Doctoral supervision is a particularly intense kind of relationship, unlike any other. It’s one to one for a start, and it goes on for at least three years. I ‘ve read papers that suggest that supervision is a form of coaching and mentoring. These miss the mark as far as I’m concerned. I think supervision is a profoundly pedagogical affair and probably one of the most demanding and vexatious that there is in higher education. It’s also one of the most private.
There is no easy formula for supervision, in the way that there is for example with a lecture. Every researcher and every research project is different and brings different demands. Some doctoral researchers are very reliant on their supervisors for guidance about reading, research practice and writing. Others are very independent. Some need reassurance that they are up to the task. Others need encouragement to stick at it when life outside the doctorate gets pretty difficult.
Supervision is always a blend of the intellectual and the pastoral. All supervision is unique and most require the supervisor to invent some practices different from the ones that seemed to ‘work’ in all other settings. And everyone has unique strengths and needs – supervisors and doctoral researchers alike. Some partnerships just seem to work, others don’t. Some run out of steam half way through, leaving both partners floundering around wondering how to continue. What do we know about these and what can we learn from them?
We all hear the truly terrible stories about what happens when supervision breaks down. These are often told from the doctoral researchers’ point of view and not the supervisors. Supervisors tend to operate with a kind of stiff upper lip about what happens in supervision relationships, but I’m pretty sure that most of us feel profoundly guilty and responsible when we ‘fail’. I’m also pretty sure I’m not the only person to have ongoing supervisory nightmares about whether they/I are doing the right thing, could I/we have done more/better. Even when supervision seems to be going well, there is always room to think that I/we could be doing things differently.
It’s interesting that there is still so little written about learning to supervise. And as someone who writes about the writing aspects of supervision, it’s probably not insignificant that I feel less than confident in writing about supervision as a wholistic pedagogical practice. Indeed, in the entire time that this blog has been going, this is the first post I have dared to write on the topic.
In my experience there is still too little organisational discussion about supervision as a pedagogical practice. I’m not talking here about those sessions where a few experienced supervisors are trucked out to talk about how they did it their way. I’m also not talking about a run-through of the most obvious things about getting people to write regularly and read a lot. I’m talking about discussion on what counts as good feedback, what strategies supervisors can use to help people get on top of researching… and discussion about the stuck places and the tricky bits.
The general lack of available discussion about supervision as a pedagogical practice is profoundly unhelpful to those graduating doctors who are very soon going to be put in the situation of having to supervise their own doctoral researchers, on their own or with a more experienced colleague. Do they/we just do as they/we were done to – or the reverse? Where do they/we go and who do they/we turn to to think about learning what to do and not do?
For this reason I’m thinking about what might be helpful to blog about in relation to supervision. I’m particularly interested in the shift from the ‘identity’ of doctoral researcher to doctoral supervisor – how does it happen, what are the issues, what is the new learning and where does it come from. I’d be very pleased to receive suggestions for topics to cover, as well as offers of guest posts on learning to supervise.