learning to supervise – what’s to know?

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.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in doctoral pedagogies, identity, supervision and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to learning to supervise – what’s to know?

  1. says:

    WOW just what I was looking for. Came here by searching for research paper topics


  2. Pingback: learning to supervise – what’s to know? | Fabrication Nation

  3. SheriO says:

    I’m wondering about the entire narrative arc of doctoral work and all the players on the stage. On the players list a number of characters perhaps, with a number of influences, from the primary supervisor, to other voices, fellow doctoral researchers other academics. How are all these influences brought together?
    How do supervisors allow for secondary influences?
    How do supervisors engage with preparation of the dissertation and for the oral exam?
    Lovitts divided her supervisor subjects into high and low producers, are some supervisors better with certain personality types than others?
    How do supervisors work with more mature students who may have greater gravitas by virtue of life experience than the younger doctoral researcher?
    How do supervisors talk to other academics who also give input?
    How can supervision work as a plural relationships?

    How would supervision differ if the doctoral researcher undertook a ‘series of articles,’ as in Damrosch’s ideas against dissertation as monograph?
    What about the multiple supervisor scenario?
    These questions lead to a need for renewal and greater clarity of the purpose of many practices in doctoral education.


  4. tyrus63 says:

    I would recommend the books of Barbara Lovitts, her Making the Implicit Explicit, and her discipline-specific book series Developing Quality Dissertations. It is true what you say: there is surprisingly little written (and formally studied) on doctoral advising, but Barbara Lovitts is a salutary exception.


  5. pat thomson says:

    There is a body of research and a number of books including delamont and Epstein Boden and Kenway. This doesn’t seem to inform practice in most HEs though. So the question in part is about how to join up what is known with what is not done/ done…


  6. Dr E says:

    Hi, there are a few of us who do theoretically informed empirical research in this field and who try to think about supervision beyond things such as completion times, efficiency etc. and conceptualise it as a pedagogy and intensely related to identity formation and disciplinary boundary work. Interestingly the most interesting research in this field, in my view, comes from Australia, with people like Bill Green, Allison Lee, and the 2001 book ‘Postgraduate Research Supervision: Transforming (R)Elations’ edited by Alison Bartlett & Gina Mercer.I believe these kinds of works speak directly to praxis and it would be great to see them used in supervision training, which, as you point out, rarely offers theoretical perspectives or analytical strategies but usually involves trolleying out someone who the institution has deemed ‘successful’ (usually meaning having supervised many to completion and done so ‘on time’).


  7. Kathleen Pleasants says:

    Thank you for the post Pat. You may have seen the SI of Australian Universities’ review (54(1), 2012) Contemporary issue in doctoral education. Bill Green’s paper is particularly interesting to me as an academic amidst the turmoil of a phd myself, struggling with my own supervision issues, and also as someone who has been involved in supervising honours students.


  8. M-H says:

    “So the question in part is about how to join up what is known with what is not done/ done…” I think this is exactly right. The gap between what theory there is and policy/practice is yawning, and I think it is partly because, as you say, supervisors have difficulty articulating their experience without feeling they are somehow breaching confidentiality in their supervisory relationships. It’s interesting that students often don’t have that same feeling!

    As someone who is about to graduate with a PhD on doing a PhD (written from the student point of view), I’d be very interesting in frank discussion of the difficulties that supervisors encounter, beyond tips on ‘management’ of students or process. In addition to SheriO’s questions:
    How does the process of supervising continue to change your perception of yourself as a supervisor and researcher? – the identity work is ongoing.
    How difficult do supervisors find it, working within University systems – do these support or impede the supervisory relationship, and how?
    How does the work of supervision vary across disciplines, and what are the implications of this for students doing cross- or trans-discplinary projects?


  9. Very important pts raised. Thank you for posting another brilliant academic masterpiece. truly loved reading this one…


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  16. Julia says:

    I’m currently reading Anita Silvers on Justice for Talent / Justice through Trust – I find it interesting and not irrelevant to matters of doctoral education & supervision. It could probably be easily integrated alongside Buber or Nodding’s ideas – as covered in your post ‘supervision as an ethic of care’ – which seem a lot more developed than Silvers’ innovative framework for now.
    I find nurturing a climate for mutual respect important and Silvers ideas on justice seem to recognise the importance of that dimension.


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