By Ian Brailsford. Ian is Postgraduate Learning Adviser in the Libraries and Learning Services at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. With doctoral advising as his core work, Ian has an insightful approach to doctoral writing and the personal context that supports it.
Postgraduate research marks a transition from structured teaching and learning, with the lecturer deciding the course content, learning outcomes, assignment tasks and schedule, to fully fledged academic independence. To manage this in-between space, universities have for decades adopted an academic apprenticeship model where the less experienced researcher works under the supervision of a ‘master’. When it works well, as it does in most cases, postgraduate supervision is ‘win win’: the emerging early-career researcher is guided through the project to completion and the supervisor, as one experienced academic, Professor Robin Kearns, once put it, gains a new colleague. In an ideal world the balance of power shifts towards the end of the project; the postgraduate researcher becomes the expert and teaches the supervisor about their new-found knowledge.
However, we’re all human. Postgraduate supervision is widely acknowledged a complex form of university teaching (Pearson & Brew, 2002), covering as it does mentoring, editing and proof-reading, offering advice and guidance, anticipating problems, providing encouragement and, occasionally, delivering ‘tough love’. Most university teaching is a set formula of lectures, labs, seminars and tutorials, assignment tasks and exam questions and it’s all over in one semester. Supervising a postgraduate project can span up to eight years for a part-time doctoral candidate. Supervisors come in all academic shapes and sizes; some see their role as supervising the person whereas others see it more as supervising the research. And postgraduate students have varying academic backgrounds, motives, career goals, skills sets, attitudes and aptitudes. To say it’s a potentially complex relationship (or set of relationships if co-supervised) is an understatement.
I’ve experienced both sides of the divide, working with new postgraduate students starting their projects and also running professional development workshops for new supervisors. Plus I’ve been supervised for my History MA and PhD, been a postgraduate supervisor and I’ve facilitated sessions bringing postgraduate students and supervisors together to discuss different perspectives. I think new researchers (and new supervisors too if I’m being honest) should focus on the following three aspects of supervision to ensure a productive relationship.
First, universities know that postgraduate supervision is complicated and can’t leave things to chance. As a result, any institution worth its salt has a set of guidelines or expectations around supervision. These vary from formal agreements, leading to a signed document that lays out the expectations, to open-ended questions around ‘who does what’ in supervision to inform early discussions. If you are thinking of doing doctoral research look at your university’s supervision policies. In Auckland, the policies for AUT and the University of Auckland are good exemplars.
While the supervision mechanisms vary, the underlying principles are similar: honest, open and collegial conversations from the beginning of the project to ensure everyone is on the same page and regular reviews of not only the progress of the project but the development of the relationship. If possible, most universities want the candidate to be the project manager and secretary for the research: organising the meetings, setting the agenda, taking the minutes from the meetings and then circulating them to all concerned to guarantee that everyone knows what was agreed to at the meeting.
Supervisors know that any research isn’t finished until it’s been written up: this applies to their own research and publishing endeavours. Reviewing written work is where they get to understand their postgraduate students’ research thinking and writing styles. They also know that research is time consuming and that there’s always the temptation to put off writing for more data collection, background reading or thinking time. So my second piece of advice is that doctoral students need to get writing as soon as possible and also find out from their supervisors what they expect from the writing that they will review. For example, are they requiring highly polished written work that’s been carefully edited and revised or are they prepared to review written work that’s the author’s first thoughts in rough, draft form? How many times are they prepared to review the same piece of writing? Also, how ‘hands on’ are they when it comes to editing and revising your dissertation or thesis text?[i] This becomes ‘situation critical’ approaching the submission date. I’ve also been aware of problems arising when postgraduate students submit a substantial piece of writing to their supervisor and expect it back the next morning, forgetting that reviewing say a 5,000 word chapter will take several hours. Or even more annoying for the supervisor, handing over a draft chapter and then sending a second, revised copy before the original one has been returned. Finally, candidates should stay civil: if they realise they can’t make that deadline when they promised to send their supervisor a chapter to review, they need to let the supervisor know as soon as possible and then negotiate a revised handover date. As in most supervision issues, honesty is the best policy.
My final ‘tip’ draws from the Researcher Development Framework developed by colleagues at the University of Adelaide. This framework spans the continuum I mentioned at the start of this piece, from very structured learning to complete autonomy as a researcher. It’s good to consider the extent to which any postgraduate research question or project is one the candidate has dreamt up. If a candidate regards doctoral research is “their baby”, then the supervisor’s role should be different to a project where the supervisor has already invested time, energy and resources creating the infrastructure and the candidate has applied to that supervisor to work on one of their ‘pet’ projects. So look at the framework’s top level and think about where the research fits in, from level one (prescribed research) to level seven (enlarging research). My hunch is that most postgraduate researchers are somewhere between these two. But if candidates can develop some self-awareness of what their supervisors are actually ‘doing’ in relation to what the project wants to achieve, then this means they can better manage their own research, alongside their supervisor, with their eyes open.
Ian Brailsford, University of Auckland
[i] These writing issues are developed further in Barbara Grant and Linlin Xu’s chapter ‘Framing feedback expectations: A “pedagogy of explicitness,”’ pp. 23-29 in (Carter & Laurs eds.) Developing Doctoral Writing: A Handbook for Supervisors and Advisors, 2018, London and New York: Routledge.
Pearson, M., & Brew, A. (2002). Research training and supervision development. Studies in Higher education, 27(2), 135-150.