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.

Community Acuity (10): ‘Question Club’ – postgraduate workshops

‘Community Acuity’ blog posts are from supervisors, to supervisors. They share the thoughts, experiences and reflection of the highs and the challenges of supervising doctoral students.

Dr Ann Rowan is a Research Fellow in the Department of Geography at the University of Sheffield.

Our department runs weekly research seminars given by invited external speakers, as well as presentations throughout the year by staff and students. After these presentations there is time for questions from the audience. The same small, and senior, section of the audience provides the majority of these questions each week. These are insightful questions, often with a lengthy preamble that demonstrates knowledge of the topic and comprehension of the material presented.

Few questions are asked by PhD students even if they do put their hand up, as the senior staff often don’t wait to be called on to ask their question. Does this sound familiar?

Why don’t students ask more questions at public talks?

An informal survey of our PhD students resulted in comments along the lines of “we don’t get a chance to ask questions”, “I’m worried about asking a stupid question which would be embarrassing” and “I don’t want to waste the speaker’s time with my question”. However, these students are the members of the department that do research all day every day and are likely the most up-to-date with the current literature. Only one student felt confident that the value of having her question answered outweighed the perils of asking, but the majority felt nervous and invisible in the audience.

To actively encourage PhD students to confidently ask questions, and following a suggestion from Kay Guccione, I ran two ‘Question Club’ workshops this semester. The outcome was great; the students had so many questions that I had to stop them asking follow up questions.

How to encourage students to ask questions?

The Question Club session follows this format in a 50-minute session:

  1. Start with a short (not more than 10 minutes) research presentation either by an early career researcher or a postgraduate student. The focus of the session is on asking questions, not on the talk itself.
  2. During the presentation, each member of the audience writes down all the questions that occur to them. The important point to emphasise is that there is no question too basic and it’s not a problem if the speaker later answers these questions. Let the students know at the start that they won’t be asked to read out their questions and so don’t have to screen them or be worried about ‘stupid’ questions.
  3. Then the students split into small groups (4–6 people) to pool their questions for 15 minutes and put together two or three questions that they want to collectively ask. I talk to each group about the sort of question they want to ask: Is it constructive? Does it encourage the speaker to make an expansive answer (not just a yes/no)? Does the question ask about the research undertaken rather than just how the study could be expanded?
  4. The groups then ask the speaker their questions for 15 minutes.
  5. The speaker and session organiser lead a discussion of the questions asked for the last 10 minutes of the session. The speaker comments in general on what they thought; have they been asked similar questions before? Was the question easy or difficult to answer?

Tips for running Question Club:

The focus is on being supportive and constructive.

  • The presentation is not the important part; keep this as short as possible. It is useful to have someone who is approachable and good at communicating his or her ideas.
  • This session can double as practice for PhD students to present their work, and answer questions.
  • Senior academic staff (lecturer-level and above) are excluded as students can feel less confident speaking in front of senior staff.
  • One audience member, maybe an early career researcher, could be responsible for thinking of particularly difficult questions to ask, as long as this is not done in a confrontational manner. It makes for a good discussion in the final part of the session.
  • Although the students hopefully have lots of questions that they are keen to ask, make them aware if needed of the limited time available for asking these and encourage them to thank the speaker after their question has been answered rather than asking a lot of follow-up questions. The reason for this is to avoid the sort of behavior that stops them asking questions in the first place. There is always the conference coffee break…

Community Acuity (9) training, training everywhere… how to survive (and prosper) in the new doctoral landscape

‘Community Acuity’ blog posts are from supervisors, to supervisors. They share the thoughts, experiences and reflection of the highs and the challenges of supervising doctoral students. 

Dr Glyn Williams is a Reader in international development and a former member of the ESRC White Rose Doctoral Training Partnership’s management team.

