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.

the power of peer support

This is a guest post by Sherrie Lee, an international PhD candidate based in New Zealand. She is a past president of, and current mentor to, the Postgraduate Students’ Association at her university. Her doctoral research examines informal academic learning among international tertiary students in New Zealand. Sherrie has an ongoing interest in the intersecting areas of language, culture, and identity, and has a personal blog about such topics at thediasporicacademic.wordpress.com

I write from the perspective of a former postgraduate student leader (peer-mentoring others) and an international doctoral student. Based on my personal doctoral experiences, and interactions with fellow doctoral students, I share how peer support addresses supervision-related issues that are not easily met by administrative processes or supervisors themselves.

In the New Zealand context, the early period of one’s PhD candidature is ‘conditional’ and the candidate has to prepare a research proposal (or report), and a research ethics application if applicable, to be approved by the end of 6 months (extendable to 9 months). Thus, the most important milestone of a first-year PhD student was reaching ‘confirmed enrolment’. The stress of not seeming to make progress in meeting that milestone is compounded for international students who face family, societal, and/or financial pressure to succeed.

The stress of possible failure, as I have experienced for myself, comes about from supervision practices that do not provide encouragement to the developing researcher, and/or clear guidance for the documentation required for confirmation. Students who are new to the country and the institutional culture may be trying to make sense of their supervisors’ communication style and unspoken expectations. One may be trying very hard to read between the lines, while respecting the supervisors’ authority, and at the same time, wondering how far, and how best to assert one’s autonomy and epistemological perspective. Such negotiations may even continue past the confirmed enrolment stage and into the unfolding doctoral journey.

Across self-help guides and well-meaning (or maybe just mean) advice, such worries are often dismissed as ‘normal’ or somewhat needing to be better managed by the student. Rare is the response that asks supervisors to take greater responsibility in engaging with their students, especially those who are negotiating with intersecting demands of cultural ‘adaptation’, scholarly independence, and personal pressures of dealing with failure (however defined by the individual).

In my role as a postgraduate student representative at the university, I regularly engaged with international doctoral students. After I stepped down from the leadership position, I continued to mentor peers as and when the need arose. Having gone through a fairly rough first year, but coming out stronger at the end of it, provided me the insight to assist my peers in making sense of their experiences. I had also personally been on the receiving end of constructive advice from a more experienced peer. Had it not been for her regular following up on my situation, I might not have taken action to address my own well-being as a doctoral student.

In my conversations with fellow doctoral students, the issues they raised was more often than not related to the supervision relationship or supervision/communication practices. I usually respond by pointing out the various institutional structures that provide support for doctoral students. While many students had some idea of the hierarchy and reporting lines, few were prepared to use official routes of seeking redress. The suspicion of the efficacy of bureaucratic intervention was one reason; not wishing to expend additional emotional and mental energy was another; avoiding the embarrassment and shame of being exposed was also a likely reason if admitted. We would then discuss communication strategies, talk through possible outcomes, and debate on what a best case scenario would look like. Sometimes they concluded that institutional intervention was necessary. At other times, they chose to ‘wait and see’. It was also useful for us to rehearse what they wished to say to supervisors or other authority figures. Our conversations, done in private, did not promise to make things perfect. If anything, it reinforced the reality of imperfect but negotiable supervision experiences.

The doctoral journey is notorious for being isolating and emotionally draining. Institutions, especially at the faculty level, need to make concerted efforts to encourage peer interactions and peer mentorship so PhD students have opportunities to consult, debate and consider possibilities regarding supervision issues in a safe and supportive environment. As an international doctoral student, I have experienced and observed the benefits of peer support, especially when institutional structures and authority figures are not able to satisfactorily meet emotional and cultural needs.