Was it worth it? How supervisors influence the value of the PhD – pre-session preparation

Conceptual model of how PhD graduates perceive the value of their doctorate

Summarised from Billy Bryan & Kay Guccione (2018) Was it worth it? A qualitative exploration into graduate perceptions of doctoral value, Higher Education Research & Development, 37:6, 1124-1140, DOI: 10.1080/07294360.2018.1479378

Doctoral graduates perceived that they had derived value from their PhD studies that benefitted them after graduation. This was organised into the following core themes: (1) career value; (2) skills value; (3) social value; (4) personal value.

These themes were consistent across the sample, although the way each graduate judged value was influenced by contextual and situational factors.

The derived value from the doctorate was experienced differently by different individuals. Participants identified four main influencing factors in making value judgements: (1) time since graduation; (2) supervision; (3) accrued social connectivity; (4) employer value of the doctorate.

The four core themes of doctoral value, and the four influences on value judgements, were consistent across all participants’ accounts of their doctoral and graduate experiences.

Our conceptual model of doctoral value (below) was developed from these findings and provides a frame of reference for discussions of value, and value added in the design and quality assurance of doctoral programmes.

Supervision was the major influence on students’ perceptions of value. In line with other research, participants cited issues with supervisory support and relationship quality as causal in creating either positive or negative doctoral experiences. Those describing positive supervision relationships also cited supervisors as key proponents of their development, compared to those who reported poor relationships. The supervisory relationship is of key importance across much of the literature about the doctoral experience, and a number of sources highlight the relationship as being pivotal to successful completion.

Achieving Balance in Research Supervision – pre-session preparation

In some ways the doctorate is a journey and the thesis is merely evidence that a candidate collects along the way. At the start of this journey a student may require a great deal of guidance, but by the time they reach their destination they should have developed into an independent scholar. This learning and development requires an appropriate supervisorial balance of support and challenge. In this session we’ll examine the doctoral journey and consider what type of intellectual, professional and psychological support is required at each point of the journey.

In preparation for this session, please would you consider the model below (adapted from Gurr, 2001). If you want to, you can access the original article.

Geoff M. Gurr (2001) Negotiating the “Rackety Bridge” — a Dynamic Model for Aligning Supervisory Style with Research Student Development, Higher Education Research & Development, 20:1, 81-92, DOI: 10.1080/07924360120043882

The journey (what Gurr refers to as the ‘rackety bridge’) towards scholarly independence involves a degree of student apprenticeship and different types of supervisory support at different stages. Of course, every student is different, as is every supervisory partnership.

So, as preparation for this session could you spend a little time thinking about:

1. What sort of supervisory support is appropriate and when? Essentially what ‘works’ for you?
2. Should this support be purely technical or are other types of interaction required?
3. What sort of support did your supervisor provide that was particularly helpful? What was not particularly helpful?
4. What ‘good practice’ have you collected that you can share?

Come along ready to share your thoughts.

Naming and Acclaiming the SuperVisionaries, and insight into who nominated whom…

You may have seen that I’ve been running a #SuperVisionaries ‘name and acclaim’ project where PGRs can recognise their great supervisors, and the impact of good supervision. Read more about the idea and the process for nominating and recognising supervisors here.

#SuperVisionaries is not competitive, there are no shortlists, and no awards — I have just simply named and thanked all those who do a great job for their PGRs.

It’s been brilliant to do this positive exercise and we got 199 nominations, which represents about 8% of our PGRs. They recognised 83 women* and 116 men as excellent supervisors. The gender split in the nominations, which is 42% women and 58% men, is proportionally, just about (if you squint) in line with the relative proportions of academic staff who work at Sheffield (33% women and 67% men). The staff proportions can be error-prone in various ways (academics who don’t supervise, supervisors who are registered in more than one dept…) so please just understand this as reflective speculation rather than absolute truth.

Interestingly though the split of PGRs at the University of Sheffield is 46% women and 54% men. In the nomination process, women took the time to write 145 of the 199 nominations (73%), compared to men who made 54 (27%), and only 10 men nominated women for recognition. [For completion in the dataset 72 women nominated men.]

Given the even-ish split of M/F PGRs we have, and the fact that men consistently report having a ‘better’ doctoral experience than women do (through tools like the Postgraduate Research Experience Survey), my aim for #SuperVisionaries 2019 then is then to get more men to recognise and thank their supervisors, especially their female supervisors.

