Supervision Blog

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). Indeed, the doctoral curriculum today should not only respond to demands about originality and growth within the disciplines and research, but should respond with equal readiness and power to demands for globalised bench marking between institutions, national policy drivers concerning transferrable skills and competence, and even local professional and job market needs. This has been termed the ‘torn curriculum’ of doctoral education (Bengtsen et al, 2016a).

As a response, universities worldwide have taken a range of measures to formalise and professionalise doctoral education, which in several cases has led to the increase of Graduate Schools as a means of quality assurance and better management of the learning trajectories of doctoral students. Interestingly, but with no evidence of a direct correlation, parallel to the increase in formalised support systems and quality measures within Graduate Schools, we see a rise in experienced student uncertainty about the demands and requirement for a successful PhD, and more widespread student anxiety, stress, and exhaustion. Students report being lost, abandoned, even ‘orphaned’ (Wisker & Robinson, 2012) in the very system put into existence to support and guide them through their doctoral studies. Doctoral students, and their supervisors, sometimes experience being entirely caught up within the ‘darkness’ of doctoral education (Bengtsen, 2016a).

However, ‘darkness’, here, does not refer to negative and corrupted educational systems, but to new learning potential (Bengtsen & Barnett, 2017). We see some doctoral students respond with despair and disillusionment, but also with surprising and highly creative learning approaches and strategies (Bengtsen, 2016a). This includes drawing from informal and non-institutional support and feedback systems, such as guardian supervisors (supporting academics who are not formally assigned as supervisors or mentors), critical friends from outside academia, professional contacts, and family and friends – collectively these support systems have been termed ‘the doctoral learning penumbra’ (Wisker, Robinson, & Bengtsen, 2017). Furthermore, doctoral students start using ‘third spaces’ as learning platforms to harness skills and competences, needed, but not learned in the formalised settings. This has been related as the ‘hidden curriculum’ of doctoral education (Elliot et al, 2016).

So, what to do as a doctoral supervisor? How to navigate and supervise ‘into the darkness’ of student learning arenas and contexts that slip out of the supervisors’ view and control, be it the complex Graduate system, or extra-curricular and non-formal learning?

The aim of this blog post is not to in any way derogate or criticize doctoral supervisors, but to show understanding for and sympathy with the sometimes difficult pedagogical circumstances in which they work – and, actually, extremely competently and heroically so!

However, an expanded doctoral pedagogy is needed that matches the new and more diverse educational demands in contemporary doctoral education. The pedagogical format of supervision is still central and mandatory for successful researcher education, but more formats are needed. These are formats that we know from their implicit, and sometimes more random and ad hoc, workings within our disciplinary communities. I am not arguing that these formats should be formalised as such, as this would undermine my own argument. In contrast I argue for a more comprehensive, expanded, and reflected doctoral pedagogy, even a doctoral ‘ecology’ (inspired from Barnett, 2017), or as I have termed it elsewhere: an ‘advanced pedagogy’ (Bengtsen, 2016b). Pedagogical formats that can complement supervision include mentoring, sponsorship, and coaching, as described in the frame here. It is important to note that each of these pedagogies could be delivered in practice by one or more individuals.

Supervision (disciplinary community and expertise)

  • Critical thinking, knowledge, research methods, academic writing (genre)
  • To organise and conduct research and to ensure scientific quality of work

Mentoring (workplace learning, professionalism, judgment, morals)

  • To manage and cope with complexity, to make the right choices, to plan
  • Help with how to teach, supervise, participate in meetings, part of projects

Sponsorship (intellectual leadership, infrastructure)

  • A ‘champion’ within the institution (department) who secures funding (salary), ensures the right facilities to work in (office space, furniture), helps connect to the right networks

Coaching (personal lifeworld, ownership, existential)

  • How to address and manage emotional and personal issues, and take action
  • How to maintain work-life-balance, to acknowledge and rely on different support systems for different needs of support

If we put this idea of an expanded doctoral pedagogy into a Graduate School framework, it could also include the help and support not only from main and co-supervisors, but also from members of a wider supervisor-team or similar feedback and support systems across different layers of the Graduate School (Programme Directors, guardian supervisors, postdoc-mentors, doctoral education professionals etc):

Doctoral pedagogy template, developed and applied by Søren Bengtsen

The solution to having to tackle the diverse and sprawling demands for supporting and sparring with doctoral students, and to catch on to their own creative development of learning strategies and research approaches, I am afraid, is not in immediate reach.

