Conversations about research supervision – enabling and accrediting a Community of Practice model for research degree supervisor development Geof Hill and Sian Vaughan

The authors’ lived experience of devising a professional development programme for research supervisors and securing SEDA (Staff and Educational Development Association) accreditation informs this paper. Our first purpose is to outline the programme and discuss its uniqueness in using a community of practice model (Wenger, 1998) in conjunction with practitioner inquiry (Stenhouse, 1981) for developmental and for assessment processes simultaneously. The second purpose is to discuss the challenges and benefits in securing SEDA accreditation for the programme, and how we managed to do this whilst retaining the richness of the conversations that colleagues find rewarding and useful. In sharing our model, we aim to encourage others to think about how dialogic and community of practice approaches might be embedded in professional development and accreditation opportunities in their own institutions.

If you would like a copy of this paper please contact me on

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Supervising practice-based doctorates

(This resource was developed for UKCGE and published on their network site on June 6th 2017)


In the provenance of research practice, practical or experiential knowledge was consistently devalued. The Greeks preferred intellectual knowledge over practical knowledge. During the Renaissance, written intellectual knowledge had precedence over practical knowledge. The emergence of scientific method represented a point of ascendance for scientific knowledge and continued degradation of practical or experiential knowledge (Schön, 1983).

Since the paradigm wars, experiential and practical knowledge has found new epistemological popularity in university based research. Some of this can be accredited to Donald Schön’s (1983) The Reflective Practitioner that advocated not only the study of practice, but posited an inquiry paradigm to underpin that type of investigation. Similarly, ‘The Practice Turn’ (Schatzki, Knorr-Cetina and von Savigny, 2001) signified recognition of professional practice as embodied or being linked to people, and argued for situated study of professional practice in specific professional settings. Both theoretical innovations encouraged practice-based research or inquiry.

Undertaking an investigation into any form of practice involves an amount of reflection. In order to know what we do in any practice, there is a need to think about and articulate what that practice involves. Regardless of the practice being investigated, this form of reflection generates a stream of consciousness which can provide information about a given practice but, unless this knowledge is in some way systematized, it can be overwhelming for a reader, and raises questions regarding its value for other practitioners and more generally for practice theory. There are challenges in knowing how to document this body of knowledge in ways that make it both accessible for potential readers and manageable for interrogation by the practitioner/inquirer.

Research supervisors working with professionals as they interrogate their practice within the framework of research degrees need to help them elicit this often tacit knowledge into a form that makes it reviewable and examinable.

Some research supervisor strategies ….
I have found that encouraging the student to undertake provenance reflection of their practice can establish a first articulation of the practice they propose to investigate. Provenance is a term more commonly used in antique dealing where it refers to manufacture and ownership of items of antiquity. Within practice inquiry, I posit (Hill, 2014) that a practice has a general provenance – a history of that particular practice’s evolution – along with a personal provenance – how a particular practitioner has developed their practice. A given practitioner’s personal provenance may also contain wisdom about the practice derived from other fellow practitioners.
Provenance can be comfortably followed by or paralleled with Naming (Schön, 1983, 42) of the practice or elements of the practice. What one professional may call their practice and how that practice is referred to in the literature may have different names. Reflective practice is a good example. What is recognized by some professionals as an ability to think about their practice may appear in the literature as reflective practice (Schön, 1983) or can equally be referred to as mindfulness or reflexivity (Schippers, Homan and Van Knippenberg, 2013). Helping the inquirer focus on a name for the practice they are investigating and recognising the contested nature of the name of the practice are both ideas that can be facilitated or encouraged by the research supervisor helping a student to study their practice.

Framing (Schön, 1983, 42) a practice involves establishing a way of sorting all the knowledge about a practice – both the inquirer’s own practical knowledge and what is available through literature – into a format so that other people can learn about it. This may even involve expressing the practice diagrammatically. Sometimes this framing can be chronological as a time line. A given practitioner can list the critical incidents that have informed their development of a given professional practice. Chronologically sorting the literature about a practice can help to reveal specific lines of inquiry in which one author refers to another, or it could reveal a significant change in perception of certain practices over time. This sort of systemizing of the literature can help an inquirer situate what they know about the practice they are investigating within the larger discourse about that practice.

But, not all practices fit these sorts of systematization. Research supervision is a good example of a practice not fitting a chronological system. While individual practitioners may come to research supervision in a recognizable chronology that involves their own completion of a doctoral degree and being supervised, others may have experienced different developmental paths into their observed research supervision practice. Similarly the broader discourse around the investigated practice can be framed in a variety of ways. In my own practice led investigation of research supervision I posited (Hill, 2011) a framework for making sense of the variety of different articles on research supervision that presented research supervision:
1. Research supervision as pedagogy.
2. Research supervision as relationship.
3. Research supervision as management.
4. Research supervision as facilitating contributions to knowledge
I retained that framework for a blog on research supervision I developed: the research supervisors’ friend

Provenance, naming and framing can help an inquirer/researcher articulate their professional practice such that it opens up the articulation of practice to criticality, often thought of as a key feature of doctoral inquiry. For some, criticality involves application of another of Schön’s (1983) variations of reflective practice, in the form of advanced or critical reflection. Critical reflection is a contested practice. For some (Argyris, 1982; Mezirow, 1990) critical reflection involves identifying the belief systems or the doctrine that underpins a professional’s outplaying of their professional practice or aspects of professional practice. This often involves identifying the philosophy behind their practice. For others (Reynolds, 1998) critical reflection is referenced to neo-Marxists Freire (1986) and Habermas (1968) who were concerned with inequality brought about by unequal relations of power within capitalism. Both understandings about critical reflection bring criticality or critical interrogation to bear on a professional’s articulation of their practice, and add to its doctoralness.

As most research degrees are examined on the basis of a written document, research supervision also involves developing a researcher/inquirer’s writing about their professional practice and about their investigation into their professional practice. It helps to understand the dissertation as an extended argument in which one firstly frames a practice from their own experience and from the perspective of the literature; then posits a way to investigate that practice as framed. Thinking about the argument helps a practitioner who is immersed in their own practice to achieve a certain level of distance and ability to view their practice as an outsider. The argument continues as the researcher/inquirer makes sense of the data they have collected about the practice, either from themselves (auto ethnography) or from other practitioners of the practice and articulates their contribution to the knowledge about the practice.

1. Is it different undertaking research where the starting point is practice and even the researcher’s own practice?
2. How do you prevent an act of provenance being perceived as self-indulgent?
One of the tools I have used with my own doctoral students to elicit their knowledge of practice is based on a set of catalyst questions:
• What do you know about your practice?
• What do you know about investigative practice?
• What do you know about university based investigation and academic writing?

Some of my doctoral students have added to this with more specific questions such as
• What is your own relationship with the practice you are investigating?
• Do you consider yourself an insider/outsider to this profession?
• What do you think are the critical incidents that have led to your development/understanding of your practice?
• What are your own attitudes towards the aspects of the practice that you are investigating? Are you aware of any theoretical frameworks that may underpin these beliefs?
• What sort of impact do you hope for your research to have e.g. on practice?

As this posing of questions often coincides with a first research supervision meeting, there may be parallel questions relating to the nature of the supervision, such as, ‘What are your expectations from me as a supervisor?’

These questions are asked in an initial meeting with a student to start a short term process leading to production of a research proposal and a long term process of their doctoral candidature. The questions are underpinned by the assumption that students have answers to these questions and just need prompting to begin to affirm the knowledge that has already started to formulate their investigation. A contrasting and perhaps traditional strategy might be to encourage the student to look to literature to contextualize their investigative topic. Drawing on an inquirer’s background knowledge as compared to asking them to seek knowledge about the practice they are investigating in literature affirms their self-knowledge and focuses on marshalling and clarifying that knowledge into a research proposal.

The initial meeting is the first step in a model that includes six face-to-face meetings and five writing assignments over a period of (usually) six months.

The first writing task involve writing no more than two pages following the initial meeting addressing the following questions:
• What do you intend to investigate?
• What is the context of the investigation?
o Practice based context and
o Literature context And
• What role do you play in the practice based context?
• Why is it important to investigate this issue?
• First thoughts on how you think you might investigate this topic.

Feedback on this writing focuses on identifying in the writing where the student has described ways in which he (she) has been undertaking research in their industry. This helps the student to identify their ‘investigative practice’ as compared to the practice which is being investigated, their ‘professional practice’.

Following the second meeting the student builds the previous two page document into a four page document which again receives feedback, and generates the agenda for the next meeting. In our subsequent meetings we discuss the developing text and also address a number of issues, such as ethics, that are pertinent to writing about and undertaking practice based research.

After five meetings the student has written a document of about 32 pages. This is often the size specification for a research proposal. In this working document they have positioned their own proposed investigation within a summary of what is ‘known’ about the topic (a literature review) and suggested how they might go about investigating this topic (methodology). This supervision process is focused on producing a research proposal.

Argyris, C. (1982). Reasoning, learning and action: individual and organizational. San Francisco, U.S.A.: Jossey-Bass.

Freire, P. (1986) The Politics of Education: Culture, Power and Liberation. (trans Donald Macedo ), U.S.A.: Macmillan.

Habermas, J. (1968). Knowledge and Human Interests. Boston, U.S.A.: Beacon Press.

Hill, G. (2011). Diffracting the practices of research supervision. In Kumar, V & Lee, A. (eds) Connecting the Local, Regional and International in Doctoral Education, Serdang, Malaysia: Universiti Putra Malaysia Press.

Hill, G. (2015). Cycles of Action and Reflection. In Coghlan, D. & Brydon-Miller, M (Eds) The SAGE Encyclopaedia of Action Research. Thousand Oaks, Calif: U.S.A.: Sage (pp234-239)

Mezirow, J. (1990). How critical reflection triggers transformative learning. In J. Mezirow (Ed.), Fostering critical reflection in adulthood: A guide to transformative and emancipatory learning. San Francisco, U.S.A.: Jossey-Bass.

