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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Nurturing creativity within the PhD

bean sprouts

Creativity maintains an uncomfortable alliance within research. On the one hand definitions of research suggest that the process generates ‘new’ knowledge, while on the other hand, publication of research is imbued with traditions that sometimes discourage difference and creativity.
The recent article in the Times Higher Education supplement (Oswald, 2014)
describes the early years when research on happiness was new and how those ideas were blocked by hostile academics and gate keeping journal editors. Oswald makes the point in that article that it can be very difficult to get a new idea published.
I would attest to Oswald’s (2014) proposition. From early in my academic life I have championed different ways of both doing and publishing research. I established my career as an action inquirer, once considered quite marginal, and developed that into practice-led inquiry. I have also championed cabaret as academic discourse. Perseverance pays off and after over fifteen years challenging some quite established traditions of research publication I find that my new ideas are welcomed in a variety of outlets, as is evidenced by the recent publication in The Conversation
Because of my stance with regard to creative approaches to publishing research I am often engaged in conversations with colleagues who both admire my drive to retain and celebrate creativity in my research and regret the road blocks that are placed in their path when they make attempts to nurture their own creativity. Ana Duffy is one such colleague. She is a PhD student investigating the creative writing of Argentinian author Luisa Valenzuela .

In a recent conversation with Ana she commented that while she reads and analyses this other writer’s creative work, she also grieves the apparent barriers in academic writing that prevent her from nurturing her own creative writing.
I encouraged her to write about that grief!
Below is the short story that Anna wrote.

The dead nun: a requiem for I. – Ana Duffy
Once upon a time I was told I could write. The day I wrote a composition on the Argentinean flag, it was read aloud. And after that came Independence Day or the May Revolution, the war or, on the following year, the flag again. And I wrote. I wrote for me and for my friends. My friends in need of written flags. My hand was easy and there was no such a thing as a draft. My flags had the colours right and my wars had Tom and Jerry bombs to fight with and missing match boxes to stop them. My wars were wrong but my words were right.
Once upon a time I was told I could write. And I happened to believe I could.
I got older, and the flag was a serious matter but my words could still say it. And they were right. But the nun died anyway. Mine was a nun’s school and the serious matters wore black and white and fondled holy rosaries. And they were mostly old, like everything above the seventh grade was then. A nun died and I was commended to write about her. Not that I knew her, not that I did fight any wars with or without matches. But I wrote the dead nun anyway. Words were wordy then, like a tomb stone, they were a couple of sizes bigger than me. But I could grab any word I liked and make them all mine. That was a nice death made into a poem, about some nun, written on demand. The war and the nun. Death was wrong but my words were right. Once upon a time I was told I could write.
I am a PhD student now. One that once upon a time believed she could write.
I am not a PhD student. There is no I. There is a We. We are a PhD student. We, with the name of I.
I cannot grab any word; there is a proper way to say things with the precise words. And definitely I cannot make them mine. Which makes it one major drawback. Neither I nor mine.
I cannot write Tom and Jerry wars, they are not even scholarly. Let alone peer reviewed.
I cannot say war is wrong, I have to find someone that says it is someone that says it is not. And be critical, form an opinion I cannot quite express. Because there is not I.
I cannot write the flag because I changed flags. And the flag around my language is a foreign one now. My words are flagless. The ones with a flag, I borrow. Still not mine.
I cannot write the dead nun. Or quote her. I did not know her, neither the academic world. She died outside my scope of work.
I am a We and a PhD student now. But is wrong. However is right. Furthermore is better.
Once upon a time I was told I could write. I cannot quote who said it. It was not the dead nun.
Once upon a time I could make any word mine. Even the ones from the tomb stone. Unquoted.
Once upon a time, a nun in a poem.
Once upon a time, I.
One dead nun. One PhD student that thought she could write.

At the moment this is one story that gives voice to a grief that I expect is familiar to many PhD students, that they also feel their creative spirit is crushed by some of the requirements of academic writing.

