Community Acuity (14): poacher turned game keeper, or vice versa

This is a guest post from Dr Celia Popovic, Associate Professor at York University, Toronto. Her latest edited book, Learning from Academic Conference (2018) can be found here.

Until the end of December 2018, I was the Director of the Teaching Commons at York University. In that role I was responsible, among other things, for supporting faculty who supervise Masters and PhD students. As of January 1st2019, as my term as Director ended, I returned to my home Faculty in the School of Education as a ‘regular’ faculty member. In my 7 years as Director and before that in the UK, I was invited to take part in supervision committees and had a number of Masters students who elected to take what we call an MRP – a Major Research Paper which is something like a mini thesis. However, as a full-time faculty member my role of supervisor has increased and will continue to do so. I thus find myself on the other side of the table, in that I no longer directly support other supervisors, and instead look for support for myself.

You might suggest I should have done this other way around, and I would agree – but we don’t always get to choose the order of events. In my case I found myself asked to provide support to supervisors when I was at Birmingham City University, in the UK. I inherited a course that was highly effective, and with some updates and innovations over the years this was the basis for the support that I provided. When I came to York University I again found myself asked to provide support and so I created a Canadian version of the same course. That course was run regularly, and while those who attended rated it highly it never attracted more than 10 participants a year. Which out of a faculty cohort of 1500 is not many.

As with all teaching support, and yes, I do see graduate supervision as a form of teaching, there is no mandatory requirement for faculty at York University to engage in professional development. As a supervisor I am shocked by the lack of direct supervision or support that is on offer. I am not suggesting my colleagues are unfriendly or unsupportive, quite the reverse, but the expectation is that this is not something most people require. I do find this odd. 

Why is it that academics are quite happy to accept rigorous training in research methodology and to take advice and assistance from those who know about accessing research funds, but seem aloof to the idea of support for teaching? As a newly (re)minted faculty member, my time is my own to manage around constraints such as lectures and tutorials and department meetings. My diary is oddly empty compared to the same diary for this time last year. I anticipated that I would have plenty of time to engage in many and varied activities once I was back in the ranks, but strangely this is not the case. 

As Director I was required to attend a vast number of committee meetings, events, regular team management related catch ups and so forth. If professional development had been required, it would have been slotted in along with the other meetings. But now as a faculty member it is almost the reverse – I find myself jealousy guarding my time, but I’m not clear for what! I feel like a miser who has won the lottery, after years of little time under my own control now that I have so much of it, I am loathe to spend it frivolously. 

Unlike a miser, though, I do just that but in unexpected ways! The lack of booked appointments is not an indication of a lower workload. I have plenty of things to do, but far fewer externally determined deadlines and commitments. So now that I have had a month or so to contemplate my own needs as a supervisor, I have more sympathy for those who decline the opportunity to take a course. Not because it is unnecessary, it is needed, but because committing to a three day event feels somehow risky. My conclusion is that unless professional development for supervisors is made mandatory, it is unlikely to happen in large numbers. This is the same conclusion I reached as the person offering the support, but it feels different coming from another perspective.

Community Acuity (9) training, training everywhere… how to survive (and prosper) in the new doctoral landscape

‘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. 

Dr Glyn Williams is a Reader in international development and a former member of the ESRC White Rose Doctoral Training Partnership’s management team.

For PhD supervisors new to UK academia, or for any who finished their own theses more than a decade ago, the contemporary doctoral training landscape can be a confusing place. There is a sea of acronyms, (CDTs, DTCs, DTPs…) linked to a bewildering array of cross-disciplinary and cross-institutional partnerships. All seem to be vying loudly for your students’ attention with claims to develop their research and professional skills to previously unknown heights.

My own PhD experience – and I’m not that ancient – was vastly different. One-to-one PhD supervision was pretty much the sum total of my doctoral training, supplemented by the very occasional workshop. Because for some of my fellow supervisors these differences are as unwelcome as they are incomprehensible, I want to offer a few words of comfort, but also in defence of the new doctoral landscape.

Understand the ethos – The point of the new development landscape is to enable broad-based, critically-reflective professional researchers, not just to equip students with the tools to complete their own PhD topics. So, yes, this will involve them learning about methodological techniques they won’t immediately use, or sitting in workshops reflecting on things – such as how to manage their relationships with their supervisors – we might think of as a distraction from their ‘real’ work as researchers. Clearly, we need to be wary of producing an ever-growing training industry, but equally we must recognise the dangers of leaving things where they were. Less than one in ten UK PhD students will go on to a permanent academic post, and those that do will increasingly work in interdisciplinary teams, not narrow disciplinary silos. Providing space to talk about the PhD process makes it understandable across cultural and other boundaries, not simply the arcane practice of a cult of insiders. Doing this collectively addresses the isolation of doctoral study, and is therefore vital in supporting student well-being.

Recognise the supervisor’s changing role (see also this post, and this post)– The easiest way to describe the change here is from guru to guide. Rather than being the perfect role model, or the font of all knowledge, we can all contribute to doctoral students’ development simply by knowing what development activities are out there. Keeping our ears to the ground, finding out from colleagues and our Departments’ students what workshops and events they’ve found most valuable, and which are best avoided, are therefore tasks of considerable value. Likewise, your training review meetings don’t have to be bureaucratic exercises in box-ticking: they can create meaningful and achievable plans that integrate our students’ broader development with the progress of their theses.

Engage and participate – Finally, remember that one of the things most valued by doctoral students is hearing good researchers explaining and reflecting on core elements of their craft. This could be about the use of a research technique, how to survive fieldwork, or how to deal with journal reviewers’ comments. Many of us are not comfortable putting ourselves forwards as ‘experts’, but the fact remains that we’ve all got something useful to share that will invariably have a potential audience that’s far wider than our PhD students. Facilitating that process of sharing should be one of the core tasks of your local DTP/DTC/CDT – so don’t be afraid to get involved!

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