Schatzki, T.R., Knorr-Cetina, K. and von Savigny, E. (2001) (Eds) The Practice turn in contemporary theory. London: U.K.: Routledge.

Schippers, M., Homan, A., and Van Knippenberg, D. (2013). To reflect or not to reflect: Prior team performance as a boundary condition of the effects of reflexivity on learning and final team performance. Journal of Organisational Behaviour, 34, 6-23.

Schön, D. (1983). The Reflective Practitioner: How professionals think in action. U.S.A.: Basic Books.

[I would like to express my gratitude to Rebecca Snape, Fiona Wilcox, Martha Lopez, George Hart, Saphiya Rajer and Sarya Begum, my doctoral students, whose feedback and discussion about draft versions of this resource contributed to its final format]

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This blog has been written by Dr. Gerald Feldman one of the academic staff at Birmingham City University. He undertook a practitioner inquiry in the context of a community of practice around research supervision in his faculty and used an analytical framework based on Bøgelund (2015), to reflect on his research supervision in a Faculty of Computing, Engineering and the Built Environment.

A Reflection of My Supervision Process


Four main types of supervision can be identified in the literature: (i) the traditional model, which involves a master and apprentice relationship; (ii) group supervision this is one supervisor has multiple students; (iii) team supervision where a team of supervisors are involved in the supervision of one student; and (iii) mixed model, this is a mixture of (i) and (ii) and supported by the use of technology (McCallin and Nayar, 2012; Guerin et. al., 2015). According to Sinclair (2004), these supervision types would either involve a ‘hands-on’ or ‘hands-off’. In the hands-on approach, the supervisee is dependent on the supervisor to guide them in developing the skills to become independent, while the hands-off approach suggests the student to be independent and self-driven (Boehe, 2016). In the hands-on, approach the supervisor or supervisory team adopts a project management approach to provide focus and empower the supervisees to achieve their milestones and make a decision in the direction of their research. The decision on which approach to adopt is dependent student, and thus, there is a need to tailor a supervisory style to a particular student’s needs and personality (Boehe, 2016). Understandably, it would be difficult to identify a single supervision style to suit all students when adopting group supervision. However, group supervision plays a major role in easing students into a research and enabling peer learning which can boost confidence and motivation (Guerin et. al., 2015).

Investigative Framework

In order to obtain a better understanding of my supervisory processes, I adapted Bøgelund (2015), analytical framework, and used two main themes to explore my supervision process: (i) perception of my supervision style; and (ii) my attitude and expectations. Lee (2008) proposed several contexts that refer to perceptions of supervision styles, these are: (i) functional; (ii) enculturation; (iii) critical thinking; (iv) emancipation; and (v) relationship development. In addition, I extended the framework, by extending my attitude and expectations based on the characteristics of a good supervisor proposed by Cullen et. al. (1994): (i) supportive, positive attitude; (ii) open minded and prepared to acknowledge error; (iii) organised and thorough; and (iv) encouraging and conveys interest for research. Reflecting on how my practice using this framework (see figure 1) would allow me to realise what I am portraying as my supervision practice.

My reflection is based on three students that I am involved in their supervision, but not their main supervision. These three cases offer sufficient depth to understand my supervisory process, along with any limitations in my approach, since the students involved demonstrate diversified characteristics. For example, one of the students is organised and independent, thus, requires minimum supervision (I refer to this student as Jo). The second student (John) lacks confidence and is very dependent on the supervisory team, the last student (Doe) has multiple characteristics, which are mostly triggered by extrinsic motivation.


Figure 1: Analytical framework to investigate my supervision practice


Before this examination of my supervision practice, I would identify myself as being a facilitator, adviser, mentor and critic during the supervision process, as such, I considered myself as a constructivist. Based on Lee (2008) framework, I would associate myself to the emancipation section. I also felt that my attitude was supportive, open minded and encouraging research, which led me to expect that the students are organised and thorough in their task. However, after a close reflection of the three cases, I established that I tend to be supportive and have a positive attitude towards Jo. I observed that whenever I attend meetings with Jo, I have an open mind and will readily acknowledge my error, and demonstrate an interest in his research, this could be because I consider Jo to be an equal. When it comes to John and Doe, I am supportive and mentor them, but I am guarded, and hence I turn into a gatekeeper, which ensures the earlier task is complete so that I can lead them to the next task. One possible explanation for behaviour could be associated with the student characteristics. For example, Jo is organised and thorough, independent and his motivation is intrinsic, hence prefers a hands-off approach, where he is given space to conduct his research and would seek support when he requires it. For John and Doe, it is quite the opposite since there is a need for a hands-on approach to provide them with the direction that ensures progression. In this case, I feel my role is more of a project manager, who directs, facilitate, mentors and encourages John and Doe to reach independence. This is more of a master -apprentice relationship, which is dependent on how much the student believes the master has the right level of knowledge to guide him or her to the next task.

