Community Acuity (12): aligning expectations for the thesis in a cross-cultural professional doctorate

Dr Janet Strivens NTF, is based in the Centre for Higher Education Studies at The University of Liverpool, and supervises on the Professional Doctorate in Higher Education.

The Professional Doctorate in Higher Education at the University of Liverpool is a fully online programme developed, like most other Liverpool online programmes, in partnership with Laureate Inc., a global private higher education supplier. Four of us from Liverpool were involved in the design and have remained heavily committed to ‘our baby’ as supervisors. Every student gets two supervisors, one from Liverpool and one from Laureate. 

Inevitably, the Laureate supervisors are recruited from around the world so many don’t have University of Liverpool doctorates. The significance of this dawned on me gradually when my fellow supervisor, of Russian extraction but with a US doctorate and currently teaching there (I’ll call her Natasha), apologised for holding back a draft introductory chapter from our Middle Eastern student because he had not included a summary of his methodology. I received this in Madrid as I was idly wondering whether to join a very sun-baked queue to visit the Prado (such are the joys of any-time, anywhere supervision). I quickly forgot the sightseeing as I pondered Natasha’s message. I replied that I wouldn’t really have expected to see this in the introductory chapter anyway. She was surprised and our discussion of expectations evolved into a question of how many chapters I expected (as many as it takes?) and the discovery that, in her institution, the number and purpose of each chapter was laid down in the regulations. 

Later, with another US co-supervisor, another difference of perspective emerged: the tense in which the Methodology chapter should be written (past tense, as in, the research has been completed, or future/conditional, as in, this is the decision-making process I went through?)

Back home, I discussed Natasha’s queries with my Liverpool colleagues. I thought her perspective had provided an explanation, for me at least, for what I had regarded as some oddities in the writing of previous students. I had also told Natasha that I didn’t necessarily expect a final version of the Research Questions in the introductory chapter, which was in many ways more significant than the presence or absence of a summary of methodology. I explained that this was because I expected the Research Questions to evolve, and to be refined after the literature review had been completed. In summary, I began to realise that I thought of the thesis as ‘telling the story’ of the research more or less as it happened, rather than writing a report on it afterwards. At least two of my colleagues at University of Liverpool strongly agreed with this.

Subsequently, in recognition of the need to align all our expectations, we decided to include a session on ‘Structuring Your Thesis’ in our annual Student Residency (only a minority of students will attend thi, but the session can be made available as a video recording to all). The session is deliberately non-directive, presented as dialogue and discussion: my colleague and I present our preferences, with reasons, and invite students, and importantly fellow-supervisors from Laureate, to share their own perspectives and experiences. We are very conscious that this is a cross-cultural programme: nevertheless, most of our external examiners (and all our internal examiners) are familiar with the British doctoral system – and ultimately, they’re the people we have to please.