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). Indeed, the doctoral curriculum today should not only respond to demands about originality and growth within the disciplines and research, but should respond with equal readiness and power to demands for globalised bench marking between institutions, national policy drivers concerning transferrable skills and competence, and even local professional and job market needs. This has been termed the ‘torn curriculum’ of doctoral education (Bengtsen et al, 2016a).

As a response, universities worldwide have taken a range of measures to formalise and professionalise doctoral education, which in several cases has led to the increase of Graduate Schools as a means of quality assurance and better management of the learning trajectories of doctoral students. Interestingly, but with no evidence of a direct correlation, parallel to the increase in formalised support systems and quality measures within Graduate Schools, we see a rise in experienced student uncertainty about the demands and requirement for a successful PhD, and more widespread student anxiety, stress, and exhaustion. Students report being lost, abandoned, even ‘orphaned’ (Wisker & Robinson, 2012) in the very system put into existence to support and guide them through their doctoral studies. Doctoral students, and their supervisors, sometimes experience being entirely caught up within the ‘darkness’ of doctoral education (Bengtsen, 2016a).

However, ‘darkness’, here, does not refer to negative and corrupted educational systems, but to new learning potential (Bengtsen & Barnett, 2017). We see some doctoral students respond with despair and disillusionment, but also with surprising and highly creative learning approaches and strategies (Bengtsen, 2016a). This includes drawing from informal and non-institutional support and feedback systems, such as guardian supervisors (supporting academics who are not formally assigned as supervisors or mentors), critical friends from outside academia, professional contacts, and family and friends – collectively these support systems have been termed ‘the doctoral learning penumbra’ (Wisker, Robinson, & Bengtsen, 2017). Furthermore, doctoral students start using ‘third spaces’ as learning platforms to harness skills and competences, needed, but not learned in the formalised settings. This has been related as the ‘hidden curriculum’ of doctoral education (Elliot et al, 2016).

So, what to do as a doctoral supervisor? How to navigate and supervise ‘into the darkness’ of student learning arenas and contexts that slip out of the supervisors’ view and control, be it the complex Graduate system, or extra-curricular and non-formal learning?

The aim of this blog post is not to in any way derogate or criticize doctoral supervisors, but to show understanding for and sympathy with the sometimes difficult pedagogical circumstances in which they work – and, actually, extremely competently and heroically so!

However, an expanded doctoral pedagogy is needed that matches the new and more diverse educational demands in contemporary doctoral education. The pedagogical format of supervision is still central and mandatory for successful researcher education, but more formats are needed. These are formats that we know from their implicit, and sometimes more random and ad hoc, workings within our disciplinary communities. I am not arguing that these formats should be formalised as such, as this would undermine my own argument. In contrast I argue for a more comprehensive, expanded, and reflected doctoral pedagogy, even a doctoral ‘ecology’ (inspired from Barnett, 2017), or as I have termed it elsewhere: an ‘advanced pedagogy’ (Bengtsen, 2016b). Pedagogical formats that can complement supervision include mentoring, sponsorship, and coaching, as described in the frame here. It is important to note that each of these pedagogies could be delivered in practice by one or more individuals.

Supervision (disciplinary community and expertise)

  • Critical thinking, knowledge, research methods, academic writing (genre)
  • To organise and conduct research and to ensure scientific quality of work

Mentoring (workplace learning, professionalism, judgment, morals)

  • To manage and cope with complexity, to make the right choices, to plan
  • Help with how to teach, supervise, participate in meetings, part of projects

Sponsorship (intellectual leadership, infrastructure)

  • A ‘champion’ within the institution (department) who secures funding (salary), ensures the right facilities to work in (office space, furniture), helps connect to the right networks

Coaching (personal lifeworld, ownership, existential)

  • How to address and manage emotional and personal issues, and take action
  • How to maintain work-life-balance, to acknowledge and rely on different support systems for different needs of support

If we put this idea of an expanded doctoral pedagogy into a Graduate School framework, it could also include the help and support not only from main and co-supervisors, but also from members of a wider supervisor-team or similar feedback and support systems across different layers of the Graduate School (Programme Directors, guardian supervisors, postdoc-mentors, doctoral education professionals etc):

Doctoral pedagogy template, developed and applied by Søren Bengtsen

The solution to having to tackle the diverse and sprawling demands for supporting and sparring with doctoral students, and to catch on to their own creative development of learning strategies and research approaches, I am afraid, is not in immediate reach.

However, if we start to expand our pedagogical and supervisory approaches, we may develop, together with the students themselves and the other Graduate School members, a flexible and strong educational concept for the emerging doctoral ecologies that we are part of.


  • Andres, L., Bengtsen, S., Crossouard, B., Gallego, L., Keefer, J., & Pyhältö, K. (2015). Drivers and Interpretations of Doctoral Education Today: National Comparisons. Frontline Learning Research, 3(2), 63–80.
  • Barnett, R. (2017). The Ecological University: A Feasible Utopia. London & New York: Routledge
  • Bengtsen, S. (2016a). An exploration of darkness within doctoral education. Creative learning approaches of doctoral students. In C. Zhou (Ed.), Handbook of research on creative problem-solving skill development in higher education (pp. 260–282). Hershey, PA: IGI Global
  • Bengtsen, S. (2016b). Doctoral Supervision. Organization and Dialogue. Aarhus: Aarhus University Press
  • Bengtsen, S. & Barnett, R. (2017). Confronting the Dark Side of Higher Education. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 51:1, s.114-131
  • Bengtsen, S., Ashwin, P., Locke, W., & Nørgård, R. (2016). Enhancing diversity through globalised higher education?, Symposium at the annual SRHE-Conference “Exploring freedom and control in global higher education”, December 7-9, 2016, Newport, Wales
  • Elliot, D.L., Baumfield, V., Reid, K., & Makara, K.A. (2016). Hidden treasures: Successful international doctoral students who found and harnessed the hidden curriculum. Oxford Review of Education, 42. doi:10.1080/03054985.2016.1229664
  • Wisker, G., Robinson, G., & Bengtsen, S. (2017). Penumbra: doctoral support as drama: From the ‘lightside’ to the ‘darkside’. From front of house to trapdoors and recesses. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, DOI: 10.1080/14703297.2017.1371057
  • Wisker, G. & Robinson, G. (2013). Picking up the pieces: supervisors and doctoral “orphans”. International Journal for Researcher Development. Vol.3, No.2, pp.139-153


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.

2 thoughts on “Supervising in the dark – a call for an expanded doctoral pedagogy”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *