learning to supervise: from training to pedagogy

This guest post is by Eva Bendix Petersen. Eva is senior lecturer in the School of Education at the University of Newcastle, Australia. Her research focusses on subject/identity formation in educational contexts, especially as they play out in Academia. Eva is the first of a series of guest bloggers responding to my invitation to write about learning to supervise.

I need to begin by stating that the following is written from an Australian perspective. Doctoral supervision takes different shapes and forms around the world. Interestingly, what we call ‘supervising’ Americans call ‘advising’ and Danes, to take another example, call it ‘guiding’. Both these other terms conjure up different connotations of what is involved.

In a recent blog post Pat asked about how we come to learn to supervise. Most Australian universities now have formal supervision training but they vary in arrangement, length and intensity. Some places require that new supervisors sit through a number of modules – and I write ‘sit through’ because that is how the participants often describe the experience – and in other places there is a more or less explicit mentoring policy, which stipulates that you cannot be the principal supervisor before you have seen a student through to completion. In this system inexperienced supervisors are teamed up with experienced supervisors and expected to learn the art through osmosis. In most places it is now the norm that each student has at least two supervisors, which in itself throws up a host of issues. As far as I know, the mentored learning process is not quality assured formally by anyone anywhere and the mentor is not taught how to mentor. You are automatically given the right to mentor an inexperienced colleague when you successfully see a student over the finish line. Yet the notion of success here is merely about completion – whether the completion leaves serious scars on the candidate, or whether the student completed because s/he was given an already conceptualised project where all there was left to do was some simple software manipulation of the already collected data.

In terms of the supervision training modules I mentioned, the ones I have sat through and have learned about through colleagues and research participants, all have a few key features in common. They mostly concern the administrative aspects associated with the work, for example, what progress reports or annual reports are required; how to set a meeting schedule; how to make sure that the university retains any Intellectual Property that might be developed. And mostly they are about drumming the institution’s message home: timely completions or else! With the recent changes to the research training funding scheme, universities are under more pressure than ever to ensure that students complete on time. Even discussion of ‘tensions in the supervisory team’ is framed in terms of how they hurt timely completions!

Therefore what we are typically left with are sessions where academics get flogged with managerial sticks and/or informal learning processes behind closed doors.

What some scholars in the field of doctoral supervision say again and again is that what is missing from all this are conversations about pedagogy. Thinking about supervision as a pedagogical encounter reminds us that it a complex and sophisticated form of teaching and that like all other forms of teaching there are competing notions about how it should be done and why. In this framework, learning to supervise would require that newbies are educated about these different and competing traditions so that they can make informed choices about their own practice rather than being hostage to the ad hoc models that they have the opportunity to experience personally.

The concept of pedagogy, which derives from the word ‘to lead’, turns our attention to the ‘disciplinary’ features of the practice, that is, how it is always involved not only in the production of knowledge but also in the production of identities. We are shaped as academics through these pedagogical encounters, supervisors as well as supervisees. This has been the focus of my own empirical research in the field, where I consider the discursive production of ‘academichood’. In some of this work it becomes clear that supervisors in their pedagogical practices are charged with negotiating some fairly contradictory discourses – such as the disciplinary norms about what constitutes a quality PhD and the institutional/policy drivers for ‘timely’ completions. Moving from a technocratic and managerial training regime to one focussed on doctoral pedagogy, would allow us to consider these issues as well as the philosophical and theoretical foundations for our praxis.

Further reading
Green, B., & Lee, A. (1995). Theorising postgraduate pedagogy. Australian Universities Review, 38, 40-45.
Green, B. (2005). Unfinished business? Subjectivity and supervision. Higher Education Research Development, 24(2), 151-163.
Lee, A. & Williams, C. (1999). Forged in fire: narratives of trauma in PhD supervision pedagogy, Southern Review, 32(1), 6-26.
Petersen, E.B. (2007). Negotiating academicity: post-graduate research supervision as category boundary work, Studies in Higher Education, 32(4), 475-487.
Petersen, E. B. (2012). Re-signifying subjectivity? A narrative exploration of ‘non-traditional ’doctoral students’ lived experience of subject formation through two Australian cases. Studies in Higher Education, (ahead-of-print), 1-12.

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, learning, pedagogy, PhD, supervision and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to learning to supervise: from training to pedagogy

  1. Pingback: Learning to supervise | stilettoatwork

  2. Hello Eva, thank you.

    I have just started my PhD, so very much thinking about these issues.
    In Italy, the role of a ‘supervisor’ is covered by a ‘relatore’ – in other words, a person who ‘relates’ the work of the doctoral candidate to a ‘commission’. The word ‘relatore’ has connotations which are not those associated with pedagogy and education in so far as it suggests the simple ‘relating’ – or ‘reporting’ – of somebody else’s research (i.e. the student’s), which often involves no guidance. In fact, in Italy, it is often the case that the ‘relatore’ is just a name the student needs to get through a process. My own experience – from a student perspective – is nascent, and I am very grateful that this is being discussed. Thank you.


  3. M-H says:

    This is a thoughtful contribution to the discussion. Being part of an institution which has nearly 4,000 PhD students (nearly 10% of the total number in Australia) I am really aware of the varieties of supervisory practices across the institution, and how few of these are based in any concept of pedagogy. There is not even any true academic leadership of policy in this area that might tie the managerial to the pedagogical in a way that might benefit both students and staff. Thanks Eva.


  4. Pingback: learning to supervise: from ‘taking on’ to ‘recruiting’ research students | patter

  5. Pingback: learning to supervise: some personal turning points | patter

  6. Pingback: supervision as an ethic of care | patter

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