Supervision Blog

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

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.

‘naming and acclaiming’ the SuperVisionaries, and insight into who nominated whom…

You may have seen that I’ve been running a #SuperVisionaries ‘name and acclaim’ project where PGRs can recognise their great supervisors, and the impact of good supervision. Read more about the idea and the process for nominating and recognising supervisors here.

#SuperVisionaries is not competitive, there are no shortlists, and no awards — I have just simply named and thanked all those who do a great job for their PGRs.

It’s been brilliant to do this positive exercise and we got 199 nominations, which represents about 8% of our PGRs. They recognised 83 women* and 116 men as excellent supervisors. The gender split in the nominations, which is 42% women and 58% men, is proportionally, just about (if you squint) in line with the relative proportions of academic staff who work at Sheffield (33% women and 67% men). The staff proportions can be error-prone in various ways (academics who don’t supervise, supervisors who are registered in more than one dept…) so please just understand this as reflective speculation rather than absolute truth.

Interestingly though the split of PGRs at the University of Sheffield is 46% women and 54% men. In the nomination process, women took the time to write 145 of the 199 nominations (73%), compared to men who made 54 (27%), and only 10 men nominated women for recognition. [For completion in the dataset 72 women nominated men.]

Given the even-ish split of M/F PGRs we have, and the fact that men consistently report having a ‘better’ doctoral experience than women do (through tools like the Postgraduate Research Experience Survey), my aim for #SuperVisionaries 2019 then is then to get more men to recognise and thank their supervisors, especially their female supervisors.

Interestingly for me who is familiar with many of our supervisory staff, there are names that do not appear on the list who I totally expected to see. People I know to be phenomenal supervisors, tremendous mentors, and who I know have made a difference to their students. I am disappointed and sorry that their students didn’t thank them formally, but I guess maybe they are in the habit of thanking them personally rather then through an anonymous process? Or they didn’t realise what it would mean to a supervisor to be recognised (see below). Or perhaps, sadly, they missed the email ‘call for nominations’ and the reminder email? A second development for #SuperVisionaries 2019 then, could be to invite each of the the Departmental PGR Tutors to make sure that those supervisors that they see going above and beyond in their work are recognised too. This kind of recognition could potentially have impact on career progression for staff, and so it’s important to get a more rich and inclusive perspective of ‘excellent’. I think with time, the importance and the profile of this kind of recognition will grow, and no doubt those supervisors who are absolute diamonds will be named and acclaimed many times to come! And hey, if you know someone who wasn’t nominated and you feel should have been — please let them know how great you think they are!

Caution 1: While this initiative is intended to provide reflection and to start conversations around supervision, it can’t provide evidential support for career progression e.g. probation/promotion and shouldn’t be used for student recruitment purposes. Being recognised as a SuperVisionary is not based on any past or present framework of professional standards or values. There has been no stringent process of assessment of the nominated individuals. The ‘stories’ gathered are the reactive opinions of individuals, who are not qualified to critique or assess supervision in a way that should influence either of the above.

Caution 2: We should not compare across departments, even though it’s tempting, departments are not in competition with each other and I advise against using the numbers of nominations to conclude about dept cultures/practices. A department could receive a high number of nominations because, for example, SuperVisionaries was heavily promoted internally by e.g. PGR Tutor, because individual supervisors put pressure on student to nominate them, because the dept contains a high proportion of PGRs from more deferential cultures, because the dept contains a high number of students who know me well and read my emails. The numbers of students per supervisor, the degree stage of the individual student (meaning their relative time commitments), gender, location, etc will also influence a student’s inclination to nominate.

But back to the celebration, just a couple of examples that I LOVED are below…


The first comments back from the supervisors who were Acclaimed were:

 “I’m chuffed to bits to have been nominated in 2 categories. Given the pressure of the current metrics-driven climate, it’s good to know that the Department appears to be getting the balance right!”

“Oh MY GOD, whaaaaaaaaaaat?! Amazing!”

“This is really, really lovely and it’s made my day.”

“Thanks for doing this. The recognition really means a lot to me!”

“This has made my day, thank you. And thanks as well for continuing to keep the discussion about supervision active in people’s minds. Also, as you say, it’s just really nice to get positive feedback like this – it’s so rare that anyone says ‘hey, you’re doing a good job!’.”

I am happy to chat to anyone at any institution who would like to know more, and I’d be delighted if any of you want to copy/adapt the model. Spreading more positivity is important.

*both our student and staff systems only record two genders so I am only able to report men and women as recorded in our databases, nothing more inclusive. I know.

building and breaking professional trust in doctoral student-supervisor relationships

I am delighted that the Trust Me! research report is now available here on the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education web pages!

This report presents findings from a research study looking at perceptions of trust in doctoral supervision relationships. It views academic supervisors in the context of their role as leaders and enablers of trust within their research environments and higher education institutions. It aims to take a broad exploratory view of the specific behaviours that are important in trust building in supervisory relationships.

Supervisory leadership is characterised by tensions and balances. To build trust a supervisor must respond to the student’s individual needs and circumstances and develop a discipline-appropriate professional practice in supervision. This study contributes insight into the nature of that supervisory trust. It deepens our understanding of what constitutes a ‘good quality’ student-supervisor relationship, and signals the presence or absence of trust as a component of quality.

Recommendations are offered that draw on the presented evidence and make suggestions for how supervisors could be supported to establish and sustain trusting supervision relationships. The practical recommendations avoid the language of supervision ‘skills’, preferring instead to describe contextual and demonstrable trust-building behaviours within the social worlds of research environments and relationships.

There is an online open access and free workshop with learning resources for supervisors here, that I have created from the research findings.

The primary aim of this report is to assist higher education institutions to enhance supervisory practice, specifically through focusing on relationship tensions. I am sure that supervisors themselves will also find it very interesting.

This report is available to LFHE member institutions. Downloading the publication requires you to have, or make, an account using your university email address. If you have any problems gaining access, please let @AdvanceHE know.


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.