. Uncharacteristically, in this post I’d also like to express some thoughts about feelings, specifically about this concept of ‘support’.

So, what is this ‘support’ stuff; for a PhD, a fellowship, a collaboration? Clearly, I can’t answer that. Like any relationship though the one with your mentor, supervisor, boss or significant other has the potential to overlook the importance of what support is for the individuals in that relationship. For this reason, I can’t say I was surprised when my friend couldn’t tell me what her partner meant by ‘support’. She later told me her partner just wanted her to “agree with everything”. My translation for that was to nurture ideas and encourage her partner to keep going when things were tough. The tricky situation for my friend and potentially for many professional relationships is that while the concept of support is engrained in the relationship it is usually based on an assumption of what ‘support’ individuals in that relationship need.

Certainly, in academia, there is a lot of talk about support, mentorship and the like, but in my experience the specifics are often vague. In my case, it was clear from the beginning of my candidate my goal was to successfully complete a thesis for my PhD. My supervisors had projects in mind for me but I don’t ever recall discussing what I wanted from my supervisors/PhD. This is entirely my own fault and I put it down to naivety and the enormity of the situation I was about to embark on. Fortunately for me, my supervisors having supervised many students to completion have a good idea about what is needed.

Currently that is a kick in the backside every now and then when I lose focus; openly telling me when my work is crap; and in the slim chance they are reading, a freshly ground double espresso each morning. However, I might not be as lucky to have such intuitive mentors/collaborators in the future so I will probably have to be prepared to have this sort of discussions earlier in the relationship.

Revisiting your idea of support is arguably as important as regularly discussing project goals or thesis progress with your supervisor/mentor. Undoubtedly the above list of support do’s for me was not what I would have highlighted with my supervisors had I expressed anything initially. For instance, I didn’t drink coffee back in the 80’s and how could my supervisors know they should start buying one for me each morning unless I told them. At the end of the day, it is up to me/you, like my friends partner did, to initiate the discussion when things change or aren’t working for you. How things turn out from there is an open field but the situation will never change unless you make the issue known.

I guess I have been hesitant to be forward about this sort of thing in the past but I think laying things on the table early and regularly making sure the relationship meets your needs allows others involved to do the same.