troubleshooting research supervision

This is a guest post by Catherine Flynn and Kerry Brydon, both social work academics at Monash University, Australia.

We read with interest Rebecca Coles’ recent account of the challenges of research supervision, from the perspective of a PhD student. The issues which stood out in this reflection were not only that academic supervision is emotionally and intellectually intense, but also perhaps a little mystical: we all do it, but we are never sure what others do, or even what the rules of engagement are.

Similarly, we all ‘know’ that supervision and the supervisory relationship are part of the doctoral research journey and accept that ‘good supervision’ is central to the achievement of good outcomes. Yet we remain unclear not only on what constitutes good supervision, but what is supervision.

We will reflect here on what we see as two core problems with thinking about and getting started with supervision, as well as suggesting some ways forward, which we have found helpful in our own practice. By way of introduction, both of us are Australian Social Work academics with experience in supervising higher degree students – though more typically Honours students. (An Honours degree in Social Work in Australia provides an additional year and a research focus to studies, and can provide direct entry into a PhD program, so there is a similar supervisory relationship, just with a shorter time frame). We also bring considerable experience of social work practitioner supervision, as supervisors and supervisees. It is this clinical/practice framework which we have found helpful in academic work.

So, to the possible problems and some solutions:

Problem 1: understanding the concept of supervision. As a word in use in the wider population, ‘supervision’ has many meanings and nuances. I (CF) once had a mature age social work student on fieldwork placement who baulked at the idea of ‘supervision’; it took a few days for me to find out that this was because she thought that supervision meant I would be constantly watching over her shoulder. Her experience and understanding of supervision was of a pervasive, Orwellian nature: support was not a factor.
When I (CF) looked up the word supervision in the Oxford dictionary recently, this less than helpful definition was provided: ‘the action of supervising someone or something’, with the following examples
• he was placed under the supervision of a probation officer
• she let them work without supervision
The emphasis is on the supervisor’s role, of them observing, directing and keeping watch over; with clear themes of power and control evident. No wonder students are confused and/or concerned.

Solution: talk about our understandings of supervision. Let’s perhaps start by not assuming that students understand the nature and process of supervision, or if they have ideas, that we share the same ideas. An excellent resource for getting started is the Expectations in supervision questionnaire (there are many iterations and adaptations of this work floating around). Using the questionnaire to talk about the process of supervision, not just the content of the study and thesis, allows us to be clear about the things which we might take for granted, but which are necessary, and can bring the research unstuck (basic things like the extent of written feedback that is expected, turnaround times on feedback, the supervisor’s direct role in the research – writing, analysis etc.) Using a tool such as this allows the difficult issues such as power and the nature of the relationship to be acknowledged and discussed with a little more distance, rather than when problems arise.

Problem 2: understanding the day to day activities of supervision: As Rebecca said “I had no idea how this one-to-one interaction was supposed to go”.

Solution: using a social work supervision model as a guide. As social workers, we brought to academia an understanding of the seminal work of Kadushin (1977) about social work supervision. We think that although it was developed for clinical/practice purposes, and as a way of ensuring quality practice with service users, it offers a useful framework for research supervision. In this model supervision has three core elements: (1) administrative, or what is needed to complete the task; (2) supportive, or the efforts made to enable the supervisee to manage the job; and (3) educative, or teaching the knowledge needed to do the job. The resonance with research supervision seemed evident. What we want higher degree research students to be able to do is: (1) become familiar with the research process; (2) position him/herself in the research process; and (3) become experts in their field of research.

With this in mind, we conducted a small study with our past Honours students, to test some of our ideas: Expert companions? Constructing a pedagogy for supervising Honours students (at this stage, the full paper is paywalled). What we found was that those whose supervisors took on a variety of roles in supervision, drawing on the three core elements of supervision according to Kadushin, were typically more satisfied with the process and outcomes. Perhaps as a consequence, participants identified learning both technical and personal skills in supervision; the latter was often unanticipated learning and included assertiveness, independence and patience (All useful skills for a researcher to have!).

