Dilemmas of the research culture

When we visit another country there are (for many) expectations of exposure to a new culture. Sometimes this is preempted by reading about the culture so that there are some expectations about what you will encounter. Part of experiencing a new culture is the range of people whom you will meet and their impact on your understanding of the culture.

When we talk about a research culture, and acculturating a student into the research culture in a particular faculty or research centre, we must give some thought to the range of people whom they will encounter in these new experiences and the impact of these people on their understanding of the culture.
In particular I am mindful of encounters which research students may have that may not help them to develop the sense of the research culture in the ways you their research supervisor had intended.

For example:
If coursework is a necessary requirement of candidature, research students will encounter academic staff who not only hold different viewpoints about research; they may hold strongly different viewpoints about the ways in which research students learn. When students attend compulsory coursework delivered by these academics this may come as a shock to their emerging views of the research culture. In particular they may encounter academics whose opinion of themselves and their contribution to research is so great that it stifles any sense of emergent researcher in the students who participate in their class.

Another example is when students are required to present their developing work to a broader network in the faculty and they encounter not only hostile but actively soul destroying questions and comments under the guise of a rigorous research environment. Many students have commented on these issues that can come to light while they are presenting their viva voce or final seminar, and they are shattered by the experience.

A third example I have come across is a potential research student who in their overtures to a faculty about undertaking a PhD was led to believe that work undertaken in her research master’s project was not considered worthy of an entrée into a PhD because it was a different type of research – in this case action research- to what the faculty was used to.

Each of these scenarios can be small instances and a research student is surrounded by a research culture that both nurtures and affirms their development into a full researcher, however the fragile nature of many research students and the insidiousness of politics within many faculties can often mean that a single instance destroys a lot of confidence that students have built up and need in order to complete their candidature.

I have said elsewhere that a research supervisor cannot be all things to all people so there is a sense of reservation about suggesting that there are things about which a research supervisor can be mindful in order to counteract some of these disempowering experiences:

  1. The research supervisor can act as an advocate for their research student, fielding inappropriate questions during their research presentations or at least drawing attention to the inappropriateness of the question. This can be very important if fellow academics bring along positivist agendas into what is clearly presented as a post positivist frame in which the research student is operating.
  2. The research supervisor can be a political guide alerting students to potential political agendas that they may encounter in the course of their candidature. These can be parochial department politics and can also be broader research community politics in which space may not be allowed for particular approaches to investigation.
  3. The research supervisor can be a presentation coach, suggesting ways to respond to certain types of loaded questions that might emerge during a presentation: for example
    • ‘That doesn’t sound like a question, it sounds more like a statement. Were you expecting a response from me about that?’ to professors who make statements rather than ask legitimate questions in presentations.

• ‘That sounds like a loaded question. Did you want to explain the agenda before I attempt to answer it?’

This way, as in much of the assertiveness training, a student can rehearse some possible assertive responses to prevent being silenced by the apparent authority that often comes with these questions.

It has been said that in many of these scenarios students need to learn how to fight their own battles, as that is an essential part of defending your research in the public. I agree with this, once you are skilled to handle some of the subtle power politics that unfortunately pervade settings in which people have titles. Those without titles, such as doctor and professor, are often working from the lowest position of power. In these instances they may need a bit of healthy propping up or moral support.

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About the (research) supervisor's friend

I work at a university helping university academics who are supervising research students. I am a research supervisor myself and also work as a research coach for people undertaking their research I was originally in a Management Faculty and when I completed my doctoral studies on 'doing a doctorate' I started working with research supervisors to help them improve their practice.
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