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The 7th Postgraduate Supervision Conference (26-29 March), hosted by the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa, takes research about supervision from strength to strength. This year the conference took “The Global Scholar: Implications for Postgraduate Studies and Supervision” as its theme. Focusing on the “global” led to rich and engaging presentations and discussions that explored a huge range of topics from the perspective of supervisors, postgraduates and administrators.

Spier Estate, venue for the Postgraduate Supervision Conference.

The conference opened with a keynote by Maresi Nerad (University of Washington, Seattle, USA), who showed us how the structures of doctoral programs worldwide were converging. In many countries there is a shift towards 3 years of funding, a structured “road map” for candidature, organisation of candidates into cohorts and a move towards including internships or secondments (often abroad) as part of the program. This is not necessarily positive: Nerad also reminded us that the discourse around world-class excellence obscures issues around equity and affordability of postgraduate education.

Sioux McKenna (Rhodes University, Grahamstown, South Africa) critiqued the current state of affairs in universities, and offered us strategies to resist the neoliberal agenda: importantly, we need to return the focus to actually doing our intellectual work of reading and thinking – and do it with kindness towards our colleagues. Her message that supervision should create pedagogical spaces of hope is one we should all listen to.

Margaret Kiley (Australian National University, Canberra, Australia) put to us a series of provocative questions relating to the task of benchmarking doctoral examination (hint: it is extraordinarily complicated to try to attempt this on a global stage). She showed us how, when the discourses of globalisation are ubiquitous, we must remember to critique its impact and consider the local implications.

The fourth keynote, Adham Ramadan (the American University, Cairo, Egypt), provided a snapshot of the current state of doctoral education in Egypt and in his own institution. It’s fascinating to see how familar the issues appear, as well the particular challenges posed by the specific historical and cultural context. The focus on developing supervisor capacity and best practice resonates with scholars around the world.

Discussion of future careers for PhD graduates was taken up by Karri Holley in relation to interdisciplinary doctoral programs. She reminded us of the serious challenges posed by pushing into innovative programs that may not be fully understood by universities or industry, potentially placing graduates in difficult circumstances.

Liezel Frick and Johann Mouton (University of Stellenbosch, South Africa) presented their findings from a fascinating project that surveyed the literature on doctoral education in an attempt to establish whether it was a genuinely global field. And yes, it is dominated by Australia, the UK and the US, but it is gratifying to see that South Africa is punching above its weight – owing, perhaps, to conferences like this one that is focused on understanding how to build research capacity for the nation.

The affordances and challenges of online education was a constant theme throughout the conference. There were wonderful examples of effective programs such as an online writing course, “Journeys in research writing”, aimed specifically at supporting black PhD candidates in South Africa and run by Sean Samson and Lucia Thesen (University of Cape Town, South Africa). A presentation by Christine Kumlien and Elisabeth Carlson (Malmö University, Sweden) explained their project to promote cross-cultural competence and internationalisation by setting up webinars between Swedish, Hong Kong and Australian universities for doctoral candidates to discuss and critique their PhD research and to develop joint projects.

Michelle Picard (University of Newcastle, Australia) drew our attention to the “hidden equity groups” in doctoral education, reminding us of the complex balance between online and face-to-face support required by candidates.

PhD candidates are often told that they ought to engage in international mobility but many are not in a position to do so; Rebekah Smith McGloin (Coventry University, UK) provided us with a valuable critique of effects of such expectations. The program of 2-week desk exchanges described by Hanne Sanders (Lund University, Sweden) provided an alternative model for creating opportunities for academic mobility.

Projects such as those outlined above offer some alternatives to broaden experience. Alongside this, of course, is the continuing inequitable access to good internet connections to allow such activities.

Shosh Leshem and Eli Bitzer presented their work on the Acknowledgements section of the thesis. This is an area under scrutiny by several scholars at present (our blog on this topic is our most frequently read post). Their discourse analysis confirmed that these small texts can uncover the “invisible story” of the doctoral journey. In another paper, Sherran Clarence (Rhodes University, South Africa) outlined an understanding of the emotional labour of supervision that moves the metaphor of midwife to a more critical version of care work. These are real challenges for all of us engaged in doctoral education, where the stakes are high and the research challenges sometimes unpredictable.

The conference hosts, Liezel Frick and Eli Bitzer, ensured that this space is one where participants could focus on conversation and learning about our field; their hospitable welcome and smooth running of the event is greatly appreciated by both their local and international colleagues – thank you.

And a very special moment occurred during the conference – Kirstin Wilmot (University of Sydney, Australia) received her very glowing examiners’ reports! Readers may remember the post she wrote for us which was based on some of the work for that doctorate: “Learning how to theorise data in doctoral writing”. Congratulations, Dr Wilmot, and all the very best for a wonderful career ahead!

As always, I saw only a small portion of the conference in the parallel sessions I attended. I know that there were other sessions particularly focused on writing that I was unable to attend. We would love to hear from others about what they learnt and enjoyed about this latest iteration of the Stellenbosch Postgraduate Supervision Conference – please share with us your impressions and insights from this meeting.