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By Claire Aitchison

Many of our readers work with doctoral candidates in support roles either as researcher educators, academic literacy advisors, or academic developers, often in addition to being doctoral candidate supervisors. In this two-part blog, I draw on my own experiences, to explore the differences and interfaces between these roles, and what this means for the doctoral candidate.

I am thinking out loud – this is a work in progress designed to invite comment on my nascent reflections about the practices that mark our work with doctoral writing.

Who are the doctoral writing supporters working outside the supervisory panel?

Outside of supervisors, probably the largest, and most influential group of people supporting doctoral candidates in Australia are academic literacy advisors (akin to writing instructors in some countries). As doctoral students grew in number and diversity in the 1990s, academic literacy advisors played a pivotal role (Lee & Aitchison 2009).  In many cases, these central units had never before worked with higher degree research students and did not necessarily have qualified staff to do so. In my case, for example, I began working with doctoral students while completing my own PhD! I doubt this would happen anymore. At the same time, supervisor ‘training’ was also in its infancy. In both arenas, there was scant research and theorizing about pedagogies for doctoral writing, nor for supervision.

Mostly we learnt on the job, adapting approaches we’d honed from working with undergraduates.  A standout memory of that time for me was how often invited guests – generally considered experts because they had high numbers of PhD completions, or because they held senior positions in research –prefaced their talk with the words ‘When I was a doctoral student …’ and drew solely on personal experience.

Now, luckily, there is a strong and growing body of knowledge built on research, theory, and reflective experience – all of which is buoyed by vibrant communities of practice in doctoral education. I like to believe writing services and expertise are now standard institutional supports for doctoral programs, although colleagues sometimes express fears about my confidence.

But are we using these services to their best advantage? What’s the difference between that which is provided by central units and the work of the supervisor? How can supervisors and writing experts work together?

What are the benefits and limitations of central writing support services for doctoral candidates?

Without doubt, there are some very real advantages for students who receive support from outside the supervisory team.

Centrally provisioned writing support provides expert advice and writing development through a rich variety of writing activities including consultations with individual students, structured workshops and for-credit courses, writing groups, boot camps and writing retreats (see Carter and Laurs 2014).  Experiencing a range of disciplinary approaches can be invigorating for students and provide them with novel ways of understanding the world of research, taking them out of their comfort zone and challenging them to see alternative ways of doing research and writing as they test out new researcher identities.

Mixing with other students from across the institution and beyond can help students build strong friendships and supportive networks that are less high stakes, removed from the intensity (and perhaps from the politics) of their labs, studios and research groups.

The writing experts can help students build a keen awareness of language, they can analyse writing problems and recommend resources, social supports, and individual assistance. They can provide independent and objective feedback on writing.

There are also some criticisms and limitations associated with centrally provisioned writing support services including timing (not available when needed), that these services can be regarded as deficit responses (i.e. problem fixing), or that they are ‘too generic’ (i.e. they lack the capacity to address students’ specific needs). Another argument concerns access and equity (students need to be aware of, and able to access services).

Additional potential limitations are that students can become dependent on external help, and sometimes the external help can contradict the advice of supervisors, mis-directing students and causing tensions. From my perspective, such criticisms speak more about unrealistic expectations and/or indiscriminate uptake of external support.

But what if we compare the writing expertise from central units and that provided by supervisors? While recognizing there are unique contextual influences, I wondered about the relative strengths of these different players for developing doctoral student writing, and I began drafting this comparative table … It’s a work in progress and feedback is welcome!

Writing and its development – who might be best for what?

Doctoral writing attribute/skill/knowledge Centrally provisioned expert support Supervisor provided
Overview of doctoral writing genres (thesis, scholarly papers, conference papers, processes, etc) Yes (workshops, programs, ongoing writing groups, web-based resources) Less likely to be a supervisor strength depending on their interest, skill and priorities
General introduction to thesis writing Yes (workshops, programs, web-based resources) Some supervisors depending on their interest, skill and priorities
Specific short-term writing concerns Yes (individual consultations, web-based resources and workshop programs) Some supervisors depending on their interest, skill and priorities
Analysis of writing issues Yes (individual consultation and web-based tools) Less likely to be a specific supervisor strength
Long-term development of conceptual, theoretical and disciplinary language Less likely to be achieved by centralized support Supervisors are best placed to do this as the doctoral project evolves
Style and norms associated with specific methodologies, publishing outlets and disciplinary practices Less likely to be achieved by centralized support Supervisors are best placed to do this as the doctoral project evolves
Developing the writing capabilities (quality and output) Yes (long-term writing groups, writing bootcamps, individual consultations, writing resources) Supervisors develop student writing across the candidature primarily through giving feedback on student writing
Developing the writer Yes (long-term writing groups and peer support, writing bootcamps, individual consultations) Supervisors support the candidate primarily through incremental and discursive feedback on the student’s writing
Awareness of personal writing strengths and shortcomings Yes (through comparison and cooperation with peers and via individual consultations) Supervisors can help students achieve this through incremental and discursive feedback on the student’s writing
Learning how to read, review and provide feedback Yes (workshops, writing groups) Probably not a common focus for many supervisors
Learning how to interpret and implement feedback Yes (individual consultations, peer work, workshops) Probably more an incidental learning through working with different supervisor(s)
Expanding possibilities for difference Yes (interdisciplinary workshops and writing groups) Dependent on supervisor approach, interests and priorities
Fine sentence-level accuracy for publication Yes (editing workshops, resources) Dependent on supervisor approach, interests and priorities
Build writer identity, confidence and sustainable writing practices Yes (writing groups, bootcamps, online communities and retreats) Dependent on supervisor approach, interests and priorities

For me, a pivotal difference between supervisor and expert support is that the supervisor is with the student long-term, their fates and reputations are intimately tied together, and therefore presumably, supervisors, have a stronger vested interest in seeing the student develop doctoral-level writing skills. Supervisors have a stronger knowledge of the particularities of the discipline, the methodology, and the examination – and maybe even the examiner.  They are thoroughly immersed in the writing style of the discipline. They can lead the student through the final stages of honing the product to match the expectations of the journal (in the case of PhD by publication), the institution, and the disciplinary expert examiner.

In the second part of this blog, I want to ponder the interface between the work of supervisors and these services and how they might work best in the interests of candidates and supervisors. Watch this space for the next posting, and in the meanwhile, feel free to send comments and responses to these musings.