Need to address Supervisor Menace for Graduate Students in Kenyan Universities

By Prof. Maurice N Amutabi, PhD

I am an internal and external examiner for over 12 universities in Africa and when I attend some of the masters and doctoral viva voces (oral examinations or defences), I always leave the venues very annoyed and disappointed with our system in African universities. It always makes me realize why in Africa we produce less than 2% of doctoral degrees, and less than 5% masters degrees in the world. My alma matter, the University of Illinois where I studied for my doctoral studies produces about 3,000 doctoral degrees annually more than Kenya’s less than 1,000 for all our universities. Producing more graduate degrees depends on good planning and effective supervision, which is lacking in many of our universities. Enrollment for graduate degrees in Kenyan universities has been declining at a very alarming rate and something must be done to encourage enrolment. Students are taking too long in the system, more than is necessary, for reasons caused by supervisors. Today I would like to focus on supervisors so that next time, I deal with students.

I have come across really mean and selfish supervisors, who turn against their own students for being questioned or asked for assistance. Supervisor menace is a reality in universities in Africa and students must be protected from this violence if African universities hope to meet their academic objectives in graduate training. There are many reasons for this violence and delay in completion of graduate degrees in Africa and I would like to address some of them one by one.

First, some supervisors are envious of their own students and act as gatekeepers to acquisition of  doctoral degrees. They fear competition and see their students as competition. Evidence of this is seen is the manner in which they delay feedback to students’ work. A research proposal that should take one month to complete takes three months to even one year because of delayed feedback. The problem is that the supervisors begin to manage the speed with which a student should progress and this can really rile. Sometimes they misplace students’ work. They insist on hard copies instead of soft or digital or electronic copies thereby wasting valuable time and delaying students. I have heard of cases where students work is lost as many as five times by the same supervisor. Such a supervisor belongs to disciplinary committee for being reckless and careless with the work of students. Some thesis chapters are lost in bars and lodgings and the supervisors will shamelessly ask for another copy. This needs to end.

Second, some supervisors lack proper skills, knowledge and training in order to be effective. There are many cases where masters and doctoral supervisors have just completed their own degrees and lack proper skills on supervising a research student. A masters or PhD student should begin with a topic or title for their work, then abstract, then statement of the problem, then objectives or research questions or hypotheses, then review of related literature, then methodology before proceeding to the field for data collection. There is a reason why over 90% of research manuals recommend this approach. However, there are cases where you  get novices who are not even senior lecturers or professors advising students to begin with a statement of the problem or objectives or some other misleading approach. If a student gets the title of the research project right by addressing dependent and independent variables, making a statement of the problem is easier. The abstract allows the student to provide a brief roadmap on how the work will look like. It is a good mission and vision statement of the intended project. Inexperienced supervisors make it hard for students because they have no idea what or which approach works better because they did not listen to their own supervisors at doctoral level or were poorly trained.

Third, some supervisors suffer from trauma of their own days as students and exert revenge on their graduate students. If they face brutality, they retaliate on their students. I was victim of this during my masters degree studies when one supervisor told me how he took five years on his masters and ten years on his PhD and told me that I was in a hurry to imagine that I would complete a masters degree in 2 years and PhD in three years. I also had colleagues in graduate school who were told that they were too young to worry about completing PhD in their 20s. The older students were told that the supervisors were not responsible for their coming to school late and should not rush them. There have been cases where supervisors even discuss the character of students in bars and restaurants and why such students should not complete on time, being accused of being disrespectful or rude. Such discussions end up creating cartels among academic staff who decide on factors other than academic on who to pass and fail. The meetings held before defences bring up strange reasons why a student should not defend successfully. I have heard supervisors saying that their own students rushed them into the defence and yet they have signed on the work. There are even cases where supervisors disown the students during defence, telling them that “I told you to make those corrections and you refused” which can really be annoying and betrayal of the highest order.

Fourth, is supervisor conflicts where supervisors create conflict in which students become victims. Supervisors engage in ego wars and games where one wants to be seen as superior because of the university or high school they attended. Others flex their muscles where one supervisor is professor and the other an associate professor or senior lecturer or even lecturer. We know that ideally lecturers or assistant professors should not be the main supervisors but because of scarcity of doctoral degree holders in African universities, we are getting cases where new PhD holders who are lecturers and regarded as junior faculty are supervising PhD theses and dissertations. Instead of heeding recommendations from senior colleagues, they begin to mislead students and blame it on senior scholars. For example, many research manuals recommend that a statement of the problem should have the same number of paragraphs as objectives but have seen cases where novices misadvise their students to have one paragraph. This is what leads to conflicts, where experience comes face to face with inexperience. Students end up conflicted. At the extreme end are internal examiners who often fail students due to their supervisor with whom they have a grudge or conflict. The solution is to have supervisors who see eye to eye and not academic enemies or adversaries. In my own doctoral thesis committee, I selected or removed many potential supervisors on my committee of four with the assistance of my main and favourite professor. I dropped some on account of poor record of not having successfully supervised a student in previous years. I was also advised to choose friends and close colleagues of my main supervisor. The problem is that some universities leave selection of supervisors to the departments heads and deans when this should be done in consultation with students. Not all professors or PhD holders are capable of supervising students to successful completion.

