How do you recognise the problems of research supervision?

Research supervision poses a range of problems. If a problem is recognised, a supervisor often draws on their repertoire of practice to come up with a way to address the problem. Sometimes this involves drawing on your own experiences of being supervised and considering how your own supervisors addressed a similar problem with you. Sometimes the particular issue that you are facing as a supervisor is one which you have not previously experienced as a student yourself and you need to draw on other sources for your strategies.

Before addressing what you see as a problem, it sometimes helps to look at how the issue has been framed and ask yourself whether a different frame might lead to a different resolution of the issue, and therefore a different strategy. Such consideration is based on a belief that every issue is in some way framed, and often the solution is driven by the way in which the issue has been framed.

The Bolman Deal model (Bolman, L.& Deal, T. 2008) operates from this sort of belief. Although this model is specifically designed to address organisational issues, by considering a university as an organisation, and issues within research supervision as part of the organisational life of a university organisation, there may be some relevance for the model for research supervision issues.

Bolman and Deal (2008) suggest that an issue is often framed in one of four ways:
Structural – the issue is understood from the perspective of rules and regulations of an organisation, such as its policies and procedures and reporting frames.
Human Resource – the issue is understood from a people perspective of people employed in the organisation.
Political – the issue is understood from the perspective of the ways in which power is articulated in the organisation.
Symbolic – the issue is understood from the perspective of the culture of an organisation.

In endeavouring to ascertain the frame from which a particular research supervision issue is emanating, it can sometimes be useful to explore the language used to describe the issue.

Structural frames often utilise language such as rules, regulations, policies and procedures. They might also refer to organisational change.
Human Resource frames often refer to skills and capabilities and the need for professional development and training.
Political frames often refer to issues of power or people lacking power. They can similarly refer to people taking initiative or failing to take initiative.
The research student-supervisor relationship is a classic example of a power imbued relationship. The supervisor is often the one with power and one of the goals is for the student to become empowered.
Symbolic frames often refer to the culture and may also refer to values and attitudes.

Once you can see a dominant frame in the way in which the issue has been set, you can ask yourself whether the issue might be different if it were described from a different point of view.

For example:
A student not meeting milestones of candidature might be dominated by a structural frame, but could be viewed from alternate frames in different ways:

  • An HR frame might look at the student’s skills and whether there is a lack of skills impacting on failing to meet the milestones.
  • A Political frame might identify a student waiting to be led rather than taking initiative themselves.
  • A Symbolic frame might identify a culture of compliance rather than a culture of seeking to make contributions to knowledge. Change the culture and you might change the ways in which people operate within it.

Having a different frame for setting the problematic issue does not necessarily solve the problem. It may simply revitalise the range of strategies that you consider calling upon to address the issue. It might also promote a new and different set of strategies to the ones which you have used previously in addressing that particular issue.

Bolman, L. and Deal, T (2008) Reframing Organisations: Artistry, Choice and Leadership. (4th Ed) Jossey-Bass, San Francisco: USA.

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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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