However, if we start to expand our pedagogical and supervisory approaches, we may develop, together with the students themselves and the other Graduate School members, a flexible and strong educational concept for the emerging doctoral ecologies that we are part of.


  • Andres, L., Bengtsen, S., Crossouard, B., Gallego, L., Keefer, J., & Pyhältö, K. (2015). Drivers and Interpretations of Doctoral Education Today: National Comparisons. Frontline Learning Research, 3(2), 63–80.
  • Barnett, R. (2017). The Ecological University: A Feasible Utopia. London & New York: Routledge
  • Bengtsen, S. (2016a). An exploration of darkness within doctoral education. Creative learning approaches of doctoral students. In C. Zhou (Ed.), Handbook of research on creative problem-solving skill development in higher education (pp. 260–282). Hershey, PA: IGI Global
  • Bengtsen, S. (2016b). Doctoral Supervision. Organization and Dialogue. Aarhus: Aarhus University Press
  • Bengtsen, S. & Barnett, R. (2017). Confronting the Dark Side of Higher Education. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 51:1, s.114-131
  • Bengtsen, S., Ashwin, P., Locke, W., & Nørgård, R. (2016). Enhancing diversity through globalised higher education?, Symposium at the annual SRHE-Conference “Exploring freedom and control in global higher education”, December 7-9, 2016, Newport, Wales
  • Elliot, D.L., Baumfield, V., Reid, K., & Makara, K.A. (2016). Hidden treasures: Successful international doctoral students who found and harnessed the hidden curriculum. Oxford Review of Education, 42. doi:10.1080/03054985.2016.1229664
  • Wisker, G., Robinson, G., & Bengtsen, S. (2017). Penumbra: doctoral support as drama: From the ‘lightside’ to the ‘darkside’. From front of house to trapdoors and recesses. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, DOI: 10.1080/14703297.2017.1371057
  • Wisker, G. & Robinson, G. (2013). Picking up the pieces: supervisors and doctoral “orphans”. International Journal for Researcher Development. Vol.3, No.2, pp.139-153


Community Acuity (8) complementary supervision expertise: team-working our development.

‘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. 

Professor Helen Abbott is Director of the College of Arts and Law Graduate School at the University of Birmingham.

I see first-hand what happens when supervisor/supervisee relationships become strained or break down. I’ve been there myself, as a supervisor.  Now, as a Director of Graduate Studies I oversee programmes, and supervision, for a large community of doctoral researchers. Crucial to resolving problematic situations is knowing some of the best tools for how to recover them. But we can’t all know it all.

This is where team work between supervisors can help. Imagine this scenario: as a new supervisor who knows a student is struggling with thesis progress, I might be tempted to focus on setting writing targets, advising on the breadth and depth of secondary reading, completing supervision reports, looking at data collection, chapter outlines and draft findings, and I may resort to setting deadlines. But while those are all vital parts of supervising doctoral students, when this doesn’t help them achieve, what do I do?

I’ve learned over the years that this supervisor needs advice from someone who understands that the student isn’t making progress because they fear producing something their supervisor(s) (or other readers) may not like. Supporting PhDers who are fearful, or lacking in confidence is a very important part of the supervisor’s role.

I’m not talking about those situations where there are genuine issues of anxiety, depression, or wider mental health issues (those need professional support networks). I’m talking about the everyday experience that is a normal part of academic life: to be anxious about showing your work to someone who will then scribble comments all over it.

Have you ever felt, as a supervisor, that you are offering all this advice, and drafting a lot of targeted and very specific comments, but the PhD student apparently doesn’t want to or know how to do anything about them. Your comments go ignored. Progress slows. Frustration increases. What can you do?

