Questions from my first doctoral supervision

Posted by Bertrand Malsch - Aug 21, 2018

My first doctoral students recently graduated after a four years journey, giving me the opportunity to reflect back on my “new” completed experience as a supervisor.

Overall, the supervision has been an amazing expedition aimed at growing a scholar, sharing knowledge, and developing new projects. The effect of this engagement on my own work have also been positive. It has re-energized my research agenda, made me discover the rewards of mentoring, and broken a certain professional solitude that (sometimes) accompanies academics and their commitment to their laptops. In sum, although a supervision always involves a certain risk, both for the supervisor and the student, the returns on intellectual and human investment have gone beyond expectations.

Acting as a supervisor, what had been a relatively abstract conversation about the “making of a good academic accountant”[1], has also become for me a “real” problem: How to prepare students to the “publish or perish” environment? How to stimulate them intellectually? How to expose them to a diversity of methods and ideas? How to compose their thesis committee? How to help them select their topics and their fields? How to supervise while respecting their intellectual autonomy? Arguably, there exist as many answers to these questions as they are different types of personalities and projects. Furthermore, the institutional environment, i.e. a North-American university versus a European school, is also likely to result in different responses. However, despite the relational and institutional singularity of each supervision, I see some value in exposing and debating publicly about a number of challenges. I identified three to them.

1 – The evaluation of doctoral students. In a growing number of universities, pressures have increased on doctoral students to send their work to journals as early as possible. Some universities even require that all the papers derived from the thesis be submitted to a journal as a condition for students to defend their thesis. From that perspective, writing a dissertation by articles allows to move papers faster into the publication pipeline. One can easily understand the advantage of engaging as soon as possible with the publication process. Navigating the job market with one or two R&R has become a must. Obtaining a publication as a student provides a great amount of confidence that can be leveraged and transferred to other projects. The submission of a paper can also constitute a great learning experience. After all, one of the best ways of learning is doing. However, there are side effects to the early submission of thesis papers. One of them, rarely discussed, relates to the evaluation of doctoral students. In effect, once a paper has been submitted and is in the reviewers’ hands, the function and the role of the committee in charge of evaluating the thesis deeply changes. The perceived quality of the work becomes a function of the prestige of the journal where it was submitted (and accepted), the reviewers act as the actual evaluators, and the thesis, as an academic object, turns into a temporary snapshot of a work in motion. Whether one deplores or applauds the interference of the publication process in the making of a thesis, it seems to me that evaluating a doctoral research as a mere “content output”, i.e., evaluating a “finished” product in the forms of a series of articles or a monograph, has become increasingly irrelevant. I am not sure about the alternative, but the question on “what” to evaluate and “how” to evaluate deserve more attention from the community.

2 – The socialization of doctoral students. As a doctoral student, and now as a professor, I have participated to a good number of doctoral consortia, receiving and providing advice on the crafting of papers and the way to succeed through the publication process. I realize that I have developed mixed feelings with respect to the popularity of those events aimed at transferring skills and tips from one generation of researchers to another. On the one hand, I can see the benefits of mingling and socializing with future colleagues and co-researchers. I can also totally understand the value of receiving “good” advice from accomplished researchers who hold editorial positions. On the other hand, I am concerned with students literally “touring” consortium, and to what extent those meetings indirectly encourage a certain uniformization of research with participants seeking to check-in the conformity of their thoughts with gatekeepers rather than thinking developing their own ideas. Arguably, the academic world is fundamentally conservative, and the appeal of conformity far much stronger than the appeal of disruption. Thus, have we gone too far in socializing and normalizing doctoral students through conferences and workshops?

3 – The mental health of doctoral students. Perhaps on a more troubling note, I have also been wondering to what extent doctoral students’ behaviors have become increasingly governed by feelings of anxiety and cynicism, rather than optimism and trust in the system. In a recent survey reported in Science, gathering 2279 responses, mostly from Ph.D. candidates based in 234 institutions across 26 countries, 41% of respondents showed moderate to severe anxiety and 39% moderate to severe depression, both of which are more than six times the prevalence found in studies of the general population[2]. Unfortunately, there are no reasons to believe that doctoral candidates in accounting would be very different from students in other disciplines. My anecdotical evidence suggests rather the contrary. Dealing with absent supervisors, the “second-year blues”, the long processes, the peer-group pressures, the loneliness, the incomprehension of one’s entourage (“Accounting research? Really?”), the harsh commentaries in conferences, and the cruel reviews, are part of a student’s everyday life and surrounding environment. Arguably, the academic career, which fundamentally involves dealing with criticism and rejects, is not an enchanted world. Yet, what is often represented and downplayed as a necessity or a selective process, may conveniently mask the taboo of mental health issues among students. Part of the solution certainly resides in the design of appropriate policies at the level of universities. It also resides in supervisors’ hands. A perceived supportive relationship with one’s supervisor and healthy work-life balance correlate with better mental health. Finally, it depends on all of us… to not taking ourselves too much seriously…

Bertrand Malsch, Associate Professor, B.C.L., LL.B.
PriceWaterhouseCoopers / Tom O’Neill Fellow of Accounting
Director CPA Ontario Centre for Governance & Accountability

Smith School of Business, Queen’s University

[1] Panozzo, F. (1997). The making of the good academic accountant. Accounting, Organizations and Society22(5), 447-480.