creating a shared way forward with new research students

This is a guest post by Dr Duncan Cross (PFHEA), Senior Lecturer (Education), University of Bolton.
There are a range of complexities involved in effectively supervising PhD candidates that are recognised in the literature. Delany’s (2008) literature review highlights some of those complexities as significant predictors of candidate completionwhich includes demographic data around age, funding and area of subject, and also, importantly, ‘the intellectual environment of the department …’.

The UK Quality Assurance Agency’s documentation supports this analysis, and adds that ‘Higher Educations providers accept research students only into an environment that provides support for doing and learning about research…’.  The code also suggests that Higher Education providers appoint supervisors with appropriate skills and subject knowledge to support and encourage research students’, however what institutions deem as appropriate is potentially difficult to ascertain.

That an effective supervisor ‘achieves high completion rates, has candidates submit within expected time frames, engages in multiple supervisions and receives excellent supervisory reports(Delany again, but also language we see reflected in many institutional ‘Supervisor Statements’ and ‘Codes of Practice’) could be challenged as being a reductionive attempt to describe what is actually a highly complex relationship, with expectations to ba managed on both sides.

There is a recognised need for research regarding the management of postgraduate research students expectations and tools to explore the supervisory relationship (e.g. Ali, Watson and Dhingra, 2016; Benmore, 2016). Yet there appears to be a reluctance or hesitation to take supervisory conversations into what may seem a less ‘academic’ place, engaging in personal dialogue that takes supervisors and students beyond personal and professional boundaries.

Gina Wisker (2003) states on p24 that a good supervisorstudent relationship can only thrive if both parties share mutual expectations and have established ground rules about the regularity, type and focus of supervisions and I would agree.

Though, for many the question is how do we do this?

A plethora of research on communication and consultation skills exists in a medical context with many of the models being transferable to the supervisory relationship. I have successfully adapted the Health Belief Model (Becker and Maiman, 1975) which originally gave clinicians a structured conversational model to explore the patients ‘Ideas, Concerns and Expectations’ (ICE) with regards to their health.

The ICE model of communication applied to supervision, gives a framework for a discussion that allows exploration and management of not only the student’s ideas, concerns and expectations of their studies and how life may impinge on those studies, but also the management of the supervisors own ICE for the period of study.

Each person in this relationship (and there many be multiple supervisors) has the ability to understand and manage Ideas, Concerns, and Expectations by contributing to the discussion in a meaningful manner: through active listening and participation. Through this we not only ‘manage’ expectations but we also ‘match’ our expectations through open discussion of our perceptions and the realities of each of our situations.

The following scenario shows how the ICE model could be used to manage and match expectations.

During the first supervision conversation the supervisor uses the ICE model to find common ground and understand the student’s perceptions and expectations of a PhD and their expectations of the supervisor using, for example, the following questions:

  • What do you think a PhD is? (Idea)
  • Are you worried about anything? (Concern)
  • What do you think you’re going to be doing during the PhD? (Expectation)

By giving time to this basic dialogue the supervisor(s) begin to build a relationship with the student as they are all engaged in the process, the supervisor is able to explore and explain the requirements of doctoral study and manage the ‘idea’ of what the PhD journey is likely to entail.

By asking about ‘worries’ the supervisor opens their office door to personal as well as professional worries – but worries exist whethere they are vocalised or not. By discussing them the supervisory team can now anticipate whether personal challenges or barriers are going to impact on the student journey and how they can be managed by or with the student, or whether signposting is needed to support services.

By asking ‘what do you think you’re going to do?’ the supervisor(s) can appropriately manage (up, down or sideways) the student’s perceptions with the reality of what they may be doing during the journey through their PhD.

This scenario gives us an idea of how the ICE model could work and potentially deliver a less transactional ‘supervisor centred’ approach and allow supervisors to not only ascertain the student’s’ Ideas, Concerns and Expectations but it would allow them to manage their own expectations and those of the student in a more transformational ‘student centred’ approach.

The supervision journey can be a fraught experience an we’ve all heard a multitude of anecdotes of poor and of good experiences and their causes. Using Fleming’s quote ‘shaken not stirred’ as an analogy we can either violently shake or gently stir the ingredients together to gain our preferred Martini. Not every student will benefit from a violent shake up and the model above presents a less aggressive tactic for preparing our students as researchers.

We must also be careful that using the ICE model does not leave the students ‘on the rocks’. Ideas, Concerns and Expectations is a useful starting point but if there is no future engagement or exploration with the resulting conversation there is no point in making the student feel listened to, only to disappoint them through lack of follow up.

We must ask ourselves how we would wish to be treated. Using the ICE model gives us an opportunity to explore a situation and manage expectations not only of the research journey, but also to manage the expectations of the personal aspects of the supervisory relationship.

So I suppose the question is. How do you want your ICE, shaken or stirred?

Community Acuity (5) supervising doctoral writing — situated practices

‘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. 

This is a guest post from Dr Amanda French, Associate Professor, School of Education and Social Work, Birmingham City University.

Much of what I do in my supervision sessions is based on what I wish someone had told me when I was a PhD student struggling to make sense world of doctoral education where, or so it seemed to me, everyone else appeared to magically understand what was expected of them. Continue reading “Community Acuity (5) supervising doctoral writing — situated practices”

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. Continue reading “encouraging robust scholars: how can we encourage students to critically give and receive?”

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?