Supervision Blog

October is coming…

Dear doctoral supervisor,

“I was blissfully unaware how long it would take me to write up. To be honest I would have preferred a more clear marker from my supervisor, or from the department, saying stop doing experiments now and write! I was expecting someone to say when I had enough data, because I never felt I did, so instead I kept going much longer than I needed in the lab because I didn’t know how much was enough. I feel pretty annoyed about that.”

The 31st of October is coming. I mention this date as we have around 1100 third year doctoral students whose theses are due on that date*. With still 6 months to go, now is a perfect time to make sure that your thesis writers know it’s time to spend some time each week — an hour a day, every day? — writing. Continue reading “October is coming…”

PhD –> postdoc no sweat, or posthoc regret?

I work a lot with stuck and panicking PhD researchers near the end of their time here, and from them I have some intel to share. Bear in mind then that what follows doesn’t represent an ever so typical experience, but it does represent an important and keenly felt negative experience. One we can all learn from as colleagues in researcher development: be your role full time academic superhero and supervisor, or like mine, a specialist learning and development role, I think this will be relevant to you. Continue reading “PhD –> postdoc no sweat, or posthoc regret?”

coaching myths and coaching legends

I teach professional practices in coaching and mentoring* in an education context and have developed some short workshops for academic supervisors and principal investigators that focus on the relational aspects of research leadership and use coaching techniques as the basis for conversations that help people develop their thinking and understanding. Continue reading “coaching myths and coaching legends”

spoon-feeding PhD students – extending the metaphor for supervisory practice

Every so often someone opens their mouth in a meeting and out tumbles “but we mustn’t ‘spoon-feed’ our PhD students – they have to be independent.”Recently, I’ve been wondering in some detail what’s behind this reaction, and how, in my role, I can interpret what this means for researcher and supervisor development. Continue reading “spoon-feeding PhD students – extending the metaphor for supervisory practice”

supervisors: a willingness to accept uncertainly and make oneself vulnerable in the face of insecurity

This is a part 2 of 2, looking at what uncertainty and vulnerability might look like from a supervisor perspective. Part 1, the student angle is here. In this post I am again considering how trust may be a marker of a ‘good quality’ supervision relationship.

‘Trust’ as a phenomenon can be understood as “willingness to accept uncertainly and make oneself vulnerable in the face of insecurity” (Hope-Hailey et al., 2012).

So, where could uncertainty and vulnerability exist in for doctoral supervisors? Some ideas from interviews with doctoral supervisors are below:

Recruitment practices. Supervisors frequently speak of restrictive rules related to the recruitment of doctoral students. Specifically, being expected to take on any and all self-funded students, was a major cause of increased workload, tension and conflict in the supervisory relationship.

Management and leadership are inherently difficult. Supervisors report feeling pressure to be a good supervisor and to ‘get it right’ for the student. Most spoke of the need to be flexible and try different approaches with different students whilst maintaining equity and not ‘showing favouritism’. Supervisors who have received supervisor ‘training’ are still in the minority and those who have received no support to performing this difficult role, feel the university has a responsibility to provide this.

Complicated processes and checkpoints on the doctorate. A key vulnerability is the complex administration and regulation of doctoral programmes (e.g. statements of expectations, codes of practice, handbooks, supervision policies, progression criteria) — this often leaves supervisors feeling lost about how to best advise their student.

Accountability. The pressure of being accountable for good research practices, and for delivering published outputs from doctorates that have attracted funding could be acutely felt. The tension between ‘rushing them through in three years’ and ‘making the research actually worth funding’ is a common uncertainty.

The value of doing supervision well. Supervisors often find that talking about the more ‘tricky’ (relational) aspects of supervision with others is impossible, or at least not formally required or facilitated. The lack of formal spaces or requirements for talking about supervisory practice makes things difficult. Supervision is not always a common feature of institutional promotion, or other reward and recognition processes, and it instead relies on intrinsic motivation to do a good job.

Supervisory teams, and supervisory ‘mentoring’. As students also reported, the tensions involved in working as supervisory teams can be acutely felt. Supervisors describe being paired with a more experienced colleague as a supervision ‘mentor’, but felt it was done so ‘the dept. could cover their backs’ rather than as a genuine developmental mentoring opportunity.

I am interested to know how you as supervisors negotiate all this? Do you personally see these things as challenges? What good supervisory methods have you developed? What would you disagree with, and what would you add to that list?

a willingness to accept uncertainty and make oneself vulnerable in the face of insecurity

Trust is often mentioned as an important part of ‘good’ supervision relationships but the literature is fairly vague on what we mean by ’trust’.

I like to work with this definition of Trust: “Willingness to accept uncertainly and make oneself vulnerable in the face of insecurity” (Hope-Hailey et al., 2012) because I feel it describes a dynamic of experiencing challenge and seeking support, and it also acknowledges that doctoral students work with unknowns very frequently.

How likely a student is to trust their supervisor(s) enough to discuss a worry, or show a ‘weakness’, is a function of how much they trust that supervisor. We can also think of the uncertainties and ‘vulnerabilities’ of the PhD as opportunities for trust to develop. With each new challenge a student faces, how does the relationship strengthen or diminish?

It’s useful to understand the vulnerabilities students can experience in the doctorate, in order to understand how supervisors might best respond to them. This is a part 1 of 2, looking at what uncertainty and vulnerability might look like from the student perspective. I discuss vulnerabilities from the supervisor perspective separately here.

