This post is by Cally Guerin, senior lecturer at the University of Adelaide, South Australia. She is a co-editor of the DoctoralWriting Blog.
Recently I was involved in a research project aimed at scoping the range and variety of supervisor development programs offered by centralised academic development units in Australian universities. The research uncovered what we had suspected to be the case – that some universities here offer extensive training, preparation and ongoing development to supervisors, while others provide only the most cursory induction to university policy and requirements. This uneven provision of academic development is a concern: as supervisors find themselves working with more students – and more diverse students – in institutions that are expecting them to do more with less, innovations in supervisory practices become necessary.
While the UK situation is somewhat different from the Australian one, it’s still the case that postgraduate researchers are going to need similar kinds of guidance and support from their supervisors. Personally, I think there are great advantages in learning about this from centralised units – disciplines do have their own traditions and conventions that are appropriate to their own needs, but they can get stuck in doing things in particular ways just because that’s the way they’ve always done it. In contrast, by learning about supervision in a group comprising participants from different faculties, supervisors hear about what’s normal in other areas, and often find themselves thinking ‘Oh, now that’s a good idea!’ or ‘If I adjusted that practice just a little bit, it would work very well for my students’. For example, supervisors from Humanities, Arts and Social Science areas, attuned to focus on individualistic one-on-one supervision, sometimes realise that there are huge benefits to working with PhD candidates in the research group model more common in STEM areas.
One area that needs some rejigging is the conventional ways in which supervisors offer feedback on students’ writing. The study mentioned above revealed that not many supervisors receive much training in this area, even though most of them see the supervising of writing as one of the most important and demanding aspects of their work.
In most universities, supervisors have been in the habit of asking students to submit pieces of writing to which the supervisor provides individualised feedback on a whole range of issues — praising what’s good, criticising weaknesses, questioning for clarification, pushing the thinking further, suggesting further reading and editing the grammar and vocabulary choices. Certainly, this individualised response will need to happen at some point, but is this the only way to help students develop their writing ability?
It seems that many of the points made to each student are more or less the same, repeated over and over to each student. Supervisors could set up group instruction to get across the big ideas of genre structures or the purposes of a literature review. Even if supervisors have students at different stages of candidature, this approach can work well when more experienced postgrads explain to newcomers the insights they gained about research writing.
Peer review in self-directed or supervisor-facilitated writing groups can also be a valuable way to develop writing skills. This can be especially potent if accompanied by reflection that encourages doctoral writers to think about how their advice to peers can be applied to their own work. If they point out problems with structure, or unclear, wordy sentences, how then can they devise some broader principles to apply to their own writing?
There are situations where this kind of ‘cohort supervision’ is not readily available – for example, if there are too few students enrolled, or in very isolated academic units. In these situations, groups of supervisors could combine forces to meet as a group with all of their research students. As well as developing a stronger sense of belonging to a research culture, this broader experience can provide access to greater knowledge of cognate disciplines.
Regardless of the supervisor development provided by your university, it is possible to experiment in your own context to find out what works well and is best suited to your particular students. I encourage you also to compare notes with colleagues wherever possible to find out what they doing to manage the changing demands on them as supervisors and how they are helping their students become better research writers. Supervising writing might be one of the most demanding aspects of supervision, but it can also be one of the most rewarding aspects when done effectively!