Fifth, there is the problem of mental laziness and fatigue in some supervisors. Such supervisors do not like work and will always avoid being given students to supervise, and when they are given, the students go through hell on earth. The students do not get feedback on time and when they do, the comments are not insightful and useful in improving the quality of the work. They do not pick students calls and do not respond to email messages and notes left in their offices, leaving students very frustrated. If the students drop them, they keep vendetta so that if the student completes their research work and they are appointed as internal examiners, they fail such students. This should not really happen and heads of departments and research and graduate schools need to create an inventory where a student who drops a supervisor in favour of another should never get his or her work back in the hands of the lazy person. Such supervisors engage in fault-finding and are usually grumpy and uncooperative. They do not simply do their work. They see students as a problem and avoid their calls. This type of supervisors took over three years to complete their masters degrees and over six years to complete their doctoral degrees and see anyone trying to move faster than this as unrealistic.  They use their own graduate studies as a yardstick, which is very dangerous.

Sixth, some supervisors are predatory and use their students for their personal satisfaction. We all know that PhD is a political and social degree and one has to balance and be very careful and diplomatic in order to pass but some supervisors go to extreme ends. To such predators, the longer the students take the better. They instill a culture of fear and constantly threaten their students. They keep them for monitory gains or sexual purposes. They call for consultation meetings over lunch or coffee and students are expected to pay. The students become vulnerable and often have no one to report to especially if the perpetrator is head of department or senior person. Predators were mainly men in the past but ladies have taken this up and predate on their male and female students for sexual favours and financial reasons as well. This is bad and has often delayed students who cannot afford to buy drinks or grant other favours. This is perilous and needs to be curbed. I have seen students used to do babysitting tasks, being sent to shopping errands while others are even used to drive long distances for their supervisors. As a graduate student, I did lawn mowing for some of my supervisors and picked a kid from school, once or twice or taught some courses for them when they were away, or marked for them their undergraduate scrips, or paid for a lunch or coffee but it was strictly voluntary on my part, and I loved it. However, where this is forced on the students, it becomes coercion, and unethical.

Seventh, there are supervisors who engage in segregation based on gender, ethnicity, race, religion, class and even gerontocracy (age) politics. There are male lecturers who can’t stand female students, and there are female lecturers who cannot stand male students. There are also some female lecturers who cannot stand female students and vice versa. These are individual complexes which I don’t want to go in now. I know of two cases where female students were looked down upon because they had conceived while pursuing their graduate studies and seen not to be serious as a result. There are female supervisors who have stereotypes about men based on their relations with their husbands. I recall one poster in a female lecturers office which read: “Marry a teacher because if she can handle one hundred fools in class, she can handle one more idiot in the house” while some male lecturers perceive their female students in similar light, comparing them to their wives. There are cultural stereotypes in some African societies where men view women as part of  children and this sometimes influences or affects lecturers.

There is no doubt that ethnicity affects many African societies and universities are no exception. I remember when I was an undergraduate at the University of Nairobi, I was discouraged from seeking registration in some departments. The stereotype still remains and there are some individuals who have never gone beyond their ethnic nationalism and would not find anything positive in people from other ethnic groups. There are also lecturers who use race in gauging the work of their students. I once worked in a university where students who came from countries where English was not the official language really suffered especially from Ethiopia and Somalia. Religion also plays an important role in some of the biases in Kenyan universities. You find lecturers  finding more comfort in people who share their religion or denomination, which should not be the case. There are also cases where some lecturers prefer to deal with richer or wealthier students than those perceived to come from poor backgrounds. There are also lecturers who discriminate against their students on account of age. Many lecturers segregate students who are too young or too old. The young are regarded as not serious while the old are avoided because they are believed to be ‘hard’ in following instructions or keeping timelines due to other responsibilities as employees, fathers or wives or brothers and sisters.

