Community Acuity (13): experiences in structuring & recording doctoral supervision meetings.

This is a guest post from Dr Peter Gossman, Principal Lecturer in Education at the University of Worcester.

Over ten years ago I worked in New Zealand and attended the Improving University Teaching Conference in Dunedin were Tom Angelo (of Angelo and Cross – Classroom Assessment Techniquesfame) was presenting. The theme of the conference was ‘assessing and grading as if learning matters most’. Perhaps not the snappiest of conference focus statements but it allowed him to present some key ideas in relation to feedback. 

I have a page from the day that contains i) why give feedback, ii) how students might use feedback and iii) a suggested order for feedback. It is this last element that I have adapted from my own supervision practice. Universities, at least in my limited experience (two English, one Welsh and one Kiwi) have some format for recording supervision meetings. This form tends to have a space on it for the recording the substance of the meeting. It is to this and with a certain approach I have applied Angelo’s feedback ideas.

Angelo suggests that feedback is provided in the following sequence:

  • First – good news (what was done well)
  • Second – bad news (what still needs improvement)
  • Third – options (what can be done to improve it)
  • Fourth – plans (what the learner intends to do)
  • Fifth – commitments (what both parties agree to do, to what standard and by when)

It is a seemly simple list. My take is that it is provided to the doctoral student as the structure against which they write up the meeting notes and identified actions. This in turn is submitted for sign off and agreement and then formalised as the supervision meeting record. The key adaptation here is that the student identifies the good and bad news, the options and the plan for themselves, they are learning to self-evaluate and problem solve.

  • First – good news (what has gone well for you since our last meeting?)

“I have read the articles we discussed since our last meeting. I have made notes on them and I have found a range of other literature.”

  • Second – bad news (what has not gone so well, or that you are still working on?)

“The cat was ill for a week and kept me up at night setting back my progress on constructing my questionnaire.”

  • Third – options (what can be done to address the issues in ‘bad news’?)

“I aim to catch up with the questionnaire construction by focusing on it for the next two weeks.”

  • Fourth – plans (what the learner intends to do between now and the next meeting – this can if the student wishes be a timeline or simple Gantt chart)
  • Fifth – commitments (what both parties agree to do, to what standard and by when)

“Read the first draft of chapter X. This will be submitted on dd/mm/yy and supervisor feedback will be provided by dd/mm/yy.”

The nature of what is contained in each section and the degree of detail will depend on the stage that the student is at and a wide range other factors like the discipline being studied,  the required frequency of meetings and so on.

I have applied this technique on form submission I can add to or amend it as required. The biggest issue is acculturating students into including enough specific detail. However, once a common understanding of the requirement to submit a detailed form is established the process starts to take care of itself.

Community Acuity (12): aligning expectations for the thesis in a cross-cultural professional doctorate

Dr Janet Strivens NTF, is based in the Centre for Higher Education Studies at The University of Liverpool, and supervises on the Professional Doctorate in Higher Education.

The Professional Doctorate in Higher Education at the University of Liverpool is a fully online programme developed, like most other Liverpool online programmes, in partnership with Laureate Inc., a global private higher education supplier. Four of us from Liverpool were involved in the design and have remained heavily committed to ‘our baby’ as supervisors. Every student gets two supervisors, one from Liverpool and one from Laureate. 

Inevitably, the Laureate supervisors are recruited from around the world so many don’t have University of Liverpool doctorates. The significance of this dawned on me gradually when my fellow supervisor, of Russian extraction but with a US doctorate and currently teaching there (I’ll call her Natasha), apologised for holding back a draft introductory chapter from our Middle Eastern student because he had not included a summary of his methodology. I received this in Madrid as I was idly wondering whether to join a very sun-baked queue to visit the Prado (such are the joys of any-time, anywhere supervision). I quickly forgot the sightseeing as I pondered Natasha’s message. I replied that I wouldn’t really have expected to see this in the introductory chapter anyway. She was surprised and our discussion of expectations evolved into a question of how many chapters I expected (as many as it takes?) and the discovery that, in her institution, the number and purpose of each chapter was laid down in the regulations. 

Later, with another US co-supervisor, another difference of perspective emerged: the tense in which the Methodology chapter should be written (past tense, as in, the research has been completed, or future/conditional, as in, this is the decision-making process I went through?)

