Democratising Doctoral Education

This is a guest post by Dr David Hyatt, Director of the Doctorate in Education (EdD), University of Sheffield.

My recent research and practice have focussed around the ways in which we establish more collaborative and collegial relationships between supervisors and supervisees on doctoral programmes.  I’m currently teaching on two taught professional doctoral programmes, directing one of them, and so the cohort/group nature of these programmes has become a feature of this work.

Traditionally the relationship between supervisor and supervisee has been viewed as a master/apprentice, expert/novice one, with the supervisor as an authoritative figure, dispensing knowledge and advice. However, these types of relationships place power in the hand of the supervisor and positions the student as the lesser scholar, potentially patronised or infantilised. Even the terms ‘supervisor’ and ‘supervisee’ imply such positions for each party.

So, what is the purpose of doctoral education? Is it training? Is it the transmission of expertise? Is it the delivery of knowledge? I would argue it’s none of these things. For me this process is about creating spaces and opportunities to challenge assumptions within our fields and consider alternatives to these assumptions. It is in part a process of enculturation, learning to be active, competent experts within our field. It is part of inviting and inducting our students into an academic community. And in order to do this we need to treat them as genuine academics from the outset.

This involves working with our students in more collaborative, equitable ways, and genuinely valuing their contributions. It also requires the adviser (a much more equitable term!) to be careful and reflect upon their actions, and the impact of those actions, and it requires us to help our students expand their research capabilities. Such a perspective on this process recognises that our student are the future curators of the field, and our job as advisors becomes one not just of ‘skilling up’ our learners but of helping them to develop the repertoire (the day to day practices and behaviours) of a successful member of the academic community, one which mirrors established professional norms beyond the academy.

What our students will need reflects the fact that a patchwork of attributes are necessary to be successful in both doctoral study and in becoming an academic or other professional. These needs are personal, individual and dependent on who people are, where they come from and where they want to go. They will be moulded by an individual’s biography and should be more than just technical, instrumental and measurable. They might well include technical skills, but also they can include dispositions, attitudes, experiences, knowledge, ethical orientations, theoretical orientations, assumptions regarding knowledge and learning, ideological positions, understandings, and beliefs. These will differ in different contexts/disciplines and in where these disciplines merge (e.g. contexts of interdisciplinarity and co-production). Learners will engage with a broad variety of groups, networks and communities, and their resources are consequently learned through a wide variety of trajectories, tactics and technologies.

It’s important to realise that this view is not a denial of expertise/experience or knowledge, not a denial of the psychological safety students desire in feeling their supervisor is ‘expert’, not a ‘sink or swim’ abandonment of students but rather a structured programme of learning that works from the student’s current state of knowledge. It is not, either, a disregard of the importance of scholarship – rigour, subject knowledge, originality, significance, credibility nor a neglect of the demands of professional practice, and not a face-threat to the ‘supervisor’.

There are a number of avenues through which advisors can encourage their learners to begin to consider themselves as academic colleagues. Some of these might include:

  • Creation of student-determined spaces for authentic dialogue;
  • Work around critically considering the language of the discipline, and the assumptions inherent in this;
  • Repeated presentation and defence of work amongst supportive, yet challenging, peers;
  • Advisors sharing draft work with their students, viewing them as the kind of critical friends that they might do their peers;
  • Collaborative writing and co-publication between advisers and students, ensuring this is ethically done and the students get full credit for their contributions;
  • Questioning the discourse surrounding doctoral education – should we be supervisors or advisors (or mentors)? Would Doctoral Training Centres be better conceptualised as Doctoral Development Programmes? Could we replace Training Needs Analyses with Doctoral Development Analyses?

This approach to doctoral development is one in which learners are invited to take ownership of their learning and to develop their academic repertoire. As such, the doctoral process then becomes an invitation to a critical and principled inclusion in the academic discourse community.

Author: predoctorbility

I design researcher mentoring and coaching programmes, partnering researchers at all career stages with academic and non-academic mentors. I use research data to ensure programmes are aligned to the researcher voice, are situated in academic development, and fit with the current researcher career landscape.