Reflection of my supervision practice

Supervision is a balancing act of the supervisor’s attitude and expectations against the student autonomy. Similar to earlier studies (Boehe, 2016; Bøgelund, 2015; Guerin et. al., 2015; Harrison and Grant, 2015; Vehviläinen and Löfström, 2016), there are several aspects that I have identified to be core to the research supervision process (see figure at the top of the blog).

  • Identifying the student characteristics facilitates determining case by case the student needs and characteristics that allow adapting a particular supervision process to provide adequate support and guidance to the student;
  • Open communication is important in establishing good working relations and trust between the supervisor or supervision team with the student, which in turn allows the student to be comfortable to discuss progress and challenges;
  • The structure allows controlling the outcomes, for example, in the case of paper authorship, I am a strong believer that the someone should be added to paper only if they contributed towards that paper and not because they are part of a team, which is mostly what most people assumes to be the norm. In fact, the level of contribution should determine the order of authorship. This is something I would like to establish with the student and the supervision team so that we are all on the same page. So establishing structure is not only for the student but also for the supervision team, thus ensuring each person plays his or her assigned role in providing the right level of support and guidance to the student. I think the establishing of a structure will support and encourage the student to make significant decisions about the research direction and research independence.
  • Relationship and boundaries in any supervision process are vital, as a healthy relationship between the supervision team, the supervisor and the student, provides a conducive environment that makes the whole experience enjoyable. However, it also important to establish a clear boundary in that relationship, as being very friendly to the student may create a situation where the student would assume that you could cover up for their indecision or progress. Understandably, this is not common, as most students take ownership and feel responsible for their research; and
  • Formal meetings are important to satisfy the university requirements and establish the formal supervision structure. However, informal meetings provide a sense of freedom to discuss research issues and challenges openly since students feel supported and the supervisor more approachable. This can also result in trust and open communication which can help the students.  

Integrating these activities as part of the supervision process could lead to making the students more comfortable and confident in their work, especially if all the supervision team is involved. Thus, there is a need to move away from the master and apprentice model towards a hybrid model, which allows balancing the students’ needs and characteristics to the composition of the supervision team. However, research supervision is a complex process, suggesting that the supervisor needs to be adaptable to the students’ need since no single style fits all situations. Acquiring these skills to accommodate the different students’ needs and characteristics is a learning process, which early career supervisors’ (like myself) can best learn when integrated within an experienced team. Thus, I believe being part of a team when supervising a student is ideal as it facilitates acquiring various supervision practices and approaches, to improve my supervision practice.


Boehe, D.M., 2016. Supervisory styles: a contingency framework. Studies in Higher Education41(3), pp.399-414.

Bøgelund, P., 2015. How supervisors perceive PhD supervision–And how they practice it. International Journal of Doctoral Studies10, pp.39-55.

Cullen, D.J., Pearson, M., Saha, L.J. and Spear, R.H., 1994. Establishing effective PhD supervision. Canberra: AGPS.

Guerin, C., Kerr, H. and Green, I., 2015. Supervision pedagogies: narratives from the field. Teaching in Higher Education20(1), pp.107-118.

Harrison, S. and Grant, C., 2015. Exploring of new models of research pedagogy: time to let go of master-apprentice style supervision?. Teaching in Higher Education20(5), pp.556-566.

Lee, A., 2008. How are doctoral students supervised? Concepts of doctoral research supervision. Studies in Higher Education33(3), pp.267-281.

McCallin, A. and Nayar, S., 2012. Postgraduate research supervision: A critical review of current practice. Teaching in Higher Education17(1), pp.63-74..

Sinclair, M., 2004. The pedagogy of’good’PhD supervision: A national cross-disciplinary investigation of PhD supervision. Canberra: Department of Education, Science and Training.

Vehviläinen, S. and Löfström, E., 2016. ‘I wish I had a crystal ball’: discourses and potentials for developing academic supervising. Studies in Higher Education41(3), pp.508-524

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My First Year as a Research Supervisor: Developing My Own Model of Supervision


This blog has been written by Dr. Sarah L. Cooper one of the academic staff at Birmingham City University. She undertook a practitioner inquiry in the context of a community of practice around research supervision in her faculty and used a strengths based inquiry approach to reflect on her first year of being a research supervisor in a Law School.

In September, 2015 I began supervising my first PhD student. Despite the project fitting squarely within my own research area, which I had published widely on, and the fact I had very experienced colleagues to work with, I felt trepidation about taking on this responsibility. A year later, however, my student has finalised her literature review and methodology chapters, passed her qualification in research methods, and is on target to complete her data collection, analysis and write-up in good time. I helped her get to this stage, and soon I will start guiding two new PhD students along the same journey.

This blog post reflects on my first year as a research supervisor, and my initial ideas for developing my own model of supervision based on a strengths-based approach to supervision.


A SBA is an “approach to people that views situations realistically and looks for opportunities to complement and support existing strengths and capacities as opposed to focusing on and staying with the problem or concern. The problem and the person are separate; however, the problem is never minimised.” (Bernadette Glass)

My rationale for taking this approach as a new supervisor is that when you start supervising, your own strengths and common-sense are all you have to rely on for the diverse range of problem-solving, strategizing, and advising you are required to do. Moreover, your student (usually) arrives at your door equally as green.


