encouraging robust scholars: how can we encourage students to critically give and receive?

This is a guest post from Dr Steve Hutchinson, a freelance consultant and author on doctoral development and supervision.

Let’s start with two quotes taken from a book called Enhancing the Doctoral Experience. Both quotes are from research students and they highlight a common ingredient in the challenge of growing as a researcher.

“My supervisor is critical of me. This makes me feel bad and so I don’t want to give him [my] work…. This makes me guilty. My supervisor does not make me feel good.”

“How can I challenge my supervisor? He is a professor and I am just beginning!!”

The shared ingredient here is intellectual criticism – in both ‘give and ‘receive’ modes.

PhD students live a precarious existence; they are not really students and nor are they fully integrated faculty members. We want them to be independent and yet sometimes they must function as part of a research team. Their sense of self-identity is very often tied to their research outputs and yet many of them have yet to develop the academic resilience that comes from weathering myriad setbacks, criticisms and rejections. Too much criticism and we, as supervisors, can break them; too little and we may kill them with kindness.

Moreover, we also need to help engender within our students a sense that their voice matters and they can contribute to the debate. Additionally, (and there is often a cultural dimension at play here) they need to realise that even senior academics in the field are not omniscient deities to be placed on pedestals, and that respectful challenge is part of the rule-set that we professionally live by.

The question is then, as supervisors, how we can we do both at the same time? Here I present five ideas on each aspect of criticism that I’ve come across on my travels. Thanks to those whose ideas I’m now shamelessly passing off as my own…

Five ways supervisors can use to develop their student’s ability to receive criticism

  1. Ensure that the balance is set as CONSTRUCTIVE criticism (as opposed to constructive CRITICISM). Frame your feedback as “Remember, this is just my opinion, but here’s how I think you could make this better…” Remember that supervision is about building confidence as well as capability.
  2. Ensure your feedback is about the work, not the candidate. Even the sentence “You haven’t used enough references”, can be construed as YOU haven’t used enough references…” And what you really mean here is ‘only two or three more references are needed to give this piece sufficient scholarly credibility.’
  3. Ask your student to review a paper / manuscript / seminar (either individually or at a journal club), and note their feedback style, critical bugbears and the specific words they use. Then ensure that your feedback to them is couched in a similar patois.
  4. Review the ‘supervisory expectations’ conversation that you had at the start of their candidature (or actually have this conversation for the first time…) and ask them how they want you to be with your criticism. If they want honesty/brutality/diplomacy etc then ensure your feedback is framed in this way. Don’t assume that your receive mode is the same as theirs.
  5. Make sure that they are receiving feedback from multiple sources (journal clubs, peer support, supervisory team, seminar audiences). The point here is not to overwhelm them with negatives, but so they realise that academics frequently differ in their opinion of a piece of work. And the sooner they understand that none of us are right, none of us are wrong – we’re all just different – the stronger they’ll become.

The beauty here is that if you model good behaviour when giving feedback the student learns how to do likewise. Much of the challenge then comes in helping them to realise that they themselves have the right and the duty to be critical of established intellectual figures – including you.

However, we need to remember that many students (especially internationals) have sacrificed a lot to come and work with someone that they intellectually respect. If every question they ask is reflected back to them with a Socratic “well, what do you think?”, then this will inevitably grate, however good your intentions.

Five ways supervisors can use to develop their student’s ability to give criticism

  1. Be aware of the power of terminologies. A supervisor I met told me that he constantly reminds himself never to use the word ‘student’ in reference to his doctoral researchers. He tells them from the start that they are ‘professional researchers’. “After all”, he told me “if they’re a ‘student’ – they’ll see me as a ‘teacher’ and that’s not my job.” (Additionally, let them read your doctoral thesis. If it’s anything like mine then that should set you down a peg or two in their eyes…)
  2. Ask to see their teeth. A supervisor I met asks her newish students to find ‘the most important/prestigious paper’ in their field. She then asks them to review it as savagely and pedantically as possible. They then discuss the review and the process. Her purpose here is simply to help her student to understand that even the ‘best’ papers are not perfect. Additionally, another supervisor I encountered at a workshop told me that they ask their students (in the early stages) to critique a manuscript from which the author details and contact information have been redacted. The supervisor says that he will do the same and they can compare notes afterwards. At the ensuing meeting it becomes clear to the student that the manuscript was originally written by the supervisor. The supervisor says he then points out to the (initially mortified) student that this is exactly the type of critically symbiotic relationship they need to have.
  3. Share your reviews, and your feelings. Sharing with your student the critical feedback that you’ve received on your work (either recently or in your formative intellectual years) and moreover telling them how you felt about it, can be both an powerful trust-builder and an insight to the (oft-hidden) norms of professional academic behaviour.
  4. Share the leadership. Ask yourself who is leading the research direction and the supervisory process. Simple measures like saying to your student “tell me what I need to be reading so I can supervise you effectively”, places an onus of responsibility onto the student and starts to move away from the ‘I say, you do’ direction of an authoritative supervisor.
  5. Peer learning can be a powerful tool. Group meetings, review clubs and colleague conversations can all help to emphasise the notion that even pivotal papers are imperfect; time, new technology, new-data and globally-shared information all serve to help evolve intellectual ‘fact’. This is sometimes difficult to realise in the silo of research student-dom.

