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.