Strengths-based analysis involves reflecting on certain areas of practice, including ‘relationships and communication’; ‘honesty and transparency’ and ‘framing.’ Below I summarise my reflections about these areas of practice during my first year as a supervisor.


A SBA values high quality relationships and communication. In the context of research supervision, I have found it important to engender good relationships with:

  • Your student. I have made a conscious effort to build a more collaborative and collegiate relationship with my PhD student. This is because I want to be able to clearly distinguish my role as a PhD supervisor from my role as a lecturer. I want my PhD student to see me as more of a colleague than superior. For example, there’s nothing wrong with conducting supervision over coffee or bouncing ideas around whilst on a run. Moreover, you need to be genuinely interested (and show as such) in your student’s research and success. You’ve got to foster a relationship that allows you to be the person they go to for critical feedback, motivation, and praise.


  • Your colleagues. Your colleagues are an excellent resource. There are few supervisory challenges that will have evaded an academic school or faculty. And, even if your challenge is unprecedented, someone will know an external colleague who has dealt with it before, or, at the very least, be able offer a sensible resolution. All you have to do is ask. I’ve found the most useful question to ask is “What would you do if…?”


These outlets not only disseminate knowledge but they also create networks. For example, there is a large and supportive PhD community on Twitter. Not only does every subject area have specific user accounts, but there are accounts dedicated solely to holistic PhD study. Accounts like @PhD2Published , @PhDForum , @PHDcomics bring together PhD students and supervisors from across various disciplines, offering a platform for discussion, trouble-shooting, collegiality, as well as an outlet for sharing the humour and realities of #PhDLife.

With regards to communication, in my experience, the following communication practices by supervisors are indicative of high-quality supervision:

  1. Communicates meaningfully and regularly about the substantive project. This includes keeping in-touch via e-mail and in-person meetings, and providing timely feedback on questions and work product.
  2. Communicates efficiently about the administrative ‘stuff.’ This includes keeping the student informed of academic regulations, deadlines, library loans, and completing the paper work required for things like ethics requirements, funding applications and conference attendance.
  3. Communicates the Bigger Picture. This means providing students with information about wider career enhancing opportunities, such as conferences internships, calls for papers, and teaching opportunities.
  4. Communicates at the right time and in the right way. This means knowing when to control a situation and when to back-off, and how to meaningfully celebrate success and help overcome disappointment.



It’s important to be honest and transparent with your PhD student about the following:

  1. Their performance, progress, strengths and weaknesses.
  2. You’re experience as an academic. Tell them about what makes you suitable for supervising their project. For example, tell them about why your colleagues have recommended you as a supervisor.
  3. Your approach to problem-solving and difficult situations.
  4. Your own research experiences. Tell your PhD student about the ‘good, bad and ugly’ side of research. Share your successes, failures, mistakes, and anything else that stands out to you as a defining experience. If you’ve completed a PhD or are undertaking one, tell them about it. It’s really powerful to be able to say you know how they feel because you have felt (or are feeling!) the same way.
  5. Your expectations. Tell your student about how you work and what expectations you have for them. Try and ground your expectations in your institutions research supervision guidelines. For example, if your institution requires students to pass a preliminary research methods qualification, and present at one national conference by the end of year two, tell your student you expect them to do just that. Also set out how expectations surrounding workload, methods and frequency of communication, and feedback.


How you frame key components of the research journey is crucial. In particular, I have found it is important to be clear about the following:

  1. Resources. Give students a list of texts they can consult. A text I have found particularly useful is “The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research” by Marian Petre and Gordon Rugg.
  2. Project Management. You need to help your student to clearly unpack the project into bite-size tasks, set realistic and precise deadlines, help design effective methodologies, and offer advice on how to prioritise and multi- task. In particular, encourage students to keep a comprehensive log of their sole activity and supervision sessions.
  3. Problem-solving. Supervising is a diverse problem-solving exercise. In a single year we have encountered challenges ranging from the organisation of voluminous data that cuts across multiple disciplines and jurisdictions, to how to pitch objective research within an area that houses contentious viewpoints. The most useful thing I have learnt to do is clearly and objectively label the problem, identify its source, and offer possible solutions. 



Although unconventional in a SBA, checklists are a useful way of capturing “a set of tasks or a process that needs to be completed, particularly if the process or tasks contain many detailed elements that need to be completed with great accuracy” (Department of Education and Early Childhood Development Working Paper, 2011). Research Supervision involves just that. As such, based on my experiences so far, I have developed the following ‘to-do’ list, which aims to improve my own supervision practice, form the basis of a model of supervision, and offer guidance to new research supervisors.


