Supervision Blog

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.

While the UK situation is somewhat different from the Australian one, it’s still the case that postgraduate researchers are going to need similar kinds of guidance and support from their supervisors. Personally, I think there are great advantages in learning about this from centralised units – disciplines do have their own traditions and conventions that are appropriate to their own needs, but they can get stuck in doing things in particular ways just because that’s the way they’ve always done it. In contrast, by learning about supervision in a group comprising participants from different faculties, supervisors hear about what’s normal in other areas, and often find themselves thinking ‘Oh, now that’s a good idea!’ or ‘If I adjusted that practice just a little bit, it would work very well for my students’. For example, supervisors from Humanities, Arts and Social Science areas, attuned to focus on individualistic one-on-one supervision, sometimes realise that there are huge benefits to working with PhD candidates in the research group model more common in STEM areas.

One area that needs some rejigging is the conventional ways in which supervisors offer feedback on students’ writing. The study mentioned above revealed that not many supervisors receive much training in this area, even though most of them see the supervising of writing as one of the most important and demanding aspects of their work.

In most universities, supervisors have been in the habit of asking students to submit pieces of writing to which the supervisor provides individualised feedback on a whole range of issues — praising what’s good, criticising weaknesses, questioning for clarification, pushing the thinking further, suggesting further reading and editing the grammar and vocabulary choices. Certainly, this individualised response will need to happen at some point, but is this the only way to help students develop their writing ability?

It seems that many of the points made to each student are more or less the same, repeated over and over to each student. Supervisors could set up group instruction to get across the big ideas of genre structures or the purposes of a literature review. Even if supervisors have students at different stages of candidature, this approach can work well when more experienced postgrads explain to newcomers the insights they gained about research writing.

Peer review in self-directed or supervisor-facilitated writing groups can also be a valuable way to develop writing skills. This can be especially potent if accompanied by reflection that encourages doctoral writers to think about how their advice to peers can be applied to their own work. If they point out problems with structure, or unclear, wordy sentences, how then can they devise some broader principles to apply to their own writing?

There are situations where this kind of ‘cohort supervision’ is not readily available – for example, if there are too few students enrolled, or in very isolated academic units. In these situations, groups of supervisors could combine forces to meet as a group with all of their research students. As well as developing a stronger sense of belonging to a research culture, this broader experience can provide access to greater knowledge of cognate disciplines.

Regardless of the supervisor development provided by your university, it is possible to experiment in your own context to find out what works well and is best suited to your particular students. I encourage you also to compare notes with colleagues wherever possible to find out what they doing to manage the changing demands on them as supervisors and how they are helping their students become better research writers. Supervising writing might be one of the most demanding aspects of supervision, but it can also be one of the most rewarding aspects when done effectively!

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”

Community Acuity (3) taking the ‘super’ out of 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. See also #comacu on the @predoctorbility Twitter.

This post is by Tamara Hervey, Jean Monnet Professor of European Union Law, University of Sheffield. Tamara’s own blog is here.
I don’t recall too much about being a PhD student. It was a wild, unstructured experience which, although fun at the time, in hindsight was not a good preparation for life as an academic. One thing I do recall, though, is my cousin’s drawing of her PhD supervisor (I couldn’t find it so please accept this image of Dr Hank McCoy by Evan Shaner) . He is a geeky superhero, trying his best to save the (PhD) world in which he lives, but obviously totally ill-equipped for the expectations bestowed upon him. Continue reading “Community Acuity (3) taking the ‘super’ out of supervisor”

the importance of creating a nurturing and creative research culture for you and your PhD students

This post is by Dr Rachel Cowen who is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Manchester. She specialises in creating and delivering researcher and academic development programmes nationally and internationally.

Researchers often liken their research experiences to the famous Thomas Edison quote about genius suggesting success is “one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration”. Particularly at an early career stage many researchers invest a great deal of sweat and emotion reading huge volumes of literature in their field, doggedly repeating experiments that ‘won’t work’, poorly planning research with an ever expanding scope and going off at a tangent from their original line of enquiry with little thought or discussion. Continue reading “the importance of creating a nurturing and creative research culture for you and your PhD students”

Community Acuity (2) kindness and tough love: interacting with international students

‘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 Dely ElliotLecturer in Education (Creativity Culture and Faith), University of Glasgow.

I am inspired by articles that I have read as well as a few events that I participated in recently, which impressed on me the idea that PhD supervision style tends to be strongly informed by one’s own experience of being supervised. Often, there are tacit traces of good supervisory examples, which were previously observed from the PhD supervisors’ own supervisors. Continue reading “Community Acuity (2) kindness and tough love: interacting with international students”

ally with your stressed students

I guest posted here on the Supervision Whisperers’ blog a couple of weeks ago on how we might ‘design-in’ self-care strategies for doctoral students. In response a few supervisors have been in touch to ask about how they might approach a student they believe to be stressed, without making things worse. Visible stress symptoms:

Continue reading “ally with your stressed students”

designing self-care into the doctorate

Re-posted with permission from my original post on The Supervision Whisperers’ blog @superwhisperer.

Discussion of academic workloads, measurement culture, and the impact of stress on mental health, and wellbeing has seen some recent and well deserved attention. Many of us have known in an uncoordinated, experiential, day-to-day way about academic strain and stress for a while, through doing, supervising, or supporting research work. Those of us to whom doctoral researchers turn when they’re stressed, are glad to see the mental health needs of an at risk group of people being better documented and championed. Continue reading “designing self-care into the doctorate”

Community Acuity (1) the sympathetic supervision of international students

‘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 Jane Plastow, Professor of African Theatre, University of Leeds.  Continue reading “Community Acuity (1) the sympathetic supervision of international students”

giving feedback to – or doing feedback with?

Is your feedback missing the mark? I was awarded a certificate for giving feedback about 18 months ago and it’s fair to say I’m very proud of the recognition (I do wish it came with a Bendy Bully though). I’m pleased to be recognised in this way, because giving feedback that helps people develop is a core competency of being a coach (it’s right here woven through three areas of our competency framework), and being a good coach is something I’ve been striving for in my professonal life. Continue reading “giving feedback to – or doing feedback with?”