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by Cally Guerin

I’ve just spent a wonderful week in the South African town of Stellenbosch surrounded by internationally recognised key thinkers in doctoral education. These scholars were gathered together to attend the Postgraduate Supervision Conference, a biennial event hosted by Stellenbosch University. One of the things that is particularly noticeable in this environment is the wonderfully inclusive nature of this conference community. Sit down next to anyone and you are immediately engaged in a fascinating conversation (of a mostly intellectual nature, but there’s also plenty of laughter and storytelling too!). This is precisely the kind of academic community that I’ve always hoped to find – in which people are excited about the possibilities of their work and are keen to share ideas and learn from each other. All aspects of PhD studies were explored, and some interesting trends are emerging.

The broad theme of the conference was ‘Candidates, supervisors and institutions: pushing postgraduate boundaries’. Three keynotes pushed us into thinking carefully about what this might mean. Sue Clegg opened by challenging us to reconsider the boundaries around the ‘original and substantial contribution to knowledge’ required in doctoral studies and to think about what this means in our current political contexts. Terry Evans explored the metaphor of ‘the boundary’ in all its nuances for students, their supervisors, and also their institutions, including a consideration of supervisors as ‘boundary riders’ monitoring the edges of their students’ creativity. While supervisors should be encouraging students to push the boundaries in their field, there are also risks associated with pushing those boundaries to breaking point. And Chaya Herman updated us on what’s happening in the South African context at present, where there are enormous demands put on universities to rapidly increase the number of PhDs being produced, but to do so with very limited resources in terms of suitably qualified supervisors to see these projects through to completion.

For me one of the most interesting themes to emerge from the papers and conversations was the increasing focus on group or cohort supervision, which sits nicely alongside other attitudes and concerns with building communities of practice for scholars at all stages of their careers. In most places we are seeing a shift away from the strict boundaries around an individual supervisor working with an individual student on an individual project. It would seem that research writing is increasingly being seen as a skill that can begin to be developed in group situations, such as in Honours group projects or in the context of group supervision. It doesn’t finish there, of course, and other papers reminded us that writing development continues to be important at the very end of the doctorate in the feedback (or even feedforward) that examiners can provide alongside the actual assessment of the thesis.

Perhaps the most challenging material came up in relation to writing unconventional theses, such as those engaged in knowledge construction practices from different cultural contexts. These discussions explored the risks — and pleasures — associated with pushing the boundaries of a ‘doctoral thesis’ to its limits. Discussions about the emotional aspects of writing came up more than once, from linguists as well as sociologists, psychologists and cultural studies theorists. Some illuminating research is appearing that uses the writing of narratives by supervisors as a way to engage their emotional selves in the process of supervision.

It was also great to hear the voices of people who are currently writing their PhDs — of course, these voices are central to any endeavour to understand doctoral education and doctoral writing. Voice came up in other contexts, too, linked to the concept of risk in doctoral projects, and also in relation to the challenges of learning how to integrate multiple voices into a literature review. This is an ongoing interest of mine, and one that is not always well understood (more to come on that one…).

I’ve come away refreshed and stimulated, with lots of new ideas about where I’d like to head next both in my teaching and research. We hope that some of the presenters at the conference will be able to write guest blogs on this site in coming months — stay tuned!

But, of course, everyone has a different experience of any conference, depending on which papers they attended out of the parallel streams. If you were at this conference, what else would you like to add? What did I miss that you found particularly useful or illuminating? And if you weren’t there this time, what topics would you like to see included at this or a similar event?