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By Cally Guerin

The 8th Postgraduate Supervision Conference (PGS) was run fully online for the first time in March this year. It’s the first full conference I’ve attended since the pandemic began and it was such a joy to be in the ‘presence’ of other people researching doctoral education – I didn’t realise quite how much I’ve been missing this company! The program had lots of familiar names and faces, as well as many researchers whose work is new to me.

The Stellenbosch conference draws participants from across the globe and facilitates discussions that focus on some of the big issues facing doctoral education at present. Many of the researchers were devoted to creating more equitable conditions for researchers that opened space for all sorts of diversity in knowledge generation. Some of the papers I listened to reflected on the effects of gender (Trine Fossland and Gina Wisker); being a “PhD mum” (Shannon Mason); and managing disability and surrounding discourses (Kim Brown). Some papers explored concerns about voice and agency, mobilising the concept of ‘ubuntu’ that encourages us to focus on the human element of doctoral research (Sioux McKenna and Susan van Schalkwyk); others drew attention to the importance of recognising what Indigenous knowledges bring to research (Shireen Motala and Catherine Manathunga). Elke Stracke’s group confronted the often ignored forms of ‘failure’ during doctoral projects; she and Vijay Kumar also explained the ‘living tool’ they have designed to facilitate supervisor feedback.

The 3-day meeting included keynotes from New Zealand, UK, Danish and South African perspectives. The overarching focus for the conference was ‘Transitions, trajectories and transformations in postgraduate supervision: The times they are a-changing’.

It opened with a keynote by Rachel Spronken-Smith (University of Otago, New Zealand), ‘Pondering possibilities for enhancing PhD programmes’, in which we were encouraged to consider the purpose of the PhD today and therefore how success might be appropriately assessed. Identifying graduate attributes developed through the PhD and post-PhD employability led to considering alternative forms of doctoral outputs – perhaps key learning would be better represented in a portfolio than the conventional written thesis and oral defence. I really liked the way that the audience was drawn into the conference space during this first session by inviting us to respond via chat to specific questions during the presentation.

David Bogle’s (University College London, UK) keynote on Day 2, ‘Training creative and responsible doctoral researchers: Discussing some tensions in the system’, provided a very helpful context for what happens to PhD graduates from the UK/European perspective. I was particularly interested in the way he conceptualised ‘innovation’ in doctoral and post-doctoral spaces: we were reminded that the potential impact of doctoral research and how it might influence policy implementation can be just as important as identifying ways of commercialising research outcomes. This is how PhD graduates have the potential to become ‘transformative leaders’.

Søren Bengtsen (Aarhus University, Denmark) posed the question: ‘What (or who) is the PhD for? (Dis)Connections between research and society’. The direct ‘impact’ of research can be not only difficult to demonstrate, but often emerges much further down the track. This keynote invited us to consider different ways of understanding the societal value and impact of doctoral studies through the lenses of ‘ecological, sustainability and justice curricula’. These are important aspects of research that all of us must continue to ponder in relation to our different roles in doctoral studies.

The final keynote, ‘Innovative approaches towards partnership in doctoral programmes in Africa’ by Emnet Woldegiorgis (University of Johannesburg) focused on the African context. We heard about important initiatives to establish possibilities for research across national borders, so that knowledge and opportunities are shared. Clearly, there are funding and policy challenges in any attempts to work between jurisdictions, but the turn away from competition towards collaboration is heartening. This provided a very positive perspective on the broader global discussions.

A number of sessions focused on issues of particular interest to DoctoralWriting readers. ‘Writing alone together’, by a group from Cape Peninsula University of Technology led by Christine Winberg, described a successful program for PhD candidates and supervisors meeting online for ‘snack writing’ for an hour each week. Not only does the group get some writing done, but they also take the opportunity to share helpful writing tips and practices.

‘Theses by Publication: A comparative analysis of university policies in two countries’ by Liezel Frick and Shannon Mason demonstrated the important points of convergence in terms of policies and practices in South Africa and Australia, reminding us that, while doctoral education necessarily encompasses local nuance, it also operates within a global community. The increasing prevalence of the thesis by publication across all disciplines is not straight forward, but those of us working with PhD candidates can no longer ignore these challenges.

The presentation by Jiayu Wang, Cassi Liardét and Juliet Lum on ‘Roles and responsibilities of supervisors in co-authorship with doctoral students’ was one I was particularly keen to learn about. This is certainly an area that can be fraught with complexity, where supervisors’ roles and responsibilities can enter grey areas of confusion. Interestingly, supervisors described a longer list of authorial and supervisory responsibilities than their PhD candidates seemed to be aware of; for me, this is an indication that those new to academic publication don’t always appreciate the importance of choosing the right journal and interacting with reviewer comments, while simultaneously keeping the rest of the thesis project moving towards completion.

Spier Estate, Stellenbosch

I admit to missing the generous, welcoming South African hospitality that has always been a signature of PGS in the past (see the photo above from the 2019 conference). But I was very pleased catch up with what other researchers are thinking about after the last couple of disrupted years. It would be great to hear from other attendees about the insights and inspirations they gained from this event.