The ceremony was also attended by parents and loved ones of the graduates, who watched the hooding with pride and happiness.
One of the graduates was Salina Alias, whom I co-supervised. She had earned her doctoral degree in Civil Engineering. Completing a PhD is no small feat. This academic path is extraordinarily exhausting, physically and mentally.
To accomplish it requires complete obligation from supervisor and supervisee.
Those who are more humble do better academically.
There are many books written to advise doctoral candidates and supervisors on the dos and don’ts.
These include selecting the right topic, knowing the objective of the thesis well and having regular meetings with supervisors.
But one thing often overlooked is humility.
While there are difficult supervisors who can’t be tamed even by humility, my experience teaches me that it does play a role in the success of doctoral studies.
As far as Asian culture is concerned, most supervisees are humble and very respectful of supervisors.
But in my case, my supevisee’s humility humbled me — such was her exemplary humility.
Humility is often undervalued but a study by Rowatt et al (2006) shows that “those who were more humble did better academically”.
In a doctoral supervision, both supervisor and supervisee should be humble.
The supervisor extends lots of criticism, which can be hard at times. If criticism is extended politely, it can be accepted with an open heart, and the necessary modification or improvement will be done willingly.
This can result in the smoother completion of the thesis. But if a student thinks that the criticism is a slap on his face, he has to nurse his hurt first before working on the correction.
Correcting PhD thesis work is no easy task. Doing so grudgingly makes it harder. In some circumstances, there are parts of PhD work, that have taken a long time to complete, for example a year, that have to be abandoned due to the supervisor’s advice.
If a candidate is humble, it is easier to accept this hard advice. An egoistic student may retaliate, which can create tension between the two. Being humble does not mean one lacks knowledge.
Rather, it shows willingness to be open-minded, which is important because often, a candidate’s methodology, experiments, reporting and arguments are open to improvement or can simply be wrong.
This is where the supervisor steps in. An open-minded person can accept the need for corrections even though the work is already halfway through, but an egoistic person may find it difficult to change what he believes is right though it is wrong.
A doctoral study takes a minimum of three years and six months to complete. But most take longer. The necessity for a supervisee and supervisor to communicate regularly over such a long period, compounded by the rigours of academic criticism, can be challenging and result in relationships going sour.
A lot of patience is required. But if both are humble, good relations between the two can be maintained.
A study by Davis et al (2012) says that those with deeper humility traits are “able to repair relationships and built stronger bonds”. Those who are humble usually have a keen appreciation of others.
True to the laws of nature, if you are good to other people, they will be good to you. Similarly, if a PhD candidate is always appreciative of the supervisor’s teaching, he will earn the supervisor’s appreciation.
As a result there will be a harmonious relationship between the supervisor and supervisee, which will be of tremendous benefit to the candidate.
An Indonesian proverb says: “A smart man is usually humble.” But humility is definitely not the first trait on the list when advising PhD candidates on how to succeed in their academic pursuit.
But, after interacting with humble supervisees, I have concluded that it is as important as academic characteristics. It paves the way for a fine balance.
Discussing and criticising in humility results in a peaceful academic atmosphere, and makes the mentally-draining journey less exhausting. And, the academic relationship blooms, benefiting the bigger academic tapestry.