Thursday, November 12, 2009

My flabber... well and truly ghasted.

I was due to have a phone meeting with a PhD student yesterday morning; she is in her home country (in the tropics) doing fieldwork, and I have a week-long supervision visit with her in 4 weeks' time. I rang the switchboard at the unit where she works only to be told she had delivered a baby girl in the night.

Now initially I was very worried the baby was very premature because a) she had not told me anything about it, b) she had not appeared at all pregnant when I saw her in June (nope, sorry, it was early July), c) she was clearly planning to be fully functioning next month and d) SHE HAD NOT TOLD ME ANYTHING ABOUT IT.

Today I found out that no, the baby was 2 days early, but clearly not outside the realm of possibility. So she was planning, apparently, according to her boss (her work supervisor - she is a research assistant at the unit) to work part-time for a month and for that to be her maternity leave, and to come back full time in time for my visit.

I find myself in an incredibly awkward situation - completely leaving aside the personal feelings which this brings up.

The travel (very expensive travel) is paid for and the ticket is I think non-refundable. I paid for it but the unit is supposed to be refunding me. I am extremely uncomfortable about going. This student has a history of over-reaching, of saying she'll do something and circumstances getting in her way. This is her third child, and she did only take 6 weeks maternity leave with the previous two (common in her country), but at this point things could still go wrong, I know she will be breastfeeding, and I don't want to go for a week's visit and find myself unable to do any work, nor do I want to be left with the bill for the ticket, or no other time to go and supervise her fieldwork (which needs doing at some point).

Students have a limited period of time in which to complete their theses. A student with a very similar project, but much better writing skills, and no new baby, just finished hers - only a couple of months short of the maximum. If students take longer than this, there are sanctions - for the student, yes, but for the department and the supervisor. As I said, this student has a history of not being realistic. It leaves me open to potentially being removed from the list of possible supervisors. Which would be A Very Bad Thing. It would take a couple of students in this situation to have this happen, but one is more than zero.

But I'm not her employer (this is a relatively common situation, where a student is employed to do research, the employer allows them to do a PhD and pays their fees). One of the things that boggles my mind is that her boss allowed her to just carry on and not tell me about the pregnancy. And it worries me too - as if I say she has to take a break in her PhD, her sponsor has to agree, and they seem to be saying "whatever floats your boat, we're happy to make you work hard if you want to".

I am feeling very taken advantage of. I know I am going to have to put my foot down about something. I have already given some supervision time to this project before the student was enrolled with us - normally this wouldn't happen - and I've been asked by a similar student in the same area to be an "adviser" even though again she won't enrol with us. This is all very difficult as - although of course this should make no difference, and financially it does not, I am not "rewarded" for such supervision by my employer in terms of it being an official part of my workload. I can, of course, and do, collaborate informally with other senior colleagues - but this is somewhat different. But it makes me look unfriendly, and being friendly is the way to get productive collaborations, and students who actually enrol, and people to write grants with you. And I cannot really afford to appear unfriendly to colleagues, but I cannot afford to appear to be a pushover to my students.


Perceval said...

Wow. This sounds like a real piece of work. Do you have a review mechanism which would allow you to downgrade her to MPhil study?

Also, if the student has overreached herself in the past, if there's a documented history of that, and if you can document that she never told you about her pregnancy, the department shouldn't really be blaming you. There are plenty of bad eggs among doctoral students, there are not just bad supervisors.

DrSpouse said...

We do actually - she could be downgraded - I think she's capable of a PhD, just not as quickly as she thinks she can do it.

Unfortunately the department's hands are tied on statistics about students who don't complete in time. My understanding is it's only when students have officially intercalated that they (and I) can discount that student in the stats - other extenuating circs (like students who blatantly hide something, if you can blatantly hide something!) don't count.

Yo-yo Mama said...

I can't advice you one way or another on this, but this woman's liklihood of being able to fully commit sounds completely impossible granted her past history AND her failure to disclose her circumstances.