Back home, I discussed Natasha’s queries with my Liverpool colleagues. I thought her perspective had provided an explanation, for me at least, for what I had regarded as some oddities in the writing of previous students. I had also told Natasha that I didn’t necessarily expect a final version of the Research Questions in the introductory chapter, which was in many ways more significant than the presence or absence of a summary of methodology. I explained that this was because I expected the Research Questions to evolve, and to be refined after the literature review had been completed. In summary, I began to realise that I thought of the thesis as ‘telling the story’ of the research more or less as it happened, rather than writing a report on it afterwards. At least two of my colleagues at University of Liverpool strongly agreed with this.

Subsequently, in recognition of the need to align all our expectations, we decided to include a session on ‘Structuring Your Thesis’ in our annual Student Residency (only a minority of students will attend thi, but the session can be made available as a video recording to all). The session is deliberately non-directive, presented as dialogue and discussion: my colleague and I present our preferences, with reasons, and invite students, and importantly fellow-supervisors from Laureate, to share their own perspectives and experiences. We are very conscious that this is a cross-cultural programme: nevertheless, most of our external examiners (and all our internal examiners) are familiar with the British doctoral system – and ultimately, they’re the people we have to please.

The challenge of ‘supervising’ students who are doing a PhD by Published Work

This is a guest post by Professor Susan Smith, Associate Director of the Centre for Learning and Teaching, Leeds Beckett University. It is a call for more academic staff training and development for colleagues supervising students doing the PhD by Published Work route.

The growing diversity of doctoral programmes in Higher Education contributes to knowledge and enhances innovation (Halse & Malfoy, 2010; Lee, 2010 & 2011; Blessinger & Stockley, 2016). Indeed, one of these routes – the PhD by Published Work (PhD by PW) – is becoming more popular and, as a result, more supervisors are needed for new students. But these supervisors of PhD by PW routes should not be ‘any old supervisor’. The art of supervising students doing this PW route is different from supervising students doing the more traditional PhD awards.  

Students of the PW route are almost always longstanding, accomplished researchers with a coherent body of peer reviewed scholarly work (be they papers, monographs or artefacts) rubber-stamped and accessible in the public domain for all to read. 

I have observed that while many colleagues who are supervisors are clear about the requirements and the role for supervising a student via a traditional PhD route, they admit they are working in the dark with their students on the PW route and have a poor understanding of the process and the different supervisory skills required. Contributing to this confusion is the lack of consistent training available in universities to support building the skills and knowledge for the supervisors of this PW route. As a result, potential candidates are put off, existing candidates are confused and procedural muddle occurs.

In fact, I argue that ‘supervising’ is the wrong word (maybe ‘facilitator’ or ‘mentor’ or even ‘PhD life/ research coach’ would work better!). After all, unlike the traditional, typical PhD supervisor the PW supervisor is not ‘keeping an eye on’ their students to check they are safe and competent researchers before they are let loose on the wider community – many PW students are already established, well published researchers in their own right and have all been safely ‘on the loose’ for years. PhD by PW supervisors do not, unlike the traditional PhD route supervisor, need to ensure their students are producing quality research or ensure their methodology is sound – this has already been done and dusted by the peer reviewers for the journals where the work is submitted. It should also be ironed out early at the Confirmation of Registration stage (and very often this is not the case).

From my experience, the supervisory skills required by someone who has a PW candidate should focus on something slightly different:

  • Making sure that the students have a body of work focused on what Professor Sally Brown would call the ‘golden thread’ (Brown, 2018) – a clear subject or theme which has been explored at a deep and critical level. 
  • Making sure that student removes outputs which don’t fit their submission. It is so tempting to include lots of peer reviewed work they are rightly proud of, but if it doesn’t align with the golden thread the submission strength is much diluted.
  • Making sure that the candidate is prepared to discuss work with the examiners at the viva voce and making sure other examiners are fully equipped and experienced in making sure they are notmarking the papers and exploring basic methodology but exploring instead ideas relating to the works’ originality, coherence and contribution to the body of knowledge. I call these three key areas ‘the triple whammy’ in my book (Smith, 2015).
  • Making sure that the student can write the synthesis in the time available (usually a year) and the structure and content of that synthesis is robust, thematic and clear. I would say of all the skills this is the only one shared with traditional PhD route supervisors.
  • Using supervisory meetings at the pre-synthesis writing stage to explore the submitted work with a deep critical approach can be very useful indeed. Encouraging the student to discuss their works’ impact, reach, context, meaning, journey and future are not always the trains of thought that traditional route PhD supervisors think of.  