  1. Draw up an agenda for my first supervision meetings that: Introduces the student to their supervisory team; Sets out clear expectations for the student-supervisor relationship; Suggests short, medium and long-term goals (in relation to the PhD and wider academic field) that the student should consider; Signposts students to helpful resources and people; and outlines typical internal and external procedures related to research practice, such as ethics requirements and funding applications.
  2. Encourage my students to create a virtual network by setting up professional social media account(s).
  3. Create a list of useful resources to share with research students.
  4. Create a list of what supervisors and students consider to be “good” and “bad” research supervision.
  5. Ask new students to carry out a SWOT analysis on their project at the start of their research and review it with them.
  6. Set-up regular meetings for all my PhD students to share ideas, progress and trouble-shoot through mutual learning.
  7. Ask my students to draw up an action plan (perhaps in the form of a Gantt Chart) every six months and ask them to define any problems they foresee, and how they might address them.  


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A New Site

Dear colleagues,

I am pleased to announce the launch of a new site called the investigative practitioner

Over the next few months I will migrate the writing here into a dedicated example of investigating research supervision practices  within the new site.

The new site has been established to coincide with my current work at Birmingham City University in which I am working with an array of professionals  helping them to investigate their professional practice. Naturally some of those professionals are looking at their research supervision, but there are many more opportunities for exploring the broader issue of how one goes about investigating their practice.

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Review of the Big Bang Data Exhibition

BIg Bang advertising

I had the opportunity recently to attend the Big Bang data exhibition at Somerset house in London.
One of the catchphrases by which this exhibition advertises itself is ‘Every day, we create 2.5 quintillion bytes of data. Explore how the datafied world affects us all through the work of artists, designers, innovators and thinkers.’ This slogan brings this exhibition into the realm of using creative means to articulate ones data and research findings, a theme I have been exploring with this blog.

One strong theme that was evident throughout the exhibition was the adage ‘a picture tells a thousand words’ and in cases where there is a lot of data, this exhibition celebrates creative ways to present that. A second perceived theme, perhaps not for the whole exhibition but for one or two installations, seemed to address the provenance of data collection to show how the ways in which data is collected and stored have changed over time. For those not aware of the provenance of Somerset House, it had a previous life as the Births Deaths and Marriages register so in a way the very building is an important part of the provenance of data collection.

The exhibition, like its web site, seemed to be a collection of installations related to the overall theme rather than presenting a thesis by using the various installations. This exhibition approach resonated with what I have often seen as a problem in doctoral dissertations that I have examined. It begs the question as to whether the viewer/reader of the exhibition makes of it what they want or whether an exhibition benefits from having an overall connectivity. For me the connectivity is important so this exhibition did not in my opinion hold together as an exhibition, but several installations had a strong impact on me.

One installation had a very clear didactic [ the written tablet alongside the art work] that explained the process of working with data. The installation ‘Unaffordable Country’ is an interactive data visualisation which exposes the UK’s dire housing crisis. What is most useful in this installation is the explanation of how the data sourced from the Land Registry was organised and cleaned and how it subsequently informed a ‘light bulb’ moment which resulted in the data being used in a way to enable the readers to really consider the impact of this data on their day to day lives of obtaining housing. In my opinion a clear addressing of the impact factor of research!

using photos as data display

A second installation spoke to me of the humanity that often gets overlooked in collection and representation of quantitative data. The data for this study was presented in spread sheets that in microcosm looked like straight lines, but in close up were a line of photographs. The message that I got by viewing this was that while certain research projects require working with huge collections of data, this data presentation device reinforced that the study still involved people with their stories.


The best example of a picture telling a thousand words was the installation by Ingrid Burrington and Dan Williams. It involved a pin board covered in artefacts with connections in string between the different pieces of data. It made me think about the ways in which researchers connect various pieces of literature in an effort to either frame an issue for investigation. Making these connections explicit using the string made me wonder or trouble over the level of detail we may need to go to to make the connections between literature explicit.

[Ingrid Burrington and Dan Williams ]

The provision of the opportunity to attend this exhibition draws attention to provisioning the creative environment, a theme I have previously addressed in this blog.

The idea of provisioning a creative environment for research students to stimulate them into adopting creative approaches to undertaking and publishing their research involves more than giving them a budget to attend conferences. Two significant features of my trip to this exhibition emerge for me.

My attendance at this exhibition was funded by the faculty through a dedicated ‘creativity in research’ cluster. The fact that the faculty has a ‘creativity in research’ cluster is one way of provisioning such research agendas for others in that there is a group of researchers who meet to advance that particular research theme. The second obvious way of provisioning creative ideas for researchers is through funding and this project was separately funded. Whether the investment pays off in terms of informing research practice it is hard to tell at this state. In any financial provisioning of the environment, particularly a research culture, it is hard to tell whether the investment produces dividends because the outputs derived from such investments may take a long time in fruition.

Nevertheless both strategies are relevant for provisioning a creative environment in which research practices are undertaken. Having dedicated ‘creative’ research groups to provide communities of practice for students to explore and discuss their ideas is important as is backing up the creative rhetoric with funding to enable researchers such as the group with whom I attended this exhibition to do just that: Go out and see how other researchers are being creative.

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What I am currently writing about.

