writing centred supervision

I’ve been thinking recently about my own supervision practices, as well as the literatures on supervision. You’d think I’d have this sorted eh, given how much I write about writing. But there’s always lots of room for reflection, learning and change no matter how much you do something. 

I’m wondering what year one PhD tutorials would look like if I focused as much on academic writing as I do on the particular topic that is being researched. What if I balanced process and content right at the get go? Academic writing at the very start.

When doctoral researchers start their course of study most supervisors, including me, concentrate on literature work. This is so the doctoral researcher can hone their research question and then produce a workable research design – and all in a timely fashion. Most of us of course ask that this starting-off work be produced in and through writing.

However, at the outset, we tend to assume that the doctoral researcher knows how to write, and it’s not until they show that they don’t that we intervene. But what if we didn’t hide academic writing away as a secondary conversation topic? What if we supervisors assumed at the start that we were as much responsible for supporting academic writing as supporting the development of the topic? What if we started from the view that, rather than providing remedial support to those who cant ‘do it’ properly, our job was actually to provide structured support for the learning of academic writing?  What if our job was/is to help people move from writing essays and assignments to becoming and being academic writers capable of being published in a range of outlets, including good journals? What if we also includedwriting for readers outside the academy? What would we do differently? 

If supervisors and grad schools started from a highly writing-focused position, they certainly wouldn’t assume that doctoral writers already know the conventions and genres that are open to them. Noone would assume that they need to start writing draft chapters right at the start. They wouldn’t assume that all doctoral researchers can write in isolation, shut away from one another, alone in the quiet of their own little cubicles.  They wouldn’t assume that all doctoral researchers already have a workable set of strategies that they can use to start writing and keep writing. They’d not assume that all we have to do is to point out errors in texts and all that the doctoral researcher has to do is fix it … in other words assume that people new to this kind of academic writing will automatically not only understand why what they’ve done is a problem,  but also know what they need to do instead, and why.

So what might we do differently?  Well, what might I do differently? Well we/I might, right at the very first supervision begin to discuss the conventions of writing in the discipline, and the genres of writing that are available to the doctoral researcher. We/I might ask doctoral researchers to read for academic writing, as well as for substantive content. We/I might focus discussion on the ways in which research problems/topics are introduced, how arguments are staged and supported, how debates are presented and evaluated, how researchers appear in the text. We/I could look for the ways in which different kinds of structures are used within genres, the kinds of meta-commentary that is used, the ways in which writers create a sense of their own persona within a text. We might discuss alternative writing formats well before it becomes clear that these might be helpful for their particular research project, rather than wait for the doctoral researcher to introduce the subject.

Now I do do quite a lot of this already, and I often do it around actual pieces of writing for conferences and the like, but I’m sure I could address academic writing in a more systematic way in supervision, and I could probably do it earlier. So I’m building myself a little syllabus right now, and I think I might try this start-early approach out this year.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
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7 Responses to writing centred supervision

  1. I couldn’t agree with you more, Pat! I nowadays regard the substance of the argument, and the styles and devices of making it in polished writing, as indivisible and essential to academic writing. You hint at Voice, which is so underplayed in what we teach our students and expect from our peers. I would love to see your syllabus when you have devised it, if possible. I do enjoy all of your blogs, for which many thanks indeed!


  2. Sassan says:

    I think this would be an excellent approach. Looking back at my own (nearly finished) dissertation journey, something like you describe in your post would have been incredible helpful for myself. Good luck with the new syllabus – for me it sounds right on spot.


  3. Sue says:

    Interesting thought. I do more upfront coaching for the group sessions I do for Honours students prior to their writing tasks than I do for my RHD students – I am more reactive to their work than proactive. I think because it feels as if would be disrespectful to assume RHD students can’t write – not logical given they will be dealing with new genres and increased expectations. I also think I am not as confident about my ability to be ‘meta’ about these more advanced writing tasks! Look forward to seeing how you unpack this strategy.


  4. Linda Baines says:

    Pat, What you’re saying really makes sense, and this kind of approach would help many of us doctoral students to recognise the gaps in their academic writing skills and more importantly when they’re getting it right. It would be really interesting to see what your syllabus looks like. It’d be helpful if you’d be willing to share it with us,.


    • pat thomson says:

      It’s putting together some of my patter posts and Barbara and my book on Helping Doctoral students Write – more scaffolding, more broken down – bits from my writing courses – and I think Ill have to invent some new stuff too. I think maybe its the next book, not sure, it’ll be weird to write one without Barbara!


  5. Freaknomore says:

    As a non-native English Phd researcher, my conclusion is that doing a PhDs written in English language is almost doing a PhD in creative English writing. In that sense, I wonder if all PhDs in social sciences and humanities in the UK could be clubbed together as a PhD in English creative writing? There is an unwritten minimum requirement that is not specified when we apply for the admissions and we realize this much later in the process that we don’t have the basic level of academic English writing. I feel discriminated when I see my supervisors happy and so complacent with native English writers who might not have any depth in their arguments but make up that deficiency due to their comfort of expressing in their native English words that non-native English speakers don’t have. we need twice the amount of time to write. Don’t universities train supervisors to know that international students who comprise nearly 50% (at my university including EU students) of the student intake and that we start from a very different level as we don’t speak English at home and that they should be patient and not judge our research purely based on grammar?is there any solution to this instead ofspending thousands of pounds hiring a copy editors in addition to our staggering international student tuition fee and maintence costs while doing PhD in UK? Don’t universities owe some responsibility to help international students get the academic support we require like additional time, extension, and other different writing support? I am very proud about my thesis but it is my writing that is letting me down to the point where I see my supervisors bullying me in every supervision and we never discuss my arguments and concepts at all. It’s commas, hyphens, and other typos that is discuss instead. I have no where to turn. I am devastated and demoralized. My problem is so embarrassing that I cannot even discuss with colleagues nor the head of the department. I know many who are like in my situation but don’t have the courage to come out. I have lost confidence in my supervisors and don’t want them to write me letters of reference.


  6. Pingback: writing centred supervision | Saint Mary's University Writing Centre

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