By Susan Carter, Cally Guerin and Claire Aitchison


IDERN held its triennial meeting in Adelaide last week, and we were fortunate enough to be present. IDERN comprises a loose network of people with a shared interest in doctoral education research. Unlike conventional conferences where attendees present their current research, the focus is on conversation, discussion and debate. Attention is especially centred on how research into doctoral education is conducted, and identification of the questions we need to raise in relation to doctoral education.

The first morning of the IDERN meeting investigated innovative and alternative methodologies, with thought ranging around more creative methods for attendee’s own research on doctoral pedagogies and on the supervision of doctoral students who may want to take innovative approaches. There’s more opportunity to work with digital co-production, and the potential for collaborative fertilisation. Academics will need to be ready to supervise in this new environment, possibly by breaking existing moulds, some of which we may have created for ourselves as ‘useful tools’. We were challenged to consider specific issues and match these to alternative methods in a way that really pushed us to reconsider new possibilities.

A session unpacked the possibilities of narrative, storytelling, image, artwork, performative doctoral learning: things to do with enquiring, representing, conveying. Perhaps we might analyse data more creatively, not just thematically. For example, interview stories could be layered like poetry, exploiting the evocative nature of language; self-portraits can be used to convey emotions and development over the doctoral project, in the process raising questions about where research is situated; performance art leads to new, digitally engaged thesis forms. These methods may let us make better sense of trauma, injustice and power.

Given all these new possibilities, the afternoon focus switched to the role of doctoral examination. How could examiners negotiate between gate-keeping and midwifery of new researchers? What were the criteria for examining? How could personal bias be avoided? What about when examiners’ reports disagreed? Should supervisors be part of the examination process or not? And what was the role of an oral component in the examination process. Practices in different countries and institutions were compared, since participants came from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the United Kingdom, Singapore, Sweden and Denmark.

The second day of the IDERN meeting was given to considerations of the internationalization of doctoral education and to how we might counter the inequities that spill out from that for non-western research students. Claire Aitchison led consideration of national differences in doctoral education, teasing out global shifts, international imperatives, emerging trends, potentialities and challenges. We heard from speakers about the current situations in South Africa, Germany, Singapore, Canada and Australia. Both staff and student mobility between regions continues to be a dominant pattern in researcher education, but the timing and locations are shifting for those in Asia particularly. IDERN provides a chance to share stories and widen our own limited understanding of what is going on globally.

We then swung to a reminder of the north-south debate, recognition of academic privilege shaped by geography and culture, when, for example, some journals are ranked more highly because of the place of their publication. There was a desire to support ‘south’ knowledges, the reminder of knowledge that has been lost or over-written by western perspectives. The meeting had started by acknowledging the Kaurna people of the Adelaide plains on whose ground the conference was situated; this session took the opportunity to remind us that universities should be more attentive to the knowledges of Indigenous people.

Discussion followed round a series of questions. What are we preparing PhDs for: to sustain colonialism? If we reframe and decolonize history, will this help previously disadvantaged students to succeed? How can we address social issues through our doctoral pedagogy? How can we introduce new models of supervision based on different knowledge systems? Clearly, we need research into doctoral education that helps us understand these issues better, and to develop appropriate responses to them.

Supervision ideally clues doctoral candidates up for a future career that will include understanding the political landscape of academia. Increasingly, too, it means preparing students for non-academic jobs. All of our discussions pointed to the ways that supervision is becoming increasingly complex and multi-dimensional.

As we drew to a close, Barbara Grant, one of the original IDERN members and former organizing Committee member, expressed her pleasure at being again in ‘the house of doctoral education research’: the fourth IDERN meeting. She emphasized that IDERN is not about practice, but about research practice, and proposed that research must remain free from institutional constraint as a space of radical independence. Research on doctoral pedagogy can generate modes of resistance. Sometimes research produces hope—and Barbara suggested IDERN as one forum for providing an energized, inspirational and lively space.  We need each other for energy, inspiration, and for maintenance of a lively space.

If you have anything more to contribute as someone who was there, please add a comment. And if you weren’t there, but have a comment on some of what was discussed, we’re listening!