Having taken on a university wide research supervision professional development program for Birmingham City University, my agenda with regard to research supervision has been brought back to its origins when I undertook a similar project for Queensland University of Technology. That agenda will influence several of the posts on the blog.

Geof Hill

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Why is investigating research supervision practice important?

investigating something

Reflective practice (Schön, 1983) is seen in almost, if not all, professions as something which enhances professional practice. It helps professionals understand problems encountered in their practice from others’ perspectives (Ferry and Ross-Gordon, 1998; Yanow and Tsoukas, 2009; Kilminster, Zukas, Bradbury and Frost, 2010). It encourages professionals to question what they know and thus expand their knowledge (Betts, 2004). It enables a professional to look more deeply at what they do.

Practitioner inquiry (Andersen and Herr, 1999) is a step up from reflective practice, particularly in that it involves making explicit the assumptions that underpin one’s practice so that these can also be reflected upon. This form of reflective practice, along with the rigour of an investigation, helps a professional to not only become aware of their practice but to devise ways in which their practice can be improved. Often practitioner investigation involves understanding of what counts as ‘good’ in a particular practice and what therefore will enable the practice to become ‘better’.

Research supervision practice has for some time emphasised the value of reflective practice. It is a practice filled with rich traditions but as one that is also seen as a private or hidden practice (Manatunga, 2005). It can benefit from the illumination through focussed reflective practice as well as structured practitioner inquiry. Since the mid1980s there has been a growing agenda in the higher education literature to examine research supervision practices with a view to helping professionals become much more aware of the professional choices they make in undertaking research supervision. Such agendas also enable research supervisors to address institutional requirements for their own professional development.

When groups of professionals come together to explore a common practice this has come to be known as a Community of Practice (Wenger, 2000) and has the benefit for practitioner inquiry of generating conversations between professionals as well as valuing and affirming the knowledge that each professional has about their practice.

Anderson, G. and Herr. K. (1999). The New Paradigm Wars: Is there room for rigorous practitioner knowledge in Schools and Universities? Educational Researcher, 28(5), 12-21.

Betts, J. (2004). Theology, therapy or picket line? What’s the ‘good’ of reflective practice in management education?, Reflective Practice: International and Multidisciplinary Perspectives, 5(2), 239-251.

Ferry, N. and Ross-Gordon, J. (1998). An inquiry into Schön’s epistemology of practice: exploring links between experience and reflective practice. Adult Education Quarterly, 48(2), 98-112.

Kilminster, S., Zukas, M., Bradbury, H. and Frost, N. (2010). Introduction and overview in Bradbury, H., Frost, N. Kilminster, S. and Zukas, M.(Eds) Beyond Reflective Practice: New approaches to professional lifelong learning. Routledge: New York, U.S.A., 1-9.

Manatunga, C. (2005) The Development of Research Supervision: ‘Turning a light on a private space’, International Journal for Academic Development, 10(1), 17-30.

Schön, D. (1983). The Reflective Practitioner: How professionals think in action. Basic Books. U.S.A.

Yanow, D. and Tsoukas, H. (2009). What is reflection-in-action? A phenomenological account. Journal of Management Studies, 46(8), 1339-1364.

Wenger, E. (2000). Communities of Practice and Social Learning Systems. Organization, 7(2), 225–246.

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Provisioning the research environment for creativity – a research supervision pedagogy.

derelict playground

Photograph of Meadowview by Mimi Martini taken August 23rd 2009 downloaded from March 6th 2015

Pedagogy in research supervision is a relatively recent agenda. It is one of the many facets of the broader topic of pedagogy in Higher Education, and also a recent agenda. Research supervision has been described as a practice “traditionally conducted behind the closed door” (McWilliam, and Palmer, 1995, 32) or in “a private space” (Manatunga, 2005). Both descriptions allude to the lack of explicitness of pedagogy at this level of education and so it is not surprising that there is a shortage of names for this pedagogy. Some of those names have been documented. Kenway and Fahey (2009) make an important start of naming the (pedagogical) names for research supervision. These names include:

  1. Encourage uncomfortable thought.
  2. Examine the unexamined.
  3. Question the question.
  4. Go digging not surfing.
  5. Strive for complexity.
  6. Discover the intellectual excitement in the problem.
    ( )

To this list I propose to add the pedagogy of provisioning the environment, and in the themes of recent blogs, to take that one step further to suggest

provisioning an environment for creativity.

