Supervision Blog

13th May 2016 | what is predoctorbility?

This project is about the relationship between doctoral students and their supervisors and it asks 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?

My job at the University of Sheffield is in coaching and mentoring programme design. I invent ways for research staff and students to access meaningful conversations about their academic experiences and what it means for them. I find it’s a very privileged position to be in actually not only because it’s great work to be involved in, but because I have oversight of hundreds of personal and professional experiences of work relationships, and how they impact learning and development one way or another.  These cross-institution data, as well as 9 years experience of being a researcher myself, bring me to questions about how the student-supervisor dyadic relationship can be built in a way that acts in everyone’s advantage.

The work I’m doing in this project looks at a the relationship between students and supervisors with a particular sharp focus. I want to understand more about what distinguishes a good quality supervision relationship, asking — it it the presence or absence of trust? And what kind of trust? We know from the literature in organisation, management and leadership studies that trust is important, and it’s mediated by the front line managers. Is it the same for student-supervisor relationships as it is for management relationships, are the academic staff the equivalent front-line managers? Opinions vary about supervision… is it leadership? What kind or leadership? What makes a good academic leader? Can supervision be more closely compared to management, or to learning and teaching. What rules apply?

I think we can at least all agree that the doctoral experience is intended to be a learning experience. Good working relationships play a critical role in workplace learning and the emotional dimension of professional work is significant (Eraut, 2004). Research into the role of emotion, and motivation as determinants of the student experience, successful completion of the doctorate, and academic ability is gaining momentum as a discipline (e.g. Cotterall, 2013; Jairam and Kahl, 2012; Wellington, 2010; Kearns et al, 2008). Emotionally competent leadership, as well as technical and intellectual mentorship is expected of academic leaders, and the need to establish good rapport and craft a ‘high-quality’ student-supervisor relationship has been emphasised (Jairam and Kahl, 2012).

And so here I begin, roaming the land interviewing doctoral students and supervisors and unpicking how trust is built, eroded, broken, and understood in supervision. If it’s important, what components matter? And does it actually impact on learning and development?

If you want to track my movements and emotional rollercoaster for the next few months, the project is @Predoctorbilty on Twitter. Predoctorbilty is a word I’ve made up by mashing together Predictability (a component of trust) and Doctor. You see where I’m going with this?