Community Acuity (18) Learning to supervise – a two-way conversation

This is a guest post by Dr Rob Pilling, Thesis Mentor and Associate Supervisor, Chemical and Biological Engineering.

As I waited to meet my first actual Thesis Mentee, I was conscious that they were expecting to meet an actual mentor. The question in my mind was whether I could be one. I had attended a workshop on coaching thesis writers and it sounded fun. I had also convinced myself that various conversations with friends and colleagues over the years ‘kind of amounted to the same thing.’ However, none of this would be the same as the actual ‘doing’ of mentoring a real person. As happens so often, the anticipation was more worrying that the reality. I survived the first session and have progressed steadily since. 

Thesis Mentoring at The University of Sheffield offers mentors training and experience of delivering coaching support for PhD Researchers. The Associate SuperVisionaries Framework builds on this offering a professional development pathway for supervisory practice. It piloted in autumn 2018, and will launch again in 2019. I’ve been involved on the Thesis Mentoring side for a couple of years and also recently completed the pilot. These initiatives target primarily early career researchers (Research Associates, Fellows, New Lecturers), so my own path is atypical. I work in research management, having previously operated outside of higher education and I gained my PhD back in the mists of time. None the less, I found a warm welcome onto the schemes and have benefited greatly.

I myself find motivation for thesis mentoring in the quality of the conversations. The opportunity to spend an unhurried hour with an intelligent, thoughtful researcher chatting about a piece of work, to which they are intellectually and emotionally committed. The mentoring space is defined loosely enough so that conversation can be flexible and responsive. At the same time it is tethered: both by its attention to the present and also by its contingency (reflective of two people talking as equals). The conversations are flavoured by the nature of the project, the personality of the researcher, and also their main supervisory relationship. There is more than enough to keep things interesting and, equally, common themes to provide familiarity. 

This is not to reduce thesis mentoring to idle conversation. The process draws bite from its focus and intent. There is a thesis to write and deadlines to meet. I have seen mentees express a full range of emotions, not least uncertainty, distress and anger, and also impressive transformations in mood over a few sessions or even a few minutes. Less immediate, but no less striking, has been their gentle edging towards greater independence and awareness, driven as much by associated experimentation and practice as the conversation itself. Overall, and particularly inspiring, is the vicarious excitement for the mentor, in the making of plans and sharing in the ups and downs as they unfold.

In writing this note, I considered talking about theories of coaching, experiences of putting them to practice and examples of value to the mentee. Or perhaps considering the structure of the university scheme, the workshops, colleague observations and reflective writing – all of which were brilliant and have made the steps I’ve taken possible. 

With only a few words, I tried instead to describe three valuable things that I have gained from being involved: confidence, motivation and inspiration; and also to reflect on the fact that good conversation leaves neither participant unchanged.