Provisioning the environment is a pedagogy most commonly encountered in Early Childhood. Where play is the essence of the curriculum, the tools for play that are made available in an environment become a most important choice for the teacher. For example, in awareness that without gross motor, children’s muscles do not develop sufficiently to enable them to sit at desks for periods of time; and mindful of the dearth of Gross Motor opportunities provided for children as they head into these higher grades, a teacher needs to consider what equipment is provided for children on and with which they can climb, hang, skip and jump. Something as simple as an item to climb upon provisions the opportunity for climbing and thus has the potential for not only gross motor development but development of self-esteem as the child overcomes their concerns about height.
In research supervision we often provision the environment by making sure that a research student has a dedicated desk, access to IT and particularly the internet. We sometimes provision that environment further by inviting speakers to present workshops on various approaches to research and inquiry and research students can be motivated by these speakers. Indeed, there seems an endless caravan of speakers extolling the values of writing for publication to ensure that one’s research can join the hallowed ranks of the ‘A’ journals.
Creativity, as has been mentioned before in this blog, is an uncommon visitor to the research student curriculum. Even though definitions of the PhD link it to a contribution to knowledge, sometimes the traditions of research seem to work to stifle rather than excite creativity. Despite these nullifying cultures, I am seeing emergent agendas for nurturing creativity in higher degree research:

  1. Science PhDs looking for ways to adopt more exciting and user friendly publications of their scientific discoveries.
  2. The ‘Bright club’ extolling the virtues of more creative lecturing.

In my own small research world I have also ventured out with pedagogy to provision for a creative PhD environment by:

  1. Developing a micro-skills workshop for PhD students to nurture creativity in research publication. This workshop exposes PhD students to several simple creative strategies to mobilise into their research publications. Strategies such as animation and ballad writing, as well as more adventurous choreography skills for contemplating the ‘danced’ dissertation.
  2. Reading student’s dissertations in a mode that encourages difference and creativity as well as awareness that such variations from hegemony need to be well scaffolded by arguments for their inclusion/presence in a dissertation.
  3. Providing publishing opportunities for PhD students to exhibit and publish their creative works and writing related to research.
  4. Acting as a role model for creativity by seeking out opportunities to publish my own research in my preferred creative mode of cabaret.

Kenway, J and Fahey, J. (2009) Globalizing the Research Imagination Taylor and Francis

Manatunga, C. (2005) The development of research supervision: ‘turning the light on a private space’ International Journal for Academic Development, 10(1), 17-30.

McWilliam, E. and Palmer, P. (1995) Teaching Tech(no)bodies: Open Learning and Postgraduate Pedagogy. Australian Universities Review, 2, 32-34.

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Creative Conversations about Conservation: an exhibition curated by Nicholas Smith


An exhibition review.

One of the outcomes of encouraging researchers to embrace creativity (see previous blog) in their publications is that they do, and this can result in a range of creative events. This exhibition is one such event, where several conservation researchers decided to publish some creative aspects of their research in the mode of an art exhibition.

The exhibition as a research publication is a relatively innovative way to publish one’s research or portions of one’s research, and can be undertaken by a single researcher, or as is the case with this exhibition, a collaboration with the support of an exhibition curator.

The purpose of the Creative Conversations about Conservation exhibition is twofold:
Firstly, each of the researchers is celebrating their individual creative talents and demonstrating how their creative flair plays an integral part in their research work and publication.
Secondly, the collaborative Artefact ( ) has used the exhibition as an example of the different ways researchers can embrace creative work and to draw attention to their agenda in supporting researchers in doing this.

There is little doubt when you think of some of the iconic scientific research that imagery plays an important part. For me, what comes to mind are the finch variations evident in the drawings of the birds (attributed to Susan William-Ellis)in Darwin’s species survival thesis and the drawings of the pneumatic pump in Boyle’s iconic experiment witnessing research. In contemporary times, many scientists advocate the importance of images in disseminating their research. One such scientist, Connie Bransilver, says she uses photography to help scientists shed light on their work and create that emotional connection that moves others to action. She talks about her photographs as enticing people to pay attention

The Creative Conversations about Conservation exhibition is notable for it eclecticism, a compliment to the curator in his efforts to bring the broad range of works into a single entity. It includes drawings, paintings, photographs, videos and even a children’s mobile and a board game that explores endangered species. The artwork of each of the pieces on exhibition speaks to the creative talents of each of the exhibitors and the didactics or exhibition labels advance the scientific context of each of the works and provide insights into the artist/researcher’s purpose for the artwork in their research.

As I attended this exhibition I asked myself the question ‘Did this exhibition help to extend or initiate conversations about conservation?’. I believe it did in that when you see the beauty of some of these plants and animals it makes you more attuned to the fear of the loss of such beauty.

What relevance do publications of this sort have to research supervisors?

In my own experience with cabaret, my research supervisor attending one of my creative expression events resulted in her encouraging me to write a cabaret for my doctoral degree and this was included as one of the in-candidature publications. I believe that when a research supervisor is aware of their student’s creative bent, this should be encouraged as in the broader context their creativity will be an asset in disseminating the content of their research. Sometimes presenting material or ideas in a new light works in the same way as creating a new piece of knowledge, that the researcher enables the readers/viewers to understand an issue with a new attitude.

The exhibition is scheduled to have a public showing at Visions Studio Gallery, Level 2 Absoe Warehouse, 51 Mollison Street, West End (opposite The Three Monkey’s Cafe) on Friday, 23rd January, 2015 From 6:00 p.m.

David Lack’s (1947, 166) book ‘Darwin’s Finches’ accredits the drawings of the finches to Susan Williams-Ellis.

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