Ultimately a doctorate us about producing a robust and independent scholar who has produced a substantive and original piece of research work of reputable quality. All elements of this process require critical capability from the candidate – and it is pivotal to the supervisory role that our students can ‘take it’ and ‘dish it out’.

ally with your stressed students

I guest posted here on the Supervision Whisperers’ blog a couple of weeks ago on how we might ‘design-in’ self-care strategies for doctoral students. In response a few supervisors have been in touch to ask about how they might approach a student they believe to be stressed, without making things worse. Visible stress symptoms:

Continue reading “ally with your stressed students”

October is coming…

Dear doctoral supervisor,

“I was blissfully unaware how long it would take me to write up. To be honest I would have preferred a more clear marker from my supervisor, or from the department, saying stop doing experiments now and write! I was expecting someone to say when I had enough data, because I never felt I did, so instead I kept going much longer than I needed in the lab because I didn’t know how much was enough. I feel pretty annoyed about that.”

The 31st of October is coming. I mention this date as we have around 1100 third year doctoral students whose theses are due on that date*. With still 6 months to go, now is a perfect time to make sure that your thesis writers know it’s time to spend some time each week — an hour a day, every day? — writing. Continue reading “October is coming…”

PhD –> postdoc no sweat, or posthoc regret?

I work a lot with stuck and panicking PhD researchers near the end of their time here, and from them I have some intel to share. Bear in mind then that what follows doesn’t represent an ever so typical experience, but it does represent an important and keenly felt negative experience. One we can all learn from as colleagues in researcher development: be your role full time academic superhero and supervisor, or like mine, a specialist learning and development role, I think this will be relevant to you. Continue reading “PhD –> postdoc no sweat, or posthoc regret?”

coaching myths and coaching legends

I teach professional practices in coaching and mentoring* in an education context and have developed some short workshops for academic supervisors and principal investigators that focus on the relational aspects of research leadership and use coaching techniques as the basis for conversations that help people develop their thinking and understanding. Continue reading “coaching myths and coaching legends”

spoon-feeding PhD students – extending the metaphor for supervisory practice

Every so often someone opens their mouth in a meeting and out tumbles “but we mustn’t ‘spoon-feed’ our PhD students – they have to be independent.”Recently, I’ve been wondering in some detail what’s behind this reaction, and how, in my role, I can interpret what this means for researcher and supervisor development. Continue reading “spoon-feeding PhD students – extending the metaphor for supervisory practice”

supervisors: a willingness to accept uncertainly and make oneself vulnerable in the face of insecurity

This is a part 2 of 2, looking at what uncertainty and vulnerability might look like from a supervisor perspective. Part 1, the student angle is here. In this post I am again considering how trust may be a marker of a ‘good quality’ supervision relationship.

‘Trust’ as a phenomenon can be understood as “willingness to accept uncertainly and make oneself vulnerable in the face of insecurity” (Hope-Hailey et al., 2012).

So, where could uncertainty and vulnerability exist in for doctoral supervisors? Some ideas from interviews with doctoral supervisors are below:

Recruitment practices. Supervisors frequently speak of restrictive rules related to the recruitment of doctoral students. Specifically, being expected to take on any and all self-funded students, was a major cause of increased workload, tension and conflict in the supervisory relationship.

Management and leadership are inherently difficult. Supervisors report feeling pressure to be a good supervisor and to ‘get it right’ for the student. Most spoke of the need to be flexible and try different approaches with different students whilst maintaining equity and not ‘showing favouritism’. Supervisors who have received supervisor ‘training’ are still in the minority and those who have received no support to performing this difficult role, feel the university has a responsibility to provide this.

Complicated processes and checkpoints on the doctorate. A key vulnerability is the complex administration and regulation of doctoral programmes (e.g. statements of expectations, codes of practice, handbooks, supervision policies, progression criteria) — this often leaves supervisors feeling lost about how to best advise their student.

Accountability. The pressure of being accountable for good research practices, and for delivering published outputs from doctorates that have attracted funding could be acutely felt. The tension between ‘rushing them through in three years’ and ‘making the research actually worth funding’ is a common uncertainty.

The value of doing supervision well. Supervisors often find that talking about the more ‘tricky’ (relational) aspects of supervision with others is impossible, or at least not formally required or facilitated. The lack of formal spaces or requirements for talking about supervisory practice makes things difficult. Supervision is not always a common feature of institutional promotion, or other reward and recognition processes, and it instead relies on intrinsic motivation to do a good job.

Supervisory teams, and supervisory ‘mentoring’. As students also reported, the tensions involved in working as supervisory teams can be acutely felt. Supervisors describe being paired with a more experienced colleague as a supervision ‘mentor’, but felt it was done so ‘the dept. could cover their backs’ rather than as a genuine developmental mentoring opportunity.

I am interested to know how you as supervisors negotiate all this? Do you personally see these things as challenges? What good supervisory methods have you developed? What would you disagree with, and what would you add to that list?