The PhD supervisor

by Lacey DeLeye

It is hard to underestimate the importance of the PhD supervisor. Taking on a doctoral thesis—essentially a book-length piece of research with the requirement to meet rigorous academic standards—is a daunting prospect. For most students, nothing in their previous experience prepares them for such an undertaking. Sure, a Master’s dissertation is useful training in how to interpret sources and organize analysis, but a 10,000-word dissertation completed in a few months can hardly be compared to a 100,000-word piece of research over three or four years. It is not the scholarly expectations that present the biggest obstacles; rather, the challenge is to remain disciplined, focused and productive over several years while working largely alone. Distractions, doubts and isolation can easily derail the process. One of the key roles of the supervisor is, crucially, to keep the student on track.

I will freely admit the difficulties I had with my thesis. Once my initial enthusiasm for the project had subsided, I quickly became lost among the sources and began to doubt the viability of the thesis. For a long time I remained in denial about my difficulties, blithely informing all around me that my research was progressing smoothly, even occasionally convincing myself of this—or at least of the possibility that I would sort it all out in the end. But increasingly I found myself bewildered by what I was doing, to the extent that I stopped doing much of anything. I’d read a bit, take a few notes, pop into the library occasionally, but without any clear structure or sense of what my thesis was about or where it was going. Instead I found ways of avoiding the reality: I partied, I drank a lot, I took drugs.

But eventually I woke up to the fact that I was floundering. Matters came to a head early in my second year when my supervisor asked to see a draft of a chapter I said I’d been working on. For a couple of weeks I managed to defer submitting this work to him. Finally he insisted on seeing something, so over a couple of days I dashed off a few thousand words and emailed it to him. A few days later I received an email from him:

Dear Lacey, Many thanks for the draft of chapter two that you sent me. However, having read it, I have some concerns about the state and progress of your thesis. I think we need to discuss this urgently. I’m very busy the rest of this week, but would it be possible to meet next Monday at 5 p.m. in my office? Kind regards, Professor D___

My heart sank on reading Professor D___’s message. I realized he was right to have concerns, and that I had no idea how I would address those concerns satisfactorily. I replied to confirm the meeting and spent the next few days in a fog of panic and anxiety, to the extent that I persuaded myself that the best course of action was to abandon the thesis.

I was in a wretched state by the time I was standing outside Professor D___’s office at the appointed time. I nervously knocked on his door; I heard a loud “Come in” and entered.

“Ah, Lacey, excellent, please do take a seat,” Professor D___ said while tapping away at his keyboard on a table at right angles to his desk. “Forgive me while I finish writing this email. Utterly tedious admin, I’m afraid. But there you go, that’s modern academia for you.”

I sat down in the chair facing his desk and looked around his office. For an academic it was remarkably uncluttered: the books were arranged neatly along shelves, and his desk was clear apart from a couple of journals, a notebook and two ordered trays each containing a few folders and papers. I stared out of the window to my left: the last time I had sat in Professor D___’s office the trees, almost within touching distance of the window, were a lush mass of green; now, through their branches and scattered brown leaves, I could glimpse the university library in the distance. It felt like a sad image of decay reflecting my thesis so I turned to look at my supervisor, a picture of concentration at his computer. And this made me feel sad too: for in front of me was one of the leading international experts in his field, a status he had achieved despite not yet reaching fifty, and here was I squandering the opportunity that I had been given when I was awarded a scholarship.

He clicked his mouse and turned to me. “Sorry about that,” he said. “I do sometimes wonder if the whole point of academics these days is to support administrators rather than the other way round. Anyway, thanks for coming along. How have things been?”

For a moment I thought of doing what I usually did: telling him that everything was fine, that there had been a few bumps in the road but that I was confident my thesis was going well. But I stopped myself and contemplated his question for a moment. It occurred to me that now was the time to start getting real about my situation.

“Not great, to be honest,” I replied. “I think I’m struggling with the thesis.”

He nodded and fixed his eyes on me. “Yes, that seems like a fair assessment. I’ll get straight to the point: the chapter you sent me was very weak. I’m increasingly worried that you are badly off the pace that would be expected of someone at your stage. As you know, you are supposed to have an upgrade around about now, but you’re clearly not ready. And if we can’t upgrade you, then you won’t be able to continue as a PhD student. So, as I say, I’m very concerned about where you’re at in the process.”