Interestingly for me who is familiar with many of our supervisory staff, there are names that do not appear on the list who I totally expected to see. People I know to be phenomenal supervisors, tremendous mentors, and who I know have made a difference to their students. I am disappointed and sorry that their students didn’t thank them formally, but I guess maybe they are in the habit of thanking them personally rather then through an anonymous process? Or they didn’t realise what it would mean to a supervisor to be recognised (see below). Or perhaps, sadly, they missed the email ‘call for nominations’ and the reminder email? A second development for #SuperVisionaries 2019 then, could be to invite each of the the Departmental PGR Tutors to make sure that those supervisors that they see going above and beyond in their work are recognised too. This kind of recognition could potentially have impact on career progression for staff, and so it’s important to get a more rich and inclusive perspective of ‘excellent’. I think with time, the importance and the profile of this kind of recognition will grow, and no doubt those supervisors who are absolute diamonds will be named and acclaimed many times to come! And hey, if you know someone who wasn’t nominated and you feel should have been — please let them know how great you think they are!

Caution 1: While this initiative is intended to provide reflection and to start conversations around supervision, it can’t provide evidential support for career progression e.g. probation/promotion and shouldn’t be used for student recruitment purposes. Being recognised as a SuperVisionary is not based on any past or present framework of professional standards or values. There has been no stringent process of assessment of the nominated individuals. The ‘stories’ gathered are the reactive opinions of individuals, who are not qualified to critique or assess supervision in a way that should influence either of the above.

Caution 2: We should not compare across departments, even though it’s tempting, departments are not in competition with each other and I advise against using the numbers of nominations to conclude about dept cultures/practices. A department could receive a high number of nominations because, for example, SuperVisionaries was heavily promoted internally by e.g. PGR Tutor, because individual supervisors put pressure on student to nominate them, because the dept contains a high proportion of PGRs from more deferential cultures, because the dept contains a high number of students who know me well and read my emails. The numbers of students per supervisor, the degree stage of the individual student (meaning their relative time commitments), gender, location, etc will also influence a student’s inclination to nominate.

But back to the celebration, just a couple of examples that I LOVED are below…


The first comments back from the supervisors who were Acclaimed were:

 “I’m chuffed to bits to have been nominated in 2 categories. Given the pressure of the current metrics-driven climate, it’s good to know that the Department appears to be getting the balance right!”

“Oh MY GOD, whaaaaaaaaaaat?! Amazing!”

“This is really, really lovely and it’s made my day.”

“Thanks for doing this. The recognition really means a lot to me!”

“This has made my day, thank you. And thanks as well for continuing to keep the discussion about supervision active in people’s minds. Also, as you say, it’s just really nice to get positive feedback like this – it’s so rare that anyone says ‘hey, you’re doing a good job!’.”

I am happy to chat to anyone at any institution who would like to know more, and I’d be delighted if any of you want to copy/adapt the model. Spreading more positivity is important.

*both our student and staff systems only record two genders so I am only able to report men and women as recorded in our databases, nothing more inclusive. I know.

building and breaking professional trust in doctoral student-supervisor relationships

I am delighted that the Trust Me! research report is now available here on the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education web pages!

This report presents findings from a research study looking at perceptions of trust in doctoral supervision relationships. It views academic supervisors in the context of their role as leaders and enablers of trust within their research environments and higher education institutions. It aims to take a broad exploratory view of the specific behaviours that are important in trust building in supervisory relationships.

Supervisory leadership is characterised by tensions and balances. To build trust a supervisor must respond to the student’s individual needs and circumstances and develop a discipline-appropriate professional practice in supervision. This study contributes insight into the nature of that supervisory trust. It deepens our understanding of what constitutes a ‘good quality’ student-supervisor relationship, and signals the presence or absence of trust as a component of quality.

Recommendations are offered that draw on the presented evidence and make suggestions for how supervisors could be supported to establish and sustain trusting supervision relationships. The practical recommendations avoid the language of supervision ‘skills’, preferring instead to describe contextual and demonstrable trust-building behaviours within the social worlds of research environments and relationships.

There is an online open access and free workshop with learning resources for supervisors here, that I have created from the research findings.

The primary aim of this report is to assist higher education institutions to enhance supervisory practice, specifically through focusing on relationship tensions. I am sure that supervisors themselves will also find it very interesting.

