3 things I learnt about PhD supervision from midwives (Lauren Gawne)

Image by Nadir sYzYgY | unsplash.com

I was really fortunate to get to hang out with some amazing midwives when I was pregnant in 2018.

Not only did they help me through pregnancy, birth and first first couple of hazy weeks with a tiny human, they also gave me a lot to think about when it comes to PhD supervision.

Here are three things that I noticed good midwives do, which I now try to bring to my PhD supervision processes!

Support is person-specific

One of the midwives helped me navigate a pregnancy moment by reading through and explaining the Cochrane report on the topic. She knew that the best way to reassure me was to let me see the research and evidence and talk through a plan. That doesn’t mean she’d do the same for the next person to walk in. Another person might prefer a simple set of options, yet another might not have the space to engage with that issue at that moment.

One person’s ideal birth plan is another person’s idea of a bad time. The best midwives made people aware of the options and then supported them to make the best decisions for themselves and their babies.

The PhD experience is also incredibly varied (as nicely articulated in this Thesis Whisperer post from Ellie Wood). You can’t engage with all of your students in exactly the same way and expect they’ll all perform exactly the same.

As a supervisor, you have a good idea of the road ahead for a project. It's your job to help your student come up with the navigation plan that best fits with their habits and preferences while pointing out the obstacles.

Support the whole person

Sometimes, I’d have appointments with a midwife where we’d actually not spend that much time talking about the tiny human I was growing. We’d talk about appetite and if I was sleeping, if I felt like I was mobile enough, and how my partner and I were feeling about things.

You have to think about babies and dissertations in holistic terms because they take up so much time and energy. I like to check in with my PhD students’ emotional well-being because it can be tough working on a project as big as a dissertation, even if everything else in your life is running OK (and given that a PhD can take 3+ years, the chances that everything else is going to be fine all the time are... slim).

Support your students. Remind them to take breaks, remind them of the services your university offers, ask how their kids are. But remember that you don't have to be their only emotional support; in fact, that’s unhealthy for a good supervisorial relationship. Midwives were very supportive of me finding a good psychologist, a situation that worked best for everyone.

It’s not your baby

The best midwives I know are engaged, compassionate, caring and (perhaps unsurprisingly) love babies. They also know that regardless of how involved they’ve been in supporting someone through the process, it’s not their baby.

It sounds wildly self-evident when it comes to babies but it can be harder for some supervisors to come to terms with this when it comes to research, particularly if the student has worked on a project closely tied to a larger research topic.

It’s our job to support our students to write the best PhD that they can.

And then we must support them as they take the work they’ve done with us wherever they go next on their journey.


Lauren Gawne is a Lecturer in the Department of Languages and Linguistics at La Trobe University. 

Her research focuses on grammatical evidentiality and the gestures people use when they speak, with a focus on Tibeto-Burman languages. 

Lauren is also interested in research data management, internet English, and public linguistics. Lauren co-hosts the podcast Lingthusiasm with Gretchen McCulloch and run the generalist linguistics website Superlinguo

Lauren is on Twitter as @superlinguo.


Other RED Alert posts on research supervision: