learning to supervise: from ‘taking on’ to ‘recruiting’ research students

This is a guest post by Scott Eacott. Scott is associate professor of educational leadership in the Faculty of Education at the Australian Catholic University (North Sydney). His research focuses on educational leadership, management and administration, but he has a keen interest in research leadership and policy.

In this post I build on Pat’s earlier stimulus ‘learning to supervise’ and Eva Bendix Petersen’s ‘from training to pedagogy’ to discuss the role of finding research students. As with Eva, I am writing from an Australian standpoint.

For me, a key piece of learning in becoming a supervisor is the recruitment of research students. This is an area where I infrequently endear myself to the powers that be, but I believe I have good reasons.

My choice of sub-heading: ‘taking on’ to ‘recruiting’ is my attempt to highlight what I see as a central element in learning to supervise. For me, the distinction between taking on students – whether it is to fill a supervision load, as part of your probation (or performance measures) or simply because your School/Faculty needs the students to make budget – and recruiting students for building a research program has huge implications for long-term success and productivity. Significantly, it is a big part of the shift from doctoral researcher to doctoral supervisor.

There are many different approaches, at national, institutional and School levels, on the recruitment of research students. In the contexts in which I have worked, arguably the most common approach is for students to apply to an institution. An alarming application of this approach is when an institution enrols students into doctoral programs (even having them start coursework components) and then tries to find supervisors for them among faculty – but that is a whole other post.

Advice for potential graduate school students frequently cites that it is the supervisor that matters more than the School / University (see here). But rarely do we provide mentoring / support for new supervisors on the recruitment of students.

As Eva wrote last week, supervisor training programs are more about administrative matters and adherence to policy and performance metrics (e.g. timely completion). My fear for new supervisors is that supervision becomes about busy work, taking on students who have enrolled but have little in common with the supervisor’s research program. For the institution, this is about quantum and timely completion – the doctorate as a training factory not a scholarly pursuit. Needing to see a student through to completion as a co-supervisor often results in new supervisors spending many years supervising (and the level of activity depends on the active role taken by the principal supervisor – which varies considerably in my experience) usually outside of their core area of research activity.

A key insight for me was provided in an earlier post from Pat where she notes:
If I am to supervise and/or mentor someone, then I want to know that there is something in what they have to offer that I think is worthwhile and interesting AND that can contribute to and extend the work that I and colleagues already undertake. I’m looking for potential synergies and for ways in which the proposed research will contribute to the research networks and centre of which I’m part.

This approach changes the focus from being busy to building research. This is not about accepting students and then trying to change / shape their research into your own area and approach – and I have questions about this very practice. Rather, this is about working with students for mutual gain.

This approach is risky. Doing so is highly visible political work. You might not take on every student application that comes across your desk (or email) and this may be constructed as being selfish, idealistic and not being a team player – or good organisational citizen – but I contend that if you want a productive, and positive, supervisory experience then attention to ways of building research through supervision is imperative. Not to mention that in the long-term, such an approach brings great value to the institution through a distinctive research program, but again, that is a whole other post.

In response to Pat’s stimulus, in learning to supervise, I think more attention needs to be paid to ways of building research through recruiting students.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
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