This report is available to LFHE member institutions. Downloading the publication requires you to have, or make, an account using your university email address. If you have any problems gaining access, please let @AdvanceHE know.


disrupting the passive approach to learning doctoral writing

Re-blog, from my writing over at the Think Ahead blog, see the original post hereThis post is for PhD supervisors wondering how to get their students to write their thesis. It addresses some of the ‘in theory’ points that outline the supervisor’s role in developing doctoral writing. Part 2 (here) covers some ‘in practice’ ideas.

recognising great PhD supervision – a #SuperVisionaries approach

My Trust Me! research, which collected stories of trust and PhD supervision — see this page, returned both happy and sad, content and frustrated, indifferent and furious, accounts of supervision relationships. Continue reading “recognising great PhD supervision – a #SuperVisionaries approach”

what does supporting international doctoral learners mean?

This is a guest post by a team from the School of Education at the University of Glasgow: Dr Dely Elliot, Dr Muir Houston, Dr Kara Makara, Dr Kate Reid, Dr Catherine Lido. They reflect here on their recent national event with the UK Council for Graduate Education.

We cannot fail to notice the strong presence of international doctoral learners in British Higher Education Institutions. After all, they comprise almost half of the entire doctoral community. Although they may be under the umbrella of ‘international learners’, they are far from being a homogeneous group as they often hail from different continents. Interestingly, their shared experience of being away from home to pursue what often becomes an isolated doctoral journey can also easily lead to comparable experiences of the rewards and concerns that international doctoral education entails. Continue reading “what does supporting international doctoral learners mean?”

a transdisciplinary, experiential approach to development for new research supervisors

This is a guest post by Sarah Moore, Professional Development Manager for Learning and Teaching, The University of Sheffield.

Research supervision in universities occurs in a variety of different contexts. There is PhD supervision of course, but this is not the only way that students engage in research activity. When thinking about the different manifestations of research in the curriculum, I find Jenkins and Healey’s (2005: p22) model helpful in emphasising that the research-teaching nexus is not confined to talking about your research in lectures:

Research projects are a useful way of supporting undergraduate or postgraduate taught students to develop skills related to research processes and problems, and in some cases can be a starting point for co-created forms of knowledge between students and staff.  They can also be incorporated into the curriculum at different stages with different levels of complexity depending on the discipline and student experience and expertise.

Often, those supervising such projects are new to supervision themselves, so it is important that they are supported with their supervisory role. One way (but by no means the only way) is through initial professional development activity such as the Sheffield Teaching Assistant (STA).

The Sheffield Teaching Assistant (STA)

The STA is a series of three hour workshops aimed at those new to teaching, one of which is around the topic of research supervision. Each workshop focuses on a particular aspect of teaching, providing an introduction to key principles and encouraging participants to consider how they might apply concepts to their own practice. The principles introduced in the session around Research Supervision are relevant for PhD supervision, however,  the main audience is Graduate Teaching Assistants (most of whom are teaching alongside doing their own PhDs) so the session primarily focuses on supervision in the context of structured projects in the undergraduate and postgraduate taught curriculum.

Transdisciplinary, experiential approaches

Although concepts of supervision are important, without being supported by actual experience, what it looks and feels like on the ground, they run the risk of being meaningless. Critically reflecting on our own concrete experiences helps us to learn – this notion of experiential learning is defined by Kolb as ‘[t]he process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience’ (p.49). It is through our experiences of supervising, and being supervised, that we can gain an understanding the ways in which we can support the flourishing of our own students.

When I first began teaching this session, my main concern was around credibility as I don’t have a PhD myself, although I had experience leading research projects in a previous organisation and providing one-to-one tuition at the start of my career. Interestingly, since I started teaching this workshop I have begun a Doctorate in Education, so as I move into the research part of the programme in the next few months I will begin to experience supervision from a student perspective.

However, as a teacher I can only authentically bring my own experiences and examples of supervision into the classroom – I cannot speak for others (see Brookfield, 1995 for further exploration of concepts of authenticity and credibility in teaching). Indeed, this is often the case for research projects in general where our experiences of supervision are situated in the context of a particular project. While important, our personal experiences can therefore only ever provide a limited, partial and incomplete picture of supervision.

One of the ways in which we try to address this is to draw on the experiences of participants within the workshop to create knowledge as a group about what good (and not-so-good) supervision looks like. Space is provided within the session for participants to reflect on their own supervision experience, share as much of these experiences as they wish with others (this is not compulsory – it is entirely up to them what they share) and to critically analyse the ideas raised.

For example, if you have had a bad experience with an overly-critical supervisor, you might understandably be keen to avoid exposing your own students to criticism. With that comes a risk however that you don’t challenge your students enough. How could you ensure a balance between the two extremes in your practice?