If we use this model as a framework for research supervision, combined with talking about how we ‘do’ supervision, it allows for a more transparent and individually responsive approach. As supervisors we can be the ‘expert companions’ that students require.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in Flynn and Brydon, Kardushin, social work, supervision and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to troubleshooting research supervision

  1. Julie Allan says:

    This seems really helpful and deserves distributing more widely in HE (the paper was related to social work). Now a doctoral student, i have been (still am) a supervisor for practitioners (psychology) and undertook a robust programme of study to support this. And I receive supervision on my supervising. It does seem to me that with all the demands made on an academic, that’s a big ask unless the institution really values their work in this regard. And, despite it being a key enabler of research output, which does get the points and prizes, I’m not sure supervision is well supported. But maybe I’m wrong – I don’t have an extensive view on the situation. Good to know about this work.


  2. Catherine Flynn says:

    Thanks for your thoughts Julie. I agree, for both supervisors and supervisees there needs to be more attention to the process of supervision – as well as resources to support this. I often wonder how this process is managed for doctoral students outside of disciplines which are more ‘people oriented’.


  3. It’s great to see a model of supervision applied to honours dissertations. Many Australian universities offer training courses for higher degree by research supervisors, although the focus may be on procedures rather than the process of supervision (see also the Research Supervision ToolKit for a range of tools). In comparison there are limited training opportunities or resources available for supervisors of honours, masters by coursework or undergraduate dissertations. I’m also working on developing training materials and research tools for supervisors at these levels (


    • Catherine Flynn says:

      Thanks Lynne – it is heartening to see some focus on supervision in the area of Honours students – and some growing scholarship.


  4. Pingback: troubleshooting research supervision | Educatio...

  5. SheriO says:

    Thanks for taking up this important topic. Maybe the key to supervision lies in developing a dialogue regarding connoisseurship (Sadler, 2010) to facilitate an assessment literacy paradigm which fosters feedback and feedforward.


  6. SheriO says:

    Here is a cut and paste concerning supervision from a thematic analysis of 995 journal articles over 40 years in the International Journal of Doctoral Studies, 2013, 8, pp 83-105
    This section of literature discusses supervision.

    Two main elements contribute to this theme.
    The first of these – competencies – makes two
    points. One, that there is a diminution in supervisory capabilities in most doctoral supervisors
    today, and while academics have strengthened their abilities to write and publish, they have
    largely overlooked this fundamental role of mentorship. Further, there is a lack of suitable train-
    ing available to fill the void. Second, that there is a list of competencies that supervisors can gain,
    strengthen, and be measured by. Hyatt and Williams (2011, p. 58-60) provide a very good list of
    competencies based on their research into the issue. Their factors include the following:
    Teaching role competencies
    Research role competencies
    1. Communication and facilitation skills
    1. Able to view issues from multiple perspectives
    2. Familiarity with theory and practice
    2. Understand the role of faculty research in teach-
    ing and learning
    3. Use of technology
    4. Modeling and teaching ethics
    3. Continuous development of scholarly skills
    5. Knowledge of and experience with organizational trends
    4. Innovative and adaptive
    5. Contribute to the field through publications and
    6. Pedagogical understanding
    7. Modeling lifelong learning
    6. Understand and promote the role of faculty re-
    search to increase program and university prestige
    Advising role competencies
    7.Use of technology for research
    1. Knowledgeable about research
    methods, tools, and technologies
    Service role competencies
    2. Guide quality written work
    1. Team and collaboration skills
    3. Availability to students
    2. Active in university and professional communi-
    4.Student Engagement (as co-researchers)
    5. Coaching skills
    3. Consultancy skills
    6. Responsible for dissertation advisement
    4. Ability to work with diverse groups
    7. Teaching of research ethics
    5. Use of technological skills for service
    6. Support the University mission
    7.Active in the broader community p.92


  7. pat thomson says:

    Thanks Sheri. Interesting paper. I have some issues with this section on supervision where only one actual reference is given and there is no discussion of empirical basis for this list nor a rationale of why these categories and not others…


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