I’d argue the sector really needs much better guidance for our colleagues supervising students doing PhD by PW routes. This guidance should focus specifically on clarifying the suitability, number and range of outputs (these are currently inconsistent in different universities). We also need much better institution-specific staff development and training to clarify practice, process and regulations for new supervisors of PhD by PW routes. Perhaps with more role clarity colleagues would actually be keener to sign up as PhD by PW supervisors? 

A PhD by PWis a route worth encouraging – it is inclusive, great for atypical candidates, fabulous for encouraging joined-up thinking and a sense of connection and longevity in research practice. It is worth supporting with well informed ‘supervision’.

  • Brown, S. (2018). PhD by Published Works, April 2018. https://www.bera.ac.uk/blog/phds-by-published-works.
  • Halse, C., & Malfoy, J. (2010). Retheorizing doctoral supervision as professionalwork. Studies in Higher Education35(1), 79–92.http://doi.org/10.1080/03075070902906798
  • Lee, A. (2010). When the article is the dissertation- Pedagogies for a PhD by publication. In C. Aitchison, K. B, & A. Lee (Eds.), Publishing Pedagogies for the Doctorate and Beyond (pp. 12–29). Hoboken, New Jersey: Routledge.
  • Lee, A. (2011). Professional Practice and Doctoral Education: Becoming a Researcher. In L. Scanlon (Ed.), “Becoming” a Professional: An Interdisciplinary Analysis of Professional Learning (pp. 153–169). Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands.
  • Smith, S. (2015). PhD by published work: a practical guide for success. Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Smith, S. (2017). Supervising on a PhD by Published Work route: an exploration of the supervisory role, ZFHE(Journal for Higher Education Development), Vol. 12, Issue 2, pp. 19-43.

Social support and burnout in the doctoral study process

This is a guest post by Solveig Cornér, who is a doctoral researcher at the University of Helsinki. Her research focus involves social support for early career researchers’ in Higher Education Institutions, on wellbeing, and on youth identities. Together with her supervisors, Professor Kirsi Pyhältö and Professor Erika Löfström, she recently published an article on ‘The Relationship Between Doctoral Students perceptions of Supervision and Burnout’.

When PhD challenges become overbearing
MATCHINGIN PROGRESS.pngAchieving a PhD can be a long and tough journey and the doctoral study process is often described as an ‘intensive’ and an ‘intellectually and emotionally challenging’ period of time. Doctoral students’ usually face many kinds of pressures that might pull them away and prevent them from maintaining their focus on achieving the doctorate. For instance, their work with their Dissertation (Thesis) becomes too stressful and overwhelming, or, their funding is ending and hence the researcher faces financial hardship.

Another factor that can affect the study process is that the doctoral student doesn’t receive adequate support from others, for their academic development, or even the support to respond to the inevitable PhD challenges.

The combined result when students experience challenges and their community of practice fails to provide adequate and constructive support for those challenges, can lead to increased ‘ill-being’, and even withdrawal from their doctoral program.

In our recent study, we investigated the interrelation between social support structures and experiences of burnout*. Burnout in the doctoral study process is a symptom of ill-being that is not often talked about in this group. We looked closely into doctoral students’ perceptions of supervision, including the frequency of supervision and overall satisfaction with supervision, and we connected this with their perceptions of burnout.

We used an internationally validated instrument, namely the Doctoral Experience Survey (Pyhältö et al., 2017) to collect data in three universities in Finland. The sample consisted of 248 doctoral students representing Humanities and Theology, Natural Sciences and Engineering, Social Sciences and Law, Behavioral Sciences, Economics and Medicine.

Support comes from a range of players

Firstly, the students’ in our study benefited from having several and varying sources of doctoral supervision beyond their main supervisor. These other sources included peers and individuals from the researcher community, both nationally and internationally.

Secondly, the students’ reported on the frequency of their supervisions, varying from daily meetings to less than once every sixth months. Most typically, students received supervision either once every second month (30%) or every month (26%).

