Supervision Blog

Community Acuity (10): ‘Question Club’ – postgraduate workshops

‘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.

Dr Ann Rowan is a Research Fellow in the Department of Geography at the University of Sheffield.

Our department runs weekly research seminars given by invited external speakers, as well as presentations throughout the year by staff and students. After these presentations there is time for questions from the audience. The same small, and senior, section of the audience provides the majority of these questions each week. These are insightful questions, often with a lengthy preamble that demonstrates knowledge of the topic and comprehension of the material presented.

Few questions are asked by PhD students even if they do put their hand up, as the senior staff often don’t wait to be called on to ask their question. Does this sound familiar?

Why don’t students ask more questions at public talks?

An informal survey of our PhD students resulted in comments along the lines of “we don’t get a chance to ask questions”, “I’m worried about asking a stupid question which would be embarrassing” and “I don’t want to waste the speaker’s time with my question”. However, these students are the members of the department that do research all day every day and are likely the most up-to-date with the current literature. Only one student felt confident that the value of having her question answered outweighed the perils of asking, but the majority felt nervous and invisible in the audience.

To actively encourage PhD students to confidently ask questions, and following a suggestion from Kay Guccione, I ran two ‘Question Club’ workshops this semester. The outcome was great; the students had so many questions that I had to stop them asking follow up questions.

How to encourage students to ask questions?

The Question Club session follows this format in a 50-minute session:

  1. Start with a short (not more than 10 minutes) research presentation either by an early career researcher or a postgraduate student. The focus of the session is on asking questions, not on the talk itself.
  2. During the presentation, each member of the audience writes down all the questions that occur to them. The important point to emphasise is that there is no question too basic and it’s not a problem if the speaker later answers these questions. Let the students know at the start that they won’t be asked to read out their questions and so don’t have to screen them or be worried about ‘stupid’ questions.
  3. Then the students split into small groups (4–6 people) to pool their questions for 15 minutes and put together two or three questions that they want to collectively ask. I talk to each group about the sort of question they want to ask: Is it constructive? Does it encourage the speaker to make an expansive answer (not just a yes/no)? Does the question ask about the research undertaken rather than just how the study could be expanded?
  4. The groups then ask the speaker their questions for 15 minutes.
  5. The speaker and session organiser lead a discussion of the questions asked for the last 10 minutes of the session. The speaker comments in general on what they thought; have they been asked similar questions before? Was the question easy or difficult to answer?

Tips for running Question Club:

The focus is on being supportive and constructive.

  • The presentation is not the important part; keep this as short as possible. It is useful to have someone who is approachable and good at communicating his or her ideas.
  • This session can double as practice for PhD students to present their work, and answer questions.
  • Senior academic staff (lecturer-level and above) are excluded as students can feel less confident speaking in front of senior staff.
  • One audience member, maybe an early career researcher, could be responsible for thinking of particularly difficult questions to ask, as long as this is not done in a confrontational manner. It makes for a good discussion in the final part of the session.
  • Although the students hopefully have lots of questions that they are keen to ask, make them aware if needed of the limited time available for asking these and encourage them to thank the speaker after their question has been answered rather than asking a lot of follow-up questions. The reason for this is to avoid the sort of behavior that stops them asking questions in the first place. There is always the conference coffee break…

Community Acuity (9) training, training everywhere… how to survive (and prosper) in the new doctoral landscape

‘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. 

Dr Glyn Williams is a Reader in international development and a former member of the ESRC White Rose Doctoral Training Partnership’s management team.

For PhD supervisors new to UK academia, or for any who finished their own theses more than a decade ago, the contemporary doctoral training landscape can be a confusing place. There is a sea of acronyms, (CDTs, DTCs, DTPs…) linked to a bewildering array of cross-disciplinary and cross-institutional partnerships. All seem to be vying loudly for your students’ attention with claims to develop their research and professional skills to previously unknown heights.

My own PhD experience – and I’m not that ancient – was vastly different. One-to-one PhD supervision was pretty much the sum total of my doctoral training, supplemented by the very occasional workshop. Because for some of my fellow supervisors these differences are as unwelcome as they are incomprehensible, I want to offer a few words of comfort, but also in defence of the new doctoral landscape.

Understand the ethos – The point of the new development landscape is to enable broad-based, critically-reflective professional researchers, not just to equip students with the tools to complete their own PhD topics. So, yes, this will involve them learning about methodological techniques they won’t immediately use, or sitting in workshops reflecting on things – such as how to manage their relationships with their supervisors – we might think of as a distraction from their ‘real’ work as researchers. Clearly, we need to be wary of producing an ever-growing training industry, but equally we must recognise the dangers of leaving things where they were. Less than one in ten UK PhD students will go on to a permanent academic post, and those that do will increasingly work in interdisciplinary teams, not narrow disciplinary silos. Providing space to talk about the PhD process makes it understandable across cultural and other boundaries, not simply the arcane practice of a cult of insiders. Doing this collectively addresses the isolation of doctoral study, and is therefore vital in supporting student well-being.

Recognise the supervisor’s changing role (see also this post, and this post)– The easiest way to describe the change here is from guru to guide. Rather than being the perfect role model, or the font of all knowledge, we can all contribute to doctoral students’ development simply by knowing what development activities are out there. Keeping our ears to the ground, finding out from colleagues and our Departments’ students what workshops and events they’ve found most valuable, and which are best avoided, are therefore tasks of considerable value. Likewise, your training review meetings don’t have to be bureaucratic exercises in box-ticking: they can create meaningful and achievable plans that integrate our students’ broader development with the progress of their theses.

Engage and participate – Finally, remember that one of the things most valued by doctoral students is hearing good researchers explaining and reflecting on core elements of their craft. This could be about the use of a research technique, how to survive fieldwork, or how to deal with journal reviewers’ comments. Many of us are not comfortable putting ourselves forwards as ‘experts’, but the fact remains that we’ve all got something useful to share that will invariably have a potential audience that’s far wider than our PhD students. Facilitating that process of sharing should be one of the core tasks of your local DTP/DTC/CDT – so don’t be afraid to get involved!

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the Changing Face of Doctoral Education – implications for supervisors

This is a guest post from staff at the University of Bristol: Kate Whittington, Senior Teaching Fellow in the Bristol Medical School; Anne Lee, Associate Professor, University of Stavanger and Research Fellow in the School of Education; and Sally Barnes, Professor of Doctoral Education, School of Education.

A search on Google can quickly identify a plethora of articles and personal experiences of PhD’s that have ‘gone wrong’ with poor supervision surfacing as a common complaint.

Undoubtedly, successful completion of a PhD relies on sheer hard work and determination from the doctoral researcher, but the critical importance of the supervisory relationship cannot be underestimated (Ives & Rowley, 2005 and see McCallin & Nayar 2012). Continue reading “the Changing Face of Doctoral Education – implications for supervisors”

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). Continue reading “Supervising in the dark – a call for an expanded doctoral pedagogy”

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”