To take action to make oneself visibly vulnerable by reaching out for support is a hard thing to do for anyone. When we feel challenged, or exposed, or embarrassed, we want to protect ourselves from that shame and embarrassment. Frequently I do coaching work with students who have gone into in ‘hiding’ mode. They feel challenged, exposed, embarrassed, humiliated etc., and so they protect themselves by avoiding what they see as the immediate source of the challenge and embarrassment. This may be direct avoidance of a supervisor or research group, or it may be avoiding or delaying on the more exposing aspects of PhD life e.g. sharing writing, presenting data, group meetings.

I get phone calls from supervisors too, asking how they can persuade a student in ‘hiding mode’ to get back in touch. I don’t think it’s always the supervisorad hominem that they’re avoiding — loads of great supervisors who care very much about their students’ development also find themselves ‘avoided’.

So what causes these feelings of uncertainly and embarrassment — some clues from my research data are presented in brief below:

Higher learning, and research, involves ‘not knowing’ things. Doctoral study is a learning experience and learning involves a process of ‘not knowing’ and of feeling insecure. Research work is inherently risky, and the processes of becoming ‘doctoral’ are uncertain and often are ill-defined if discussed at all. Students miss the familiar numerical feedback they are used to and find it difficult to monitor how well they are doing. Especially in cultures where feedback is absent, not useful, or even humiliating. Not understanding if your work was ‘good enough’ or if you are ‘on track’ is a key uncertainty.

Unmet expectations for the doctorate, and for supervision. Most participants reported that the doctorate was not what they had expected it to be when they started. Students found that the study strategies they employed in their previous experiences of work or study, did not work well for the this bigger, longer, and less defined project. See this post about discussing and agreeing expectations. Feeling like you ‘don’t know what you’re doing’ is paralysing.

Students have the most to lose. The doctorate is an ‘all or nothing’ degree and students worry about failing the doctorate and ‘leaving with nothing’. They felt that fear of failure made them easily manipulated because they had to do ‘whatever it took’ to complete the doctorate. Students typically discuss having a ‘failed PhD on my CV for life’.

Financial worries. Delayed employment, the absence of higher earnings for doctoral graduates over Masters graduates, delayed pension contributions, refused mortgages, taking an ‘effective pay cut’ to study, having to give up part-time work, delayed repayments on student loans, and funding the final stages of PhD study on credit cards — are all financial losses that negatively influence motivation for completing the PhD.

Clarity, and fairness in supervision. A commonly expressed trust breaker is non-responsive supervisors who were too busy with their own work, or with other, more favoured, students. Conflicting guidance and agendas from multiple supervisors was the most reported supervision difficulty. Students cite instances of: difficult project meetings, confusion about project direction and focus, difficulty integrating literatures, getting contradictory feedback, in-fighting, intimidation of co-supervisors, ‘playing politics’, and using the student as a ‘bargaining chip’. Harsh feedback and critique, being ‘made to cry’ in meetings ad hominem criticism, academic rudeness, and bullying.

Processes for escalating supervision complaints. A key vulnerability for students is how to seek support to resolve supervision tensions or making a complaint about supervision. Negative experiences of trying to get support from other academic staff tend to be more common than positive ones. This takes various forms: broken confidences, ‘fobbing off’, or ‘blaming the student’ and performance managing them. Students feel that systems will ‘always protect the supervisor’.

These ideas are presented for your reflection. What could we do as supervisors to make students feel OK to show and work with their uncertainties? Is it as easy as a conversation at the start of the doctorate in which we say “if it goes wrong it’s OK, talk to me” Is it about making sure the student knows you’re on the same side as them, not an opponent? Is it about recognising when the life buoy of reassurance is needed more than the criticality associated with research and research careers? And what about thinking of the financial impact of delay in the PhD — the student will carry that personal financial debt.

How likely a student is to trust their supervisor(s) enough to discuss a worry, or show a ‘weakness’, is a function of how much they trust that supervisor. Their own ‘predisposition to trust’ will be a factor in that decision making process, but how you have previously reacted towards them, the clarity of what’s needed, fairness and equity, and the quality of the feedback and guidance, are all big factors.

Trust is slow to build, and quick to break.

what is predoctorbility?

This site is based in the data collected from a project investigating the vulnerabilities and tensions in the relationship between doctoral students and their supervisors. It asked about the quality of that relationship: what constitutes ‘quality’, what does quality mean for learning, and how do you get a quality relationship, and how would you recognise if and when you have it?

Continue reading “what is predoctorbility?”

share your supervision stories

This page was used to collect data to inform phase 1 of the Trust me! project. The page and comments section remain open for your reflections, and for you to be able to read the stories of others.

If you would like to, you can still use the comments box to share your experiences of doctoral supervision.

Doctoral students, I’m interested in hearing about what your supervisor does that impacts on you, what makes all the difference, how are you supported, what does good supervision look like, how do you and your supervisor interact, how did you come to trust each other, is your relationship typical?

Supervisors, what’s your approach, where did you learn about supervision, how is it working for you, what does good supervision look like, what are the essentials for supervision, where does trust come from, how do you interact with your students?

Information on this study can be found here. Ethical approval was granted by the University of Sheffield Ethics Committee on 11 May 2016.