learning to supervise: some personal turning points

This is a guest post by Helen Colley, Professor of Lifelong Learning at the University of Huddersfield, where she is also Director of Graduate Education for the School of Education and Professional Development. Her personal research interests currently focus on the impact of austerity on the ethical practice of public service workers, and since becoming DGE last year she has become fascinated with learning about doctoral education. She is a (very newly) emerging blogger at supervisorstuff.

I was so glad to see Pat’s recent post on learning to supervise, not least because this is the part of my work in which I feel least secure. And like Eva Bendix Petersen, my experience of formal learning about supervision is that it tends to focus on instrumentalist goals: mainly ‘how to avoid getting the university sued’. So I thought I would reflect on some of my personal turning points as a (still) developing supervisor 12 years into the role.

My first experience was when I found myself rapidly transformed from PhD student into supervisor. I remember being terrified and thinking: ‘What on earth makes people think I can supervise a PhD just because I have completed one myself?’ This remains, in my opinion, a good question. Before I knew it, my name was put on the supervision teams of three students about to complete, I dutifully attended the course on how not to get the university sued, and – hey presto – I was fully qualified to be a Principal Supervisor and sent forth to sink or swim. But I floundered horribly at first, with no clear sense of how to structure the supervisory process, and I’m sure I did not make a very good job of it in those early days. To male matters worse, supervision seemed a big secret – unlike other research processes, no one ever seemed to discuss it openly.

One turning point came for me when I began to be invited to examine doctorates. Put in the position of assessing theses, I began to get a better sense of how they should be constructed, and what the major flaws could be. This sharpened up my reflection on my own supervisory practice. In particular, it made me realise that I needed to encourage my students to think, from the very start, about the key ideas they were addressing, and to engage with debates about different ways of conceptualising these ideas. So if a student wants to research how nurses learn to care for patients, I want them to understand straight away that ‘care’ itself is a contested notion, and can be understood in very different ways. If another student wants to research ‘learner identities’, I get them to read very early on about different ways of conceptualising identity. And in their research proposal, I want them to be able to sketch the basic strands of these debates, and position themselves – for the time being at least – in relation to them. When I did my own PhD, my former, rather privileged education meant I had done this instinctively – but I was learning that I had to make such tacit knowledge explicit to my students.

Another turning point in my development as a supervisor came when Barbara Kamler and Pat Thomson’s book ‘Helping Doctoral Students Write‘ came out. This was the first time I had encountered anyone discussing the pedagogy of supervision and how to help doctoral students see themselves as researchers through practices of writing. The book remains something of a ‘bible’ for me, and I recommend it to all my doctoral students. I use it in particular to run workshops on ‘writing with an authoritative voice’. I also use it to coach my own students at the computer when they are working with the literatures, so they can avoid the dreaded List and feel more confident to take charge of their conversation with other authors.

Rowena Murray’s book ‘How to Write a Thesis‘ has also been very useful. It has given me a whole toolkit of great questions to ask students and exercises to give them. One thing it has made me confident to do is to get students to write a synopsis of their thesis at different stages during their research, to help clarify the focus of their study and their line of argument. I also encourage them to send me different types of writing, including freewriting and generative writing, alongside more formal pieces to prepare for supervision meetings. I find this less formal writing can often help us have a much richer and deeper discussion when we meet: it seems to enable the students to reflect on the most important intellectual challenges they are facing, without feeling they have to either cover them up or solve them on their own.

I confess I am still nervous about supervising – it feels like such a huge responsibility, and I do worry about getting it right. There have been a couple of occasions in the early days when I know I failed to help a student progress, I’ve run out of strategies and had to hand them over to other supervisors who have found a better way to get them through. But I’m more confident than I used to be, I’ve successfully taken on students from other supervisors, and I’ve now had the pleasure of seeing a number of students through to completion.

I’d be really interested to hear from other colleagues about their learning journeys as supervisors… What were turning points for you? Which resources or experiences have helped you learn this most secretive of academic jobs? What pedagogical approaches work for you and your students? Do please add your comments below.

About pat thomson

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

5 Responses to learning to supervise: some personal turning points

  1. Sally Sargeant says:

    I was so glad to see this post. I’ve examined a PhD thesis and supervised a professional doctorate to completion . I’m currently supervising a PhD student who is now writing up. It’s not hard in terms of subject guidance, but I find myself constantly reflecting on how best to support my student and give her good advice – which means pointing out her many flaws whilst trying to maintain her confidence. I remember feeling absolutely crushed when my own supervisors told me my work was no where near ready to submit and having to do significant rewrites. They were right of course, but it’s a vulnerable time for students who have invested significant time and energy to reach that stage (already an achievement given high attrition rates of doctoral study) and who are desperate to reach the final hurdle. One has to be careful to give the right amount of encouragement but not fool the student into a false sense of security. I now find myself writing things like “No!” or “I’ve told you before, don’t do this!”, then castigating myself for being too harsh. After all, we’re constantly given guidance about giving constructive feedback to students on taught courses, but our research students become much closer to their work. At best, their writing contains some exclusionary rhetoric – at worst it makes no sense at all. I ask myself – and others – do we as PhD supervisors need a stronger “cruel to be kind” ethos? I certainly think we need more guidance ourselves – very vexing given that we’re supposed to be the experts.


  2. Pingback: Some thoughts on supervisor angst | SupervisorStuff

  3. Helen Colley says:

    Thanks for this comment, Sally. I think you pinpoint one of the key dilemmas in supervision – how to be constructive but challenging in order to get students to achieve the necessary doctoral level in their thinking and writing. One thing I’ve been doing more recently when I get a poor piece of writing from a student is to try different approaches than just ‘marking’ it. Using Kamler and Thomson’s approach (‘Helping Doctoral Students Write’), I sometimes just take half a page or a page of the piece that exemplifies the problems. Then I sit down at the computer with the student to analyse it and re-write or edit it together, trying to spell out the learning points – after that, I ask them to revise the whole piece in line with what we’ve done on the extract. On the other hand, I have a colleague who can definitely be ‘cruel to be kind’ at times, and has been know to return bad pieces of writing to their students with a curt message like ‘Send this back to me when it looks like a chapter’ – and they’ve had some real success doing this according to their ex-students! I have considered this approach, but never got round to trying it out!


  4. Sue Gollifer says:

    I’m a doctoral student and have started following Pat’s blog because it is such a rich source of practical information. Reading these reflections on the role of supervision, from the”other side”, I very much appreciate reading the role being described as “such a huge responsibility” and the honesty in descriptions that admit feelings of still being “nervous about supervising” and worries “about getting it right”. Such reflections really help all those involved in such a personal/professional academic relationship to appreciate the importance of honest and open communication between supervisor and doctoral student, so that both can support each other in a constructive and productive manner.


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

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