the Changing Face of Doctoral Education – implications for supervisors

This is a guest post from staff at the University of Bristol: Kate Whittington, Senior Teaching Fellow in the Bristol Medical School; Anne Lee, Associate Professor, University of Stavanger and Research Fellow in the School of Education; and Sally Barnes, Professor of Doctoral Education, School of Education.

A search on Google can quickly identify a plethora of articles and personal experiences of PhD’s that have ‘gone wrong’ with poor supervision surfacing as a common complaint.

Undoubtedly, successful completion of a PhD relies on sheer hard work and determination from the doctoral researcher, but the critical importance of the supervisory relationship cannot be underestimated (Ives & Rowley, 2005 and see McCallin & Nayar 2012). Historically doctoral researchers would be supervised by a single academic who acted as teacher, advisor and mentor, an approach that is clearly fraught with risk if this critical relationship flounders. This has resulted in institutions moving towards a requirement for a minimum of two supervisors for each doctoral researcher, a view supported by Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA).

However, even with this safety net in place the culture and conditions associated with PhD study is changing rapidly (Bogelund, 2015) and is impacting significantly on supervisors.

There is now an increased emphasis on cross-disciplinary research, driven by government agenda’s and funding agencies. The ‘modern doctorate’ may also include supervisors from practice or employment.  This has resulted in supervisory teams becoming larger and more complex, requiring each member to have a wide range of communication, negotiating and team working skills (Blackmore & Nesbitt 2008).

Such multi-disciplinary doctorates are producing graduates who should expect to have more than one career route through to retirement, a trait that is being seen in many careers worldwide (Rapacon, 2016). So, these individuals need to be able to work in innovative and adaptable ways, taking their academic knowledge and applying it to a range of roles. This illustrates the growing dependence of doctoral researchers on personal and professional development (Gould, 2017). Academics are unlikely to be able to provide appropriate advice, support and networking opportunities for all career options, especially as many may have limited experience outside their sphere of academia.

What supervisors can usefully contribute though, is encouragement to seek and engage with training and development activities. This year’s Postgraduate Researchers Experience Survey (PRES) data suggests a positive correlation between a doctoral researcher not considering leaving or suspending their studies, and, having received or planning to receive training (Slight, 2017), highlighting the importance of incorporating such planning into supervisory interactions.

The pressures researchers experience are changing and intensifying too. Increases in mental health issues are being reported in doctoral researchers (Levecque et al., 2017). This raises the importance of apripriate support for doctoral researchers, a situation complicated in the UK as such individuals have moved on from being a traditional taught programme student but are not yet considered a staff member or colleague (Grove, 2016). Are supervisors best placed to deliver such support and advice for mental health? Whilst some doctoral researchers might wish that the answer was ‘yes’ (especially if they have an empathetic supervisor) the ever-growing complexity of mental health issues means that this is rarely likely to be possible and is probably never ideal.

With the ever-growing list of what we expect from a doctoral supervisor it’s hardly surprising that few can live up to the ‘ideal’.

Undoubtedly there is no such thing as ‘the perfect supervisor’, but how can we support academics to reflect on their practice and seek development opportunities regularly or ask for support when they need it? It is well recognised that an individual’s supervisory approach will be largely informed by how they themselves were supervised (Lee, 2012). Many institutions will provide training in doctoral supervision for new staff but the availability of longer term support and development is more difficult to identify.

Considering the rapidly changing face of doctoral education the question we need to ask ourselves is – Is this limited approach to the development of supervisory skills good enough? Don’t our doctoral researchers deserve and need more to succeed in the changing world in which they will be required to work and thrive? So, what makes a supervisor ‘qualified’ and what can universities do to help them to keep up to date?

The difficulty institutions are facing is academic time. The pressure on academics to generate high quality research for submission to the Research Excellence Framework (REF) and to deliver high quality student experiences for the Teaching Excellent Framework (TEF) is immense and unfortunately, this will often limit the time given for their own personal development. When asked, supervisors will often acknowledge the importance of developing and updating their own supervisory skills but often suggest that such requirements should not be overly bureaucratic (Wellcome Trust, 2001) highlighting the time pressures they are battling with.

The problem though is that many supervisory practices cannot be gained via quick didactic information sharing as they revolve more around information that is gained in a tactical manner, skills that need time and practice. To succeed in balancing these conflicting pressures we need to think more creatively about how we develop supervisors and give them the support they need to deliver this ever-growing list of demands.

It’s important to remember that for most academics, supervising doctoral researchers is one of their most rewarding roles and if that relationship breaks down it often results in significant personal repercussions and feelings of guilt for the supervisor. Tapping into the wealth of supervisory experiences each Institution has within its academic staff base may be a good starting point. Groups set up as learning communities (Wenger, 1998; Wenger et al 2002; Oja et al, 2010) and that allow academics to discuss issues, debate actions and outcomes in an open environment that acknowledges that supervision is hard and demanding, may be an achievable starting point.

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  • Bogelund P (2015) How Supervisors Perceive PhD Supervision – And How They Practice It. International Journal of Doctoral Studies 10, 39-55.
  • Gould J (2017) Career Development: A Plan for Action. Nature 548, 489-490.
  • Grove J (2016) Do PhD students get the right support from universities? Times Higher Education, June 30. https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/do-phd-students-get-the-right-support-from-universities. Viewed December 2017.
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  • Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (2011) The UK doctorate, a guide for current and prospective doctoral candidates. http://www.qaa.ac.uk/en/Publications
    /Documents/Doctorate-guide.pdf
    Viewed December 2017.
  • Rapacon S (2016) Career Change if the New Normal of Working. CNBC Website https://www.cnbc.com/2016/04/26/career-change-is-the-new-normal-of-working.html Viewed December 2017.
  • Slight C (2017) Postgraduate Research Experience Survey 2017. Experiences and personal outlook of postgraduate researchers. Higher Education Academy Report. https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/postgraduate-research-experience-survey-report-2017 Viewed December 2017.
  • Wellcome Trust (2001) Review of Wellcome Trust PhD Research Training. The Supervisors Persepctive. https://wellcome.ac.uk/sites/default/files/wtd003206_0.pdf . Viewed December 2017.
  • Wenger, (1998) Communities of practice: learning, meaning and identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Wenger, McDermott and Snyder (2002) Cultivating Communities of Practice. Boston MA. Harvard Business School Press.

Author: predoctorbility

I design researcher mentoring and coaching programmes, partnering researchers at all career stages with academic and non-academic mentors. I use research data to ensure programmes are aligned to the researcher voice, are situated in academic development, and fit with the current researcher career landscape.

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