His direct assessment felt like a physical blow—but one that, over the previous weeks, I had anticipated would come at some point. I struggled to stop myself from crying. Feebly I said: “I know, I’m worried too.”

“So what seems to be the problem? You’re clearly a highly intelligent student. You achieved outstanding results for your first degree and your Master’s. You’ve got a good topic and for the first few months you seemed to be making solid progress. But over the past few months I’ve seen very little work from you, and what I have seen has, to be quite frank, not been up to the standard expected of a thesis.”

“I’m sorry,” I answered, unable to think of what else to say.

“It’s not a question of apologies,” he responded. “It’s a question of identifying the problem and finding a solution to it.” He paused, waiting to see if I replied, but I said nothing. “So tell me, what have you been doing over the past few months?”

Panic gripped me as I realized I had no satisfactory answer to this question. I sat silently, looking at the papers on his desk, wishing I was not there. For an instant I thought of standing up and fleeing. I turned to look at the tree and its dying brown leaves, tears coming to my eyes. And it dawned on me that now was the moment to confront my struggles, my doubts and my anxieties.

“I feel lost in it all,” I said, still looking out of his window. “I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t think I’m up to doing a PhD. Maybe I should abandon it.”

There was a brief silence before he answered. “No, you should not abandon it,” he said at last. I turned to look at him again. He continued: “I’ve been honest about your work so far, so I’ll be honest about this too: you’re one of the brightest PhD students I’ve come across. You have enormous potential, and it would be a sad waste if you abandoned your research. Your ability and potential are not in doubt. So I suspect it is something else. Are you still motivated?”

“Yes, the topic still really interests me,” I replied. “I don’t think I lack motivation.”

“Well, if it’s not that—and it’s clearly not your ability or intelligence—then perhaps it is your self-discipline. A PhD for someone of your ability should actually be quite straightforward: it becomes simply a question of putting in the hours in the library, reading the books, studying the sources, and then making the time to write. So is that the issue? Are you simply not putting in the hours?”

Guilt seized me. I knew I had been spending my time doing anything but my thesis. I looked at the floor, with a feeling that I had long forgotten: the feeling that I had been naughty and that I was in trouble. “No,” I meekly replied. “I don’t think I have been working hard enough. I feel really bad about it.”

“So what have you been doing? Have you got a part-time job?”

“No. I’m not sure what I’ve been doing. Not much, clearly. I just find it really hard to organize myself or to get any structure.”

“And why do you think that is?”

I decided to be honest. “Because I’m easily distracted. Because, when I find something difficult, I end up being lazy I guess.”

He was silent for a moment. Finally he spoke: “I applaud your honesty. Not everyone would admit to being lazy. In fact, I have wondered if that was the problem in your case. So how are you going to address your laziness?”

“I don’t know, sir.” It took me a couple of seconds to realize what I’d just said. I blushed furiously.

“That’s interesting that you should address me like that. Do you think that I should be dealing with your laziness?”

“I don’t know,” I muttered. “Maybe. I’m not sure.”

“And how do you think I should deal with it? By punishing you?”

I glanced at him. His gaze, commanding and authoritative, was locked on me. I had a sudden, strange feeling inside me and an indistinct, confusing idea forming in my mind. Without thinking I replied: “Maybe you should.”

“And how do you think I should punish you?”

I looked directly at him now, my eyes wide and suggestive. “I don’t know. What do you think would be best?”

He deliberated for a moment. “It’s not as if there are a whole range of things I could do,” he said finally. “What do you expect? That I spank you?” He made it sound like a joke, yet I suspected he was concealing a serious suggestion. I didn’t answer, instead making a small motion with my head to indicate interest in his idea. “Do you think that would help?” he continued.

I let out a quiet, nervous laugh. “Maybe. What do you think?”

He looked out of the window for a long moment. I sat tensely, an odd excitement welling up inside me. I had no idea what I was doing, only that I felt impelled towards something that was outside my experience, that had never even occurred to me before.

Finally he spoke. “Okay, Lacey, why don’t you stand up and come round here? I’m willing to try anything if it means that you’ll buck up your ideas and get on with your thesis.”