The great advantage we have in these workshops is that participants come from across the whole institution. There are a wide variety of disciplines, departments and experiences represented in each session, far more than one individual could encapsulate. The workshops are designed to be transdisciplinary, combining general concepts with opportunities for participants to consider how they might apply the ideas to their own supervisory practice.

This transdisciplinary approach might seem counter-intuitive given the situated nature of individual research projects, but in fact if harnessed appropriately the exchange of experiences across disciplines allows for the social construction of knowledge around what works (and what doesn’t) in supervision. The transdisciplinary nature of the STA allows participants to share and respond to experiences from those in disciplines other than their own, identifying common ground but also acknowledging areas that are unique to their disciplines.

Bearing in mind many of those attending are also in supervisor/supervisee relationships themselves, it also enables them to recognise that theirs is an individual experience that may not be shared by others. Bringing together these partial experiences helps them to reflect on supervision from different perspectives, and constructing their own knowledge of what effective supervision entails.

  • Brookfield, S. (1995) Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.
  • Jenkins, A. and Healey, M. (2005) Institutional Strategies to Link Teaching and Research (York: Higher Education Academy).
  • Kolb, D. (1984) Experiential Learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

recognising the valuable contribution that postdocs make to the supervision of PhD Students.

This is a guest post from Laura Lane, Head of Strategy and Operations at the Graduate School, Imperial College London and currently Chair of the UK Council for Graduate Education’s Graduate School Managers’ Network. Grad School twitter  |  facebook  |  Instagram

This blog post is designed to provide a practical example of how Imperial College London has chosen to formally recognise the valuable contribution that postdocs make to the supervision of PhD students.  It briefly summarises how and why the framework was established and provides links to all relevant documentation which forms part of the process.  I am very happy for colleagues to contact me with further questions about any aspect of this provision.


During 2014-15, the Graduate School established an institution-wide project called, the world class research supervision project.  As part of this project, over 1,400 doctoral students and 400 academic staff shared their thoughts and experiences of research degree supervision at the College.  As a result, the College agreed 40 recommendations, covering many aspects of the research student experience, which were taken forward by seven task and finish groups.

Between 2016 and 2018, the Task and Finish Group for the Student Supervisor Partnership worked to address the recommendations which related specifically to supporting students and supervisors to have effective working relationships.  However, one other important aspect of this group’s work was to review the role and valuable contribution postdocs make to PhD supervision and to implement means of recognition.  This came through really strongly in the feedback received from staff and students as part of the original consultation.

Working Party for Recognising Postdocs

In order to take this forward, the Task and Finish Group for the Student Supervisor Partnership itself established a Working Party to look specifically at this recommendation.  The Working Party for Recognising Postdocs comprised academic staff from each of the College’s Faculties, Postdoc Reps, the Head of the Postdoc and Fellows Development Centre (Dr Liz Elvidge), representation from Human Resources and myself.  This Working Party met twice to consider the roles and responsibilities that postdocs carry out with respect to PhD supervision, the training and support needed in order for postdocs to carry out these roles effectively and finally to develop a process which formally recognises postdocs as Assistant Supervisors to PhD students.  At the first meeting, draft documentation was prepared and the Postdoc Reps were asked to consult with the Postdoc Rep Network on the draft paperwork and proposed process in time for the next meeting.

Recognising Postdocs

The following documents were developed by the Working Party for Postdocs, agreed by the Task and Finish Group for the Student Supervisor Partnership and approved by the College’s Postgraduate Research Quality Committee.  All have now been implemented.

  1. A roles and responsibilities document for the role of Assistant Supervisor
  2. Continuing Professional Development Framework for Assistant Supervisors which includes mandatory training and other recommended workshops and support.
  3. Assistant Supervisors also have access to the online Supervisors’ Guidebook which contains further resources and information to support them in their role.

The formal process for recognising postdocs as Assistant Supervisors was agreed with Human Resources (HR) and enables academic Departments to make requests for HR to issue formal notification of appointment to Assistant Supervisor, subject to completion of the mandatory online training course “introduction to supervision at Imperial College London” and with agreement from the postdoc’s line manager.  On a termly basis, the Graduate School confirms to Departments which postdocs have completed the mandatory training.

Concluding remarks

It is hoped that postdocs who are formally appointed to Assistant Supervisors will find this helpful in terms of their career development and can refer to this appointment on their CVs.  As a final note, the College also agreed to include reference to Assistant Supervisors in the Early Stage Assessment Form (9 month milestone) and Late Stage Review Form (18-24 month milestone).

Although driven by the Imperial College Graduate School there have been many contributors to this important project and I would like to extend thanks to all those who have shared their expertise and given up their time to contribute.