For PhD supervisors new to UK academia, or for any who finished their own theses more than a decade ago, the contemporary doctoral training landscape can be a confusing place. There is a sea of acronyms, (CDTs, DTCs, DTPs…) linked to a bewildering array of cross-disciplinary and cross-institutional partnerships. All seem to be vying loudly for your students’ attention with claims to develop their research and professional skills to previously unknown heights.

My own PhD experience – and I’m not that ancient – was vastly different. One-to-one PhD supervision was pretty much the sum total of my doctoral training, supplemented by the very occasional workshop. Because for some of my fellow supervisors these differences are as unwelcome as they are incomprehensible, I want to offer a few words of comfort, but also in defence of the new doctoral landscape.

Understand the ethos – The point of the new development landscape is to enable broad-based, critically-reflective professional researchers, not just to equip students with the tools to complete their own PhD topics. So, yes, this will involve them learning about methodological techniques they won’t immediately use, or sitting in workshops reflecting on things – such as how to manage their relationships with their supervisors – we might think of as a distraction from their ‘real’ work as researchers. Clearly, we need to be wary of producing an ever-growing training industry, but equally we must recognise the dangers of leaving things where they were. Less than one in ten UK PhD students will go on to a permanent academic post, and those that do will increasingly work in interdisciplinary teams, not narrow disciplinary silos. Providing space to talk about the PhD process makes it understandable across cultural and other boundaries, not simply the arcane practice of a cult of insiders. Doing this collectively addresses the isolation of doctoral study, and is therefore vital in supporting student well-being.

Recognise the supervisor’s changing role (see also this post, and this post)– The easiest way to describe the change here is from guru to guide. Rather than being the perfect role model, or the font of all knowledge, we can all contribute to doctoral students’ development simply by knowing what development activities are out there. Keeping our ears to the ground, finding out from colleagues and our Departments’ students what workshops and events they’ve found most valuable, and which are best avoided, are therefore tasks of considerable value. Likewise, your training review meetings don’t have to be bureaucratic exercises in box-ticking: they can create meaningful and achievable plans that integrate our students’ broader development with the progress of their theses.

Engage and participate – Finally, remember that one of the things most valued by doctoral students is hearing good researchers explaining and reflecting on core elements of their craft. This could be about the use of a research technique, how to survive fieldwork, or how to deal with journal reviewers’ comments. Many of us are not comfortable putting ourselves forwards as ‘experts’, but the fact remains that we’ve all got something useful to share that will invariably have a potential audience that’s far wider than our PhD students. Facilitating that process of sharing should be one of the core tasks of your local DTP/DTC/CDT – so don’t be afraid to get involved!

Image credit

the Changing Face of Doctoral Education – implications for supervisors

This is a guest post from staff at the University of Bristol: Kate Whittington, Senior Teaching Fellow in the Bristol Medical School; Anne Lee, Associate Professor, University of Stavanger and Research Fellow in the School of Education; and Sally Barnes, Professor of Doctoral Education, School of Education.

A search on Google can quickly identify a plethora of articles and personal experiences of PhD’s that have ‘gone wrong’ with poor supervision surfacing as a common complaint.

Undoubtedly, successful completion of a PhD relies on sheer hard work and determination from the doctoral researcher, but the critical importance of the supervisory relationship cannot be underestimated (Ives & Rowley, 2005 and see McCallin & Nayar 2012). Continue reading “the Changing Face of Doctoral Education – implications for supervisors”

Supervising in the dark – a call for an expanded doctoral pedagogy

This is a guest post by Dr Søren Bengtsen, Associate Professor in the Centre for Teaching Development and Digital Media at Aarhus University.

Doctoral education, or researcher education, has with certainty moved, or has been pulled, out of its seclusion within the disciplines and away from its ‘secret garden’ within private-professional and exclusive spaces of doctoral supervision. Akin to higher education, doctoral education today is seen as vital in policy making for enhancing the general living standard of a population, increasing financial growth and societal health (Andres et al, 2015). Continue reading “Supervising in the dark – a call for an expanded doctoral pedagogy”