Firstly, recognising when you have reached an impasse is key. That’s the part I haven’t always got right – catching it on time. But I have got better at knowing what to do about it. And for me, that means having a good team of colleagues and supporters to draw on for guidance and input. Sensitively airing issues to critical friends is a healthy way to interrupt a stuck partnership.

To make this approach work, my own professional networks need to be strong. I am in a place now where I can pick up the phone to colleagues and ask them to come and join me and the supervisee for a joint session on, say, writing style, redesigning a thesis structure, or thinking about viva prep.

These are colleagues who are not experts in the specific topic of the PhD, but people who have a particular skillset and way of interacting that I sense will be beneficial to my supervisee and our partnership. It’s about having a fresh voice in the room who can help you navigate a way through a challenging moment. Everyone benefits.

Such additional time isn’t officially recognised in anyone’s workload, so, for me, being part of a team means contributing to support others too. Helping out other supervisors from time to time is as much a training opportunity for me, as it is a release for the supervisor who needs assistance with an impasse.  Supporting each other as supervisors – and recognising that we have our own development needs, and different skillsets which it can be helpful for others to draw on from time to time – will make us much better supervisors in the long run.

Community Acuity (7) trust your gut: a cautionary tale for the eager new supervisor

‘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 guest post is anonymously shared in the spirit of helping others to learn.

In Business Schools, we get a lot of applications from overseas students with full scholarships from their governments, often with mediocre proposals (think “dull but worthy”) and qualifications that it’s hard to map onto our own more familiar entry requirements. The best of these are invited to take up 4-year programmes where they study a taught Masters in Research and providing they do well, are offered a place on the PhD programme. Continue reading “Community Acuity (7) trust your gut: a cautionary tale for the eager new supervisor”

creating a shared way forward with new research students

This is a guest post by Dr Duncan Cross (PFHEA), Senior Lecturer (Education), University of Bolton.

There are a range of complexities involved in effectively supervising PhD candidates that are recognised in the literature. Delany’s (2008) literature review highlights some of those complexities as significant predictors of candidate completionwhich includes demographic data around age, funding and area of subject, and also, importantly, ‘the intellectual environment of the department …’.

Continue reading “creating a shared way forward with new research students”

Community Acuity (6) enabling discussion about students’ state of mind

‘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 by Dr Paula Meth, Department of Urban Studies and Planning, University of Sheffield.

This piece explores my personal views on fostering supervision that enables communication between supervisor and student about their ‘state of mind’ (worries, emotional health or mental health). I write this from the position of a supervisor who has both failed and succeeded in supporting students through tough emotional times, ‘writing blocks’, and intellectual confusion which have resulted in their inability to move forwards with their work. Continue reading “Community Acuity (6) enabling discussion about students’ state of mind”

Community Acuity (5) supervising doctoral writing — situated practices

‘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 Amanda French, Associate Professor, School of Education and Social Work, Birmingham City University.

Much of what I do in my supervision sessions is based on what I wish someone had told me when I was a PhD student struggling to make sense world of doctoral education where, or so it seemed to me, everyone else appeared to magically understand what was expected of them. Continue reading “Community Acuity (5) supervising doctoral writing — situated practices”

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.

Continue reading “democratising doctoral education”

supervising research writing: encouraging group development

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. Continue reading “supervising research writing: encouraging group development”

encouraging robust scholars: how can we encourage students to critically give and receive?

This is a guest post from Dr Steve Hutchinson, a freelance consultant and author on doctoral development and supervision.

Let’s start with two quotes taken from a book called Enhancing the Doctoral Experience. Both quotes are from research students and they highlight a common ingredient in the challenge of growing as a researcher. Continue reading “encouraging robust scholars: how can we encourage students to critically give and receive?”

Community Acuity (4) leading and following: a dance of equals

‘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. See also #comacu on the @predoctorbility Twitter.

This post is by Cristina Devecchi (@dmc_devecchi) Associate Professor in Education, University of Northampton. Continue reading “Community Acuity (4) leading and following: a dance of equals”