The case for making doctoral supervision collaborative

Nnamdi O. Madichie

Originally published by University World News.

In the course of my research career, I have written relatively extensively on the topic of food, but only now have I realised that the consumption of food can be extended to the consumption of knowledge.

In a recent paper entitled “Doctoral supervision challenges: What do we know and what can we do about it?”, which I presented at the sixth annual online Researcher Education and Development Scholarship (REDS) conference organised by the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom, I highlighted a three-point challenge for the PhD supervision experience: recruitment, retention/progression and completion, which I would map to the phases of a three-course meal – the entrée/appetiser, main course and dessert.

Drawing on other research presented at the REDS conference let’s consider each stage/course one by one.

Entrée/appetiser

When it comes to the first part of a PhD journey, it is vital that the process is demystified and that it is treated as a management of equals. Universities offering doctoral places should undertake due diligence in the interview and recruitment of qualified candidates.

They should also make provisions to ensure that potential PhD candidates are matched with appropriate supervision teams with experience in the subject area or methodological interests of candidates.

Potential areas of conflict need to be fully explored and mitigating strategies put in place to ensure that the process is a win-win for the student, supervisor and university.

Regrettably, this has not been the case in recent years and the consequences are now becoming increasingly widespread and disturbing, if not embarrassing, for all parties, for instance, the recent case of an international researcher suing the University of Birmingham after failing his PhD.

Returning to the entrée metaphor, the following key condiments are needed for a successful supervision partnership – motivation, resilience and momentum. Kay Guccione from Glasgow Caledonian University told the REDS conference: “Doctoral researchers’ motivation, creativity, resilience and momentum during their long and intense doctoral journey are often strongly sustained by unseen informal structures, social support systems and extra-curricular activities tacitly providing emotional, social and academic support.”

While it is usually problematic to gauge the readiness of potential PhD candidates purely based on their submitted proposals, universities need to treat this in the same manner as job applications. From the proposals, qualified supervisors can be identified and after assessment of the application, an interview can be arranged to confirm a range of areas including motivation, level of awareness of the topic of interest and the capacity of the candidate to finish their PhD.

As the experience of Sian Vaughan at the Birmingham City University shows, practice-based research, especially in the arts, requires some detailed amount of due diligence and creativity at the entry point. This is especially so considering that, as Vaughan points out, it is “a complex terrain in which practices may be accepted but definitions remain contested”.

Again, reference to team supervision is highlighted: “Research which is practice-based or uses arts-based methods is often supervised by teams of supervisors, including academics who are creative practitioners and those who are not.”

Renegotiating institutional systems and linear expectations of progression may also be needed to get practice-based research over the line, with confidence and trust being essential.

Vaughan says: “Doctoral supervision is a specialist academic practice that we are always in the process of learning and refining… more can be done to support supervisors engaging in this particular form of interdisciplinary supervision in becoming comfortable and confident with their role in practice-based research.”

Heather Sears from Coventry University also talks about how the Research Capability and Development team at Coventry University have leveraged their activities to progress institutional strategy and policy through the development of a blended learning development programme for supervisors; a support programme for UK Council for Graduate Education supervisor recognition applications; and the ‘Trailblazers’ scheme providing fully funded studentships and an opportunity for talented early-career researchers to lead a supervisory team and develop a doctoral project.

The main course – researcher development

With the entrée out of the way – and the emphasis being on the need for team supervision – it is now time to tuck into the main dish – that is, teamwork, training and development. Evidently the appetite of the diner (the PhD candidate) can be gauged from the entrée and appropriate measures put in place to support a team effort.

Scholars from Vitae UK say research and policy work has “shown that doctoral researchers are not only specialists with deep disciplinary expertise; they also have a broad range of skills that are valuable across sectors and roles”.

They point out that “…skills are gained by different means, not only through doctoral supervision and research”. They ask: “How we can better recognise and reward the collaborative effort needed to support doctoral researchers’ development through to completion and beyond?” and conclude that this requires some ‘specialist team’ model of supervision.

Dessert – what now, where next?

According to Michele Underwood and Kate Mahoney at the University of Warwick, the development of the researcher is not down to one person. They underline the need for more “focused relationships between postgraduate researchers [PGRs] and supervisors” using the apprenticeship model of PhD supervision.

They suggest that “we fail to enable our PGRs to take control; to shrug off student status and passivity of learning”.

They also seem to suggest an alternative model and say “the move of the University of Warwick’s Researcher Development online has allowed a break away from some of the constraints and practices that have reflected the passivity of the sector”. They say universities should ask themselves: “Are we so frightened as supervisors that our PGRs will be judged or measured if they seek out knowledge and support elsewhere?”

Reetika Suri of the Impact Team at Queen Mary University of London says the UKRI – UK Research and Innovation – can help to get researchers over the finish line. UKRI is a non-departmental public body of the government of the United Kingdom that directs research and innovation funding and is funded through the science budget of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

According to her, a body like the UKRI acknowledges that it “exists to fund researchers who generate knowledge that society needs, and innovators who can turn this knowledge into public benefit”, and thereby ensures that no one is left behind.

Going forward, there is a need to consider the funding implications of all of this. Indeed, a recent University World News article touches on aspects of this. Taken from the viewpoint of African higher education, the article in University World News highlights that the available international funding for doctoral training and research in Africa is set to decline after COVID-19, due to a range of changes in how students conduct their postgraduate studies, with blended and sandwich options expected to be the “new norm”.

The article points out that “instead of going abroad, students could opt for universities on the continent to save money” and students with scholarships could also approach their studies differently – either by meeting their foreign supervisors virtually for a few months, then spending only a few months on face-to-face learning.

With these predictions and other signs pointing in that direction, the importance of team supervision seems even more central, with COVID-19 also having highlighted associated well-being issues, given that the core of the PhD can be a lonely journey.

A recent survey of PGRs by Kirsten Riches-Suman and Russell Delderfield at the University of Bradford highlights how stresses external to PhD projects but internal to students’ institutions, including diminished administrative support, isolation from peers and a lack of appreciation of work volume, can have a detrimental impact on their well-being.

It doesn’t have to be this way if we rethink the support needed in every part of the PhD meal.