Thirdly, the doctoral students who participated also had varying experiences of the quality of supervisory support. On average, students reported that they received overall constructive supervision e.g. receiving encouragement and positive attention. They also reported that they received support from the researcher community, entailing acceptance, appreciation and collegial support.

What’s more, the students we researched commented on whether or not they were treated as equals in the research community, including: observing justice and fair play among fellow doctoral students.

  • Overall, doctoral students who reported high levels of support from the researcher community, who perceived that they received constructive supervision, and who felt that they were equally treated were more satisfied with supervision than their peers.
  • On the other hand, several factors were associated with experiences of burnout. Lack of satisfaction with their supervision, a low frequency of supervision and poor experiences of equality within the researcher community were related to experiences of burnout.
  • Finally, and importantly, our results showed that experiences of burnout, were connected with the student’s intention to leave their PhD course. It’s worth noting that students who received supervision from several supervisors reported less intention to leave their PhD. Hence, a collective model of supervision is related with reduced risks of students experiencing burnout.
In conclusion, we suggest that by enhancing various sources of social support we can offer a substantial base for future development of enabling practices in researcher education. We call for greater emphasis on group supervision and other collective forms of supervision. If our doctoral students are not provided with sufficient social support to overcome the challenges faced in the study process, it is likely to reduce experiences of wellbeing, and, in the long run, increase the risk of doctoral students abandoning their studies.

* “Burnout is defined as prolonged work-related stress together with symptoms of exhaustion and cynicism and when these symptoms are combined it may lead to burnout. Exhaustion is described by feelings of strain, chronic fatigue and lack of emotional energy. Cynicism, on the other hand, is characterized as depersonalization and an excessively detached response to colleagues and other aspects of the job. Often, both exhaustion and cynicism, has shown to emerge from overload at work, heavy job demands, and, also social conflict.” (Maslach, 2003Maslach & Jackson, 1981).

What happens to supervision when there are high levels of precarious academic employment?

This is a guest post from Margaret Robertson and Jeanette Fyffe at La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

by Gary Sims.pngIn our recent article we raise questions about the overlooked issue of supervision of research students, particularly PhD students, when there are fewer and fewer ongoing academics to supervise doctoral research studies.

Precarious employees lack the tenure to safely lead supervision. If they are assigned supervision responsibilities it can only be a co-supervisor, and there are examples of academics whose careers are curtailed by the lack of opportunity to develop in supervisory roles. The issues of precarious employment are most prevalent in the UK with zero hour contracts, and in Australia with sessional contracts.

Our article reports on a case study of a research only department in a large research intensive Australian university.

In the last two decades the discourse emanating from government focuses on the rising costs of higher education and successive governments in the UK and Australia have demanded that universities increase numbers of full-fee paying students (international students) and prune on-going expenses by reducing numbers of tenured staff. Up to 70% of teaching in undergraduate and masters by course work is undertaken by short term contract academics. This places an increased burden of administration on tenured staff who are assigned responsibility to supervise temporary staff, and thus reduces their teaching opportunities. Few join the academy to become administrators.

There has been increasing research and publicity into the plight of insecure employment on academic staff and new graduates who had aspired to join the academy. No thought appears to have been given to the issue of supervising the rising numbers of doctoral students with reduced capacity.

Simultaneously with the rise of managerialism and cost cutting has been policy changes to ensure that doctoral students have at least two supervisors (team supervision). As a policy it is designed to ensure that the student has access to continuous supervision should one supervisor become unavailable for any reason. The impetus for this policy development has been to increase the number of completions and the timeliness of those completions.  It also shelters students to some degree from the effects of instability of co-supervisors on short term contracts.

Our research case study demonstrates how the department adjusted to collaborative modes of team supervision well before the policy was implemented at the university as a means of ensuring quality supervision. However there are significant negative impacts on the academic staff such as the few ongoing staff having very high numbers of supervisions and the lack of career development opportunity for short-term casual staff.

While government discourses focus on the cost of higher education they ignore the investment in human capital that higher education contributes to longer term national economic development interests. A highly skilled, well-educated workforce is required for future development that rests with the power of the intellect.

