Community Acuity (8) complementary supervision expertise: team-working our development.

‘Community Acuity’ blog posts are from supervisors, to supervisors. They share the thoughts, experiences and reflection of the highs and the challenges of supervising doctoral students. 

Professor Helen Abbott is Director of the College of Arts and Law Graduate School at the University of Birmingham.

I see first-hand what happens when supervisor/supervisee relationships become strained or break down. I’ve been there myself, as a supervisor.  Now, as a Director of Graduate Studies I oversee programmes, and supervision, for a large community of doctoral researchers. Crucial to resolving problematic situations is knowing some of the best tools for how to recover them. But we can’t all know it all.

This is where team work between supervisors can help. Imagine this scenario: as a new supervisor who knows a student is struggling with thesis progress, I might be tempted to focus on setting writing targets, advising on the breadth and depth of secondary reading, completing supervision reports, looking at data collection, chapter outlines and draft findings, and I may resort to setting deadlines. But while those are all vital parts of supervising doctoral students, when this doesn’t help them achieve, what do I do?

I’ve learned over the years that this supervisor needs advice from someone who understands that the student isn’t making progress because they fear producing something their supervisor(s) (or other readers) may not like. Supporting PhDers who are fearful, or lacking in confidence is a very important part of the supervisor’s role.

I’m not talking about those situations where there are genuine issues of anxiety, depression, or wider mental health issues (those need professional support networks). I’m talking about the everyday experience that is a normal part of academic life: to be anxious about showing your work to someone who will then scribble comments all over it.

Have you ever felt, as a supervisor, that you are offering all this advice, and drafting a lot of targeted and very specific comments, but the PhD student apparently doesn’t want to or know how to do anything about them. Your comments go ignored. Progress slows. Frustration increases. What can you do?

Firstly, recognising when you have reached an impasse is key. That’s the part I haven’t always got right – catching it on time. But I have got better at knowing what to do about it. And for me, that means having a good team of colleagues and supporters to draw on for guidance and input. Sensitively airing issues to critical friends is a healthy way to interrupt a stuck partnership.

To make this approach work, my own professional networks need to be strong. I am in a place now where I can pick up the phone to colleagues and ask them to come and join me and the supervisee for a joint session on, say, writing style, redesigning a thesis structure, or thinking about viva prep.

These are colleagues who are not experts in the specific topic of the PhD, but people who have a particular skillset and way of interacting that I sense will be beneficial to my supervisee and our partnership. It’s about having a fresh voice in the room who can help you navigate a way through a challenging moment. Everyone benefits.

Such additional time isn’t officially recognised in anyone’s workload, so, for me, being part of a team means contributing to support others too. Helping out other supervisors from time to time is as much a training opportunity for me, as it is a release for the supervisor who needs assistance with an impasse.  Supporting each other as supervisors – and recognising that we have our own development needs, and different skillsets which it can be helpful for others to draw on from time to time – will make us much better supervisors in the long run.