How can an advisor nurture a creative spirit?
When I think back over my own candidature, I can identify two key moments of support in which my advisors encouraged my creativity. That is not to say that there were many others but these two shine out!
The first incident was encouragement. One of my advisors attended a cabaret I performed and following this she encouraged me to include a cabaret in my doctoral publications as a means to give voice to my researcher’s journey. That cabaret was written and ‘Doing a Doctorate’ was performed just prior to my candidature completion and graduation.
A second incident relates to the performance of my ‘Doing a Doctorate’ cabaret. I did not witness this first hand but heard of a morning tea room conversation about my cabaret the morning after I had presented. There was discussion as to whether I should be awarded my doctoral degree for my cabaret. My supervisor set the assembly straight in explaining that the cabaret was one of many publications that emerged from my study, and that my degree was being awarded for the monograph, my dissertation not the cabaret which was but one part of the monograph.

I have taken these two forms of encouragement to heart as I have worked with other students to help them nurture their creative spirits through the doctoral process.

  1. Perhaps the most important factor is that I try to live out my espoused beliefs of alternate paths for researchers. I take a political stand in advocating practice-led inquiry and I put my own work on the line taking cabarets out to present them to academic audiences. I believe that modelling is one of the most powerful forms of facilitating change.
  2. A second important factor is providing time to read and comment on examples of creative work to help a research student plot out both a vision for the creative work and re-vision it into their research. I believe that creative expression provides an ideal strategy for a researcher to articulate their researcher’s voice.
  3. There is an early childhood pedagogy of provisioning the environment and that translates into my own perception of research supervision, that my knowledge of what is required for a doctoral degree helps to mould the student’s research and creative expression into something that it recognised for its PhDness. The environment has changed and new rules about what constitutes a research contribution have opened up so many doors for creative expression.
  4. A fourth factor is actively seeking opportunities to support their publication through creative means so that multiple examples populate the terrain.
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Reviewing the political terrain


A comment about ‘underhand’ tactics for getting a journal article published made by Blake Ashforth in a recent Art of Writing Theory workshop left me wondering about ‘what constitutes under-handness? And when is under-handness seen as political savvy?

Ashforth told an anecdote about another academic who had submitted a journal article to several A level journals only to have it summarily rejected. Later, as the editor of a special edition of the journal, the academic was able to include his own previously rejected article in the mix of papers. This series of actions was labelled by Ashforth as ‘underhand’ and as I listened to the anecdote I thought it represented a good example of ‘political savvy’. The anecdote suggested to me that the article author had assessed the political terrain regarding his article and his ideas, moved to a position of power and then used that power position to get his article published.

Whether we are aware of it or not, or like it or not, academics operate in a strongly political terrain. Despite rhetoric of openness and nourishment of new ideas, my observations of academic practice over thirty years of working in universities, give me an impression of gatekeeping. The journal publication process is a good example. So many journals require conformity to the style of their journal, which reinforces the traditions. I still remember the freshness I experienced as a would be publisher in the Qualitative Journal, when they not only welcomed the work, they worked with the authors to facilitate publication of the ideas and at the same time not compromise their quality criteria. I now realise that that journal’s approach is not the norm. It becomes difficult for someone with a new idea or a different way of communicating their research to break into the market. What may be commonplace in one discipline may be described as not even research in another. I found this out first hand when a journal article I had written based on a single case study, quite common in writing about research supervision, was rejected as not even research by a journal devoted to research on academic writing.

When I was first exposed to research practice through the culture of action inquiry, I realised very quickly that while there were pockets of active action inquiry in many universities around the world, these were often marginalised. Over time, this changed and now action inquiry has its own journals that are considered A level journals. As I developed as a researcher I learnt to share my work in selected sites, and with my experiential learning work even developed a hierarchy of conference venues at which to share differently developed experiential learning. This knowledge comes with longevity in the culture.