Margaret J Robertson is an Early career researcher with a specialisation in postgraduate research supervision. Her thesis investigated team supervision as it is practiced in Australian universities, and particularly in the ways that power is used within the supervisory relationships to enable or silence members of the team. Subsequent work has focused on developing ideas on how power in its various forms can be used to enhance or constrain team function and open opportunities for the rich development of new knowledge.

Jeanette Fyffe is the manager of the Research Education and Development team in the Graduate Research School which is responsible for research education across all career stages at La Trobe University. She is interested in researcher development, most especially the role of intellectual climate in the formation of scholars, and is currently actively and collegially studying the ‘idea of the university’.

Margaret J Robertson & Jeanette Fyffe (2018): What happens to doctoral supervision when university departments have high levels of precarious academic employment?: An Australian case study, Innovations in Education and Teaching International, DOI: 10.1080/14703297.2018.1522268

Community Acuity (11): small group mentoring, coffee, and cake

‘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.

This is a guest post from Dr Jonathan Ellis, Reader in the School of English at the University of Sheffield.

mentoringIn June this year I co-ordinated an informal group mentoring event with academics and PhD researchers from the Depts of English and History. I follow lots of PhD researchers and early career academics online and am aware of the immense pressures under which people are finishing their theses and looking for posts. I was intrigued by several schemes I saw, that essentially paid for academic staff and PhD researchers to have lunch together three or four times a year.

There were three principles each scheme shares: 1. The academic was not part of the supervisory team; 2. The conversation was confidential; and 3. No topics were off-limit. PhD researchers who took part in the scheme valued the opportunity to discuss subjects that they wouldn’t necessarily feel comfortable talking about with their supervisor(s): How long does it take to get a permanent job? How do you get your first book contract? What happens if I can’t or don’t want to turn my thesis into a book? How do academics juggle teaching, research, and administration? How many conferences should you go to per year? Does writing ever get easier?

I contacted Kay Guccione (our Mentoring Consultant) to discuss a version of this, there’d around Balance in an Academic Career (chosen to fit with our annual Researcher Wellbeing Week). I thought it was important for our event be close to campus but not in university buildings, so we booked a lovely sun-filled room at Roco Cafe in Sheffield who do good strong coffee and excellent cake. In order to ensure students felt free to ask whatever question they wanted I sought volunteers from two different but related departments, in this case English and History. This allowed me to pair English students with History staff and vice versa. I recruited 12 staff volunteers, 8 from English and 4 from History, and I divided staff into 6 pairs and invited groups of 2-3 students to circulate round the room, moving to a different pair of staff every 15-20 minutes. In this way each group of students had the chance to seek the perspectives of 3 different pairs of academics. I made clear that everything discussed was confidential and that there were no stupid questions to set the expectations for the event and to enable people to talk openly. For one hour the room was full of conversation and laughter. There was little coffee or cake left at the end.

Talking to participants after, I think most of the topics of discussion were about the transition from PhD to postdoctoral fellowships or early career posts. But perhaps that could have reflected the particular cohort of students that day, the majority of whom were close to handing in their theses. For future events it might be useful for staff to offer brief overviews of their own career paths at the beginning of the session to set the scene and avoid repetition. There was also a clear gender imbalance of staff volunteering their time. We had just 1 male academic out of 12 staff offering mentoring; men also need to see mentoring as part of their role and we will seek to balance this for next time. We ran the event in the afternoon at a time that may not be convenient for students with caring responsibilities or part-time jobs and so ideally we will organise a second event to take place in the early evening.

Overall the model of small group mentoring worked well, and could I think be easily adapted to other departments. The key to the event’s success was pairing two cognate departments and emphasising the importance of both confidentiality and freedom to discuss any topic. And of course the cake & coffee.

Critique: supervisor registration

This is a reblog of a post on Medium by Dr Merilyn Childs, Senior Mentor – HDR Supervision Fellowship Program, Macquarie University

“To my knowledge there exists no published research that explores, interrogates or supports the thesis that the registration of doctoral supervisors assures or is related to the quality of doctoral supervision.”

This is well worth a read, and very relevant to UK Universities. It covers the problems with ‘eligibility’ to supervise, which groups are left out of being eligible, the fact we don’t remove supervision privileges for those who perform badly, and what kind of supervisor development activities are and aren’t proven to be appropriate.