Not for a second did I question what I was doing. I got up, walked round to his side of the desk and stood next to him.

“You’re quite sure you think this will have a positive effect on your research?” he asked.

“Yes, I think so.”

Silently he reached forward, unzipped and unbuttoned my jeans. “Okay. Take your trousers off please.”

I kicked off my shoes, gripped the waistband of my jeans and pushed them down. I could see him staring at my white knickers as I eased my legs out of the denim.

He took hold of my knickers. “If I’m to do this, then I think it should be done properly,” he said. With a quick tug he pulled my panties down to my knees. I let out a small gasp at the sudden sensation of my pussy being exposed to him. “Right, get yourself over here,” he ordered, pointing at his lap.

Lightheaded and scarcely breathing, I leaned forward over his thighs. I felt his hands on my waist, shifting me into position, holding me down. I suddenly became acutely embarrassed to be in such an undignified position, my bare bottom raised, my knickers around my knees. I began wriggling.

“Keep still,” he commanded. “It’s a bit late for you to start resisting. Now let’s see if a spanking on your bare bottom cures you of your laziness.”

laceys_spankingA second later I felt his hand come down hard on my right cheek—a strange, wonderful sensation, so humiliating yet so exciting. Then again on my left cheek. I could feel my pussy moisten; I nuzzled it against his thigh. His hand came down again and again, alternating from cheek to cheek. With each stroke the brief sting as his hand landed on my arse was followed by a rolling pleasure across and into the flesh of my bottom.

“Clearly this is the only way to deal with you,” he said as he delivered stroke after hard stroke. “If you’re going to be a bad girl, then I will punish you accordingly. Do you understand?”

“Yes sir,” I responded pathetically. “I’m sorry sir.”

“You will be sorry. I will make quite sure of that.” And he increased the speed and force of the spanking, landing rapid blows to my increasingly sore bottom, interspersing them with a few slaps to my upper thighs.

He carried on spanking me for several minutes, and my initial excitement gradually gave way to a hope that he would stop. “I am really sorry,” I gasped. “I promise I won’t be lazy in future.”

And then he did stop. A feeling of relief mixed with the throbbing pain in my bottom. I took some deep breaths and began easing myself from his lap. He put his hands on me firmly and pushed me back down. “Where do you think you’re going?” he said sternly. “Your punishment is not quite finished yet.” I heard him open a drawer on his desk; a few seconds later I felt the tap of wood against my bottom. “I think a dozen strokes of the ruler should help you learn your lesson.”

Before I could protest I felt the intense sting of the ruler across my backside. I let out an anguished sigh. And then another stroke, and another. By the fourth stroke I could no longer prevent myself from responding to each blow with a pained “ouch”. Tears filled my eyes, and for the final three or four strokes I was openly crying.

At last I heard him place the ruler on his desk. “There, I think you’ve been punished enough for now,” he said, while gently rubbing my bottom. “But if necessary we’ll repeat this until such time as you start producing work of a satisfactory standard. Do you understand?”

“Yes sir,” I answered with a quiet sob.

“Good. Right, you can get up now. Pull your knickers up and put your jeans back on.”

I did as instructed, eager to cover up my pussy, intensely self-conscious all of a sudden at the nakedness I had presented to him.

“I think this has been a very productive supervision session, don’t you?” he asked.

I nodded and muttered “yes sir.”

“Excellent. Now, I’d like you to send me a revised version of chapter two in, let’s say, a couple of weeks, and we can arrange to meet again a week or so after that. Will you be able to do that?”

“Yes sir.”

“Good Lacey. Now if that’s all you can go.”

I hesitated for a moment without knowing precisely why. My bottom was burning and my pussy was wet, and I had the vague idea that I wanted something more. But it seemed too confusing for me to act on. “Thank you sir,” I said at last. I turned around, opened his door and left his office. I made my way straight to the library.

* * * * *

On the acknowledgements page of my doctoral thesis I reserved my most effusive thanks for my supervisor. ‘Above all’, I wrote, ‘I am indebted to my PhD supervisor, Professor Simon D____ without whom I would never have been able to complete this thesis. Thanks to his support, encouragement and guidance, I have become aware of areas of interest that would never have occurred to me when I first started this project.’

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