Eighth are supervisors who use their own dissertations or theses as examples which everyone must follow and any diversion from it attracts a failing grade. Their masters or doctoral work, however mediocre, becomes the yardstick for work from students. These are the worst and will fail anyone for flouting instructions, directions and rules, meaning their dissertation or thesis. Many universities have these kinds of supervisors who insist on pushing their own research path upon the students, which is wrong. Students should be allowed to explore other possibilities and approaches than being pushed to follow some ‘yellow’ copy of a thesis, as textbook.

Ninth are the sticklers who follow the recommended writing manual to the letter and forget about the fact that those are just guides. Such supervisors will follow the guidelines to the extent that they forget to mark and give direction on content. They mark grammar, commas and full-stops and students cannot move or progress because the supervisor is an APA or Chicago, Harvard style manual fanatic. When they pick up a proposal or a thesis, they insert manual requirements to the point of becoming a nuisance. There are even those who spend time on formatting issues during oral examinations to the annoyance of colleagues. Students get marked down because they did not put the year of publication of a book in brackets.

Tenth, is the ‘big’ scholar syndrome among supervisors who insist that students must quote or cite them. Some of the supervisors have written relevant works and can be cited but there are some who walk around with plagiarized pamphlets without ISBN or ISSN numbers, lacking in originally and pass them to students as materials to support them. Some of them have written research manuals which are plagiarized from Creswell and Kothari and sell them to susceptible and vulnerable graduate students and insist on being cited. Some carry around reports calling them books and asking students to read and cite them.

Eleventh are supervisors who are ‘Anglophiles’ or Francophiles’ and ‘western’ bigots who see only European and American scholars as authentic and who regard books and journals published in Africa as ‘useless’ and not academic enough. They have crammed a few names of western writers in their area which they push down the throats of students. If they have done a little psychology, they want all students to use conceptual and theoretical frameworks that are psychological. They are narrow and rigid in their academic advising and students have either to take their imposed ideas or fail. Any student who cites local scholars such as Odero Oruka, Bethual Allan Ogot, Micere Mugo, Wangari Maathai, William Ochieng, Gideon S Were, Robert Obudho, Zack Maleche, Philip Mbithi, Florida Karani, Joyce Olenja, Maurice Amutabi, Archie Mafeje, Adu Boahen, Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and not Roland Oliver, Samuel Huntington, Michel Foucault, and other white scholars are faulted for lacking broader approach to creation of knowledge. They pose tough questions to students during oral defences, asking students to discuss the thesis of their theses and what grade they would give themselves if they were asked to mark their work.

In conclusion, we need to have graduate schools that have conflict resolution committees where menacing supervisors can be removed by requests made by students so long as they provide convincing reasons. We need to save students from such supervisors in order to make graduate school more enjoyable and not seen as academic torture chambers. Universities should increase the number of members on thesis or dissertation supervision committees from one or two to at least three or four. Research has revealed that the fewer the supervisors per student, the more students are slowed down and the more conflicts. More supervisors mean more opinions.

Graduate schools in African universities need to be more democratic and allow students to have a role in choosing supervisors. There is need for African graduate programs to allow experienced students to create ‘Survival kits’ for new students. When I joined the University of Illinois for my doctoral degree, I was saved from potential landmines when I was handed a graduate survival handbook by the graduate student president. The handbook, called ‘survival kit’ listed the names of professors and list of students they had supervised successfully and the duration they had taken to complete. They allowed us to ask them questions on who was good or difficult. The handbook was the best secret to the success of doctoral students in the university. There were professors who were avoided due to bad history in supervising. To assist in reducing delays in graduate school, there should be timelines within which a student should receive feedback. If a student takes too long in the system, the supervisors and student must both be called to account and not just rushing to discontinue such a student.

Supervisors need to undergo training before they are unleashed as supervisors on innocent graduate students. There should be training on the art of supervising. I recall when I joined Central Washington University as an Assistant Professor, I was taken through one month training and asked to mark ‘dummy’ masters and doctoral theses which were marked by senior scholars. One needed to get the same grade with the rest of the trainees to be allowed to supervise. There are people who repeated the training for two or more times before qualifying. Supervisors need to make useful and meaningful comments on students’ work and not statements such as “move to the next chapter” or “recast the entire work” or “we need to talk” or “no progress” or “did you attend my research class really” or “I am increasingly beginning to believe that PhD is not for everyone” or “kindly request for another supervisor” and other statements which demean the efforts of students. If we do the above, we will be on the right path towards making graduate school an enjoyable learning experience in our universities.

Prof. Maurice N. Amutabi (PhD-University of Illinois, USA) is Full Professor and Director of the Centre for Science and Technology Studies at the Technical University of Kenya. He can be reached at amutabi@gmail.com.

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