The section below in particular, resonates with my understanding of the issues that challenge the concept of ‘just do some supervisor training’. I also spend my days saying something similar to this: 

“Some aspects of the problems of doctoral supervision cannot be solved through ‘training’ or CPD, no matter how well designed. It is important to understand that improving the quality of doctoral supervision is a whole-of-institution challenge. If a University protects a predatory doctoral supervisor through poor institutional governance and cultural practices, no amount of CPD will fix the situation.”

See the original post here: Thoughts on the Registration of Doctoral Supervisors in Australian Universities 

the power of peer support

This is a guest post by Sherrie Lee, an international PhD candidate based in New Zealand. She is a past president of, and current mentor to, the Postgraduate Students’ Association at her university. Her doctoral research examines informal academic learning among international tertiary students in New Zealand. Sherrie has an ongoing interest in the intersecting areas of language, culture, and identity, and has a personal blog about such topics at thediasporicacademic.wordpress.com

I write from the perspective of a former postgraduate student leader (peer-mentoring others) and an international doctoral student. Based on my personal doctoral experiences, and interactions with fellow doctoral students, I share how peer support addresses supervision-related issues that are not easily met by administrative processes or supervisors themselves.

In the New Zealand context, the early period of one’s PhD candidature is ‘conditional’ and the candidate has to prepare a research proposal (or report), and a research ethics application if applicable, to be approved by the end of 6 months (extendable to 9 months). Thus, the most important milestone of a first-year PhD student was reaching ‘confirmed enrolment’. The stress of not seeming to make progress in meeting that milestone is compounded for international students who face family, societal, and/or financial pressure to succeed.

The stress of possible failure, as I have experienced for myself, comes about from supervision practices that do not provide encouragement to the developing researcher, and/or clear guidance for the documentation required for confirmation. Students who are new to the country and the institutional culture may be trying to make sense of their supervisors’ communication style and unspoken expectations. One may be trying very hard to read between the lines, while respecting the supervisors’ authority, and at the same time, wondering how far, and how best to assert one’s autonomy and epistemological perspective. Such negotiations may even continue past the confirmed enrolment stage and into the unfolding doctoral journey.

Across self-help guides and well-meaning (or maybe just mean) advice, such worries are often dismissed as ‘normal’ or somewhat needing to be better managed by the student. Rare is the response that asks supervisors to take greater responsibility in engaging with their students, especially those who are negotiating with intersecting demands of cultural ‘adaptation’, scholarly independence, and personal pressures of dealing with failure (however defined by the individual).

In my role as a postgraduate student representative at the university, I regularly engaged with international doctoral students. After I stepped down from the leadership position, I continued to mentor peers as and when the need arose. Having gone through a fairly rough first year, but coming out stronger at the end of it, provided me the insight to assist my peers in making sense of their experiences. I had also personally been on the receiving end of constructive advice from a more experienced peer. Had it not been for her regular following up on my situation, I might not have taken action to address my own well-being as a doctoral student.

In my conversations with fellow doctoral students, the issues they raised was more often than not related to the supervision relationship or supervision/communication practices. I usually respond by pointing out the various institutional structures that provide support for doctoral students. While many students had some idea of the hierarchy and reporting lines, few were prepared to use official routes of seeking redress. The suspicion of the efficacy of bureaucratic intervention was one reason; not wishing to expend additional emotional and mental energy was another; avoiding the embarrassment and shame of being exposed was also a likely reason if admitted. We would then discuss communication strategies, talk through possible outcomes, and debate on what a best case scenario would look like. Sometimes they concluded that institutional intervention was necessary. At other times, they chose to ‘wait and see’. It was also useful for us to rehearse what they wished to say to supervisors or other authority figures. Our conversations, done in private, did not promise to make things perfect. If anything, it reinforced the reality of imperfect but negotiable supervision experiences.

The doctoral journey is notorious for being isolating and emotionally draining. Institutions, especially at the faculty level, need to make concerted efforts to encourage peer interactions and peer mentorship so PhD students have opportunities to consult, debate and consider possibilities regarding supervision issues in a safe and supportive environment. As an international doctoral student, I have experienced and observed the benefits of peer support, especially when institutional structures and authority figures are not able to satisfactorily meet emotional and cultural needs.

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.