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.

So if we say a student should ‘be independent’ – what do we mean? Some ways of interpreting independence are below and I go to the tedious point of copy and pasting the 4 options out of the Oxford English Dictionary because I wonder if the definition might be the first point of expectation-clash over what constitutes PhD supervision…

Oh first ones… we probably don’t mean:

  1. Free from outside control; not subject to another’s authority
  2. Not depending on another for livelihood or subsistence

We probably do mean:

  1. Capable of thinking or acting for oneself

But, it can easily, and scarily if you’re that student, be confused with:

  1. Not connected with another or with each other; separate

Simply declaring every student ‘should be independent’ is clearly not a licence to be hands-off in their development to the point of neglect – though this is one style of supervision I do sometimes see knocking about the place.

So if it’s not an all or nothing situation…what’s the role of the conscientious supervisor in allowing a student to become capable of thinking or acting for them self?

The PhD is a degree, so we can expect some learning to take place over the course of it, and I think it deserves explicit acknowledgment that even in modern structures where doctoral development is distributed across many teams and individuals, the key influencer/enabler of independence as a researcher is the supervisor. It makes clear sense that students don’t all come in to do their PhD already fully formed as confident academic researchers, and yet the ‘good student/bad student’ false dichotomy does persist, visible in the way students can be written off early in the process as ‘not capable’ somehow.

To be frank I should hope that everyone incoming to any role at the university would have the capacity to ‘think and act for themselves’. This as it stands isn’t meaningful as a definition of PhD independence. So let me extend it:

Capable of thinking or acting for oneself to make appropriate decisions, according to the rules of academic engagement, in accordance with institutional processes.

But how do researchers develop this sense of cultural alignment? Current best models of how we understand doctoral and researcher academic development deal with a gradual and incremental development of a researcher identity over time, fuelled by dialogue with those more senior in the culture, and supported by a sense of security to experiment and try on new ways of being. And as I heard Prof. Gina Whisker say at the conference I’m at right now, “students develop knowledge construction when reassured about their position in the world as researchers.”

Lets go back to the spoon-fed issue.

The assumption here would be that the knowledge of how to get on in academia can be broken down into tangible spoonfuls and one by one shovelled into the student until they have achieved doctorateness. Not a good model. Better if the student holds the spoon? Are you willing to lend them your spoon until they get their own?

Think of the spoon as the mechanism by which the student comes to understand what they need to do in order to make progress in their PhD, interpret the nuances of the research culture, develop the gumption and patience to navigate HEI systems and processes, and hone that discerning eye that can identify and utilise good opportunities and reject bad ones.

A student’s ‘spoon’ isn’t going to materialise overnight, even if you insist they should have brought one when they arrived to start the PhD. Their development comes by a process of enculturation into their research discipline, and you are their bridge into that discipline. You also connect them to the entity that is ‘the university’ and they will look to you to know what processes they need to complete to get through.

You don’t need to spoon feed them, but it helps to spend time sharing what you do, and clueing them in to how and why things are done in certain ways. Do let them have a look at the menu of academic life, and make their own choices about what they spoon up.

And remember – a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.

Author: Dr Kay Guccione

I listen to stories & I think about them. @kayguccione National Teaching Fellow. PFHEA. Design and teach #mentoring/#coaching/#tutoring. Strategic educational development for #phd/#postdoc/#academic.

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