It begs the question as to how a new research student can begin to consider the implications of the political terrain within their discipline when they are still trying to come to terms with the variety of tribes within a discipline. This sort of question and knowledge becomes important when, in inviting the research student to comment on the choice of potential readers or examiners for their work, either at research proposal level or at dissertation level, they may still be quite novice in terms of political awareness. While it is a good idea to include them in the decision making, their knowledge of the potential of each of the readers may be limited or politically naïve.

The role of the academic advisor/supervisor can be quite significant at this point in a research student’s candidature, as the student is reliant on the advisor/supervisor’s knowledge of the political terrain for advice on from whom to seek assistance. Which professors will try to cobble your ideas into something that seems to fit into their own? Which professors have a track record of providing pertinent feedback? Which professors are attempting to champion their own causes, sometimes at the expense of disempowered research students?

The academic advisor/supervisor may also know who in the organisation will champion the work. Who has political clout to help a research student discern their way through the epistemological minefield? Who is a worthwhile member of a panel who can stave off paradigmatically inappropriate questioning?

All of these options fill out the role of the research advisor/supervisor as advocate!

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Post PhD – should you mention the PhD?



I was fortunate recently to attend a workshop on Career Strategy delivered by Dr Edwin Trevor-Roberts, an alumnus of the university at which I am undertaking a PhD. The workshop was so popular that they had to schedule an additional day! Not that surprising, given the figures I was made aware of at the recent International Quality in Postgraduate Research Conference in Adelaide, Australia. Those figures suggested that the traditional Australian trend of PhD graduates taking up academic appointments is declining due to reduced Higher Education funding and a general trend in universities of seeking potential employees who can generate income for them rather than just expend it. The Australian experience was contrasted with European trends that indicated a growth in non-university employment of PhD graduates. Each of the key-note speakers at the International Quality in Post-Graduate Research conference suggested that the European trend is likely to take off in Australia.

One of the engaging activities in the Career Strategy workshop was to discuss at the table of participants the questions that you had always wanted to ask a career consultant about post PhD career choices. This activity generated a number of pertinent questions from just and soon-to-be graduated PhD candidates. An interesting dilemma at the table at which I was sitting was the comment from a soon-to-be graduand that having a PhD in some disciplines in Australia was sometimes a hindrance rather than a help. This perception was later confirmed by the speaker and the advice was not to spend too much time in your career interview talking about ‘when you did your PhD’ and to focus more on how the knowledge and the inquiry processes acquired from undertaking a PhD could add value to a potential employing company. The concern resonated with a story I had heard from a recent graduate that at the high school at which they were teaching, the Principal refused to acknowledge the academic achievement of a doctoral degree. It seemed clear to me that that Principal of that school demonstrated some of the fear from a PhD graduate that Edwin Trevor-Roberts had mentioned. It also made me wonder why the Principal had not adopted an appreciative inquiry approach and celebrated this staff member’s achievement and publicized it as an advantage of the school that one of their staff had been successful in one of the highest levels of academic achievement.

The flip-side of this scenario is recognizing the importance of acquiring a PhD as an exemplar of learning and knowledge. It is important to make this feature of a research degree one of its saleable features when you are competing in the job market. One of the often overlooked features of a research degree is that the process you have undertaken to make a contribution to knowledge can stand as a separate entity to the knowledge the research process has generated. Regardless of which industry you approach, the process of investigation, of which you have become experienced through the grueling task of completing a research degree, can be translated into any field. The process brings with it a greater demand for evidence based thinking and an ability to communicate that thinking to a range of audiences and in a range of media. The ability to make transparent any part of a problem solving process, so that the process itself can be evaluated, is a skill that is useful in any industry and in any position.

For a supervisor or advisor working with their PhD students as they head towards the ultimate milestone of completion, it is important to help them recognize the individual industry contribution of the knowledge generated through their study as well as the trans-disciplinary process that they have undertaken which qualifies them for a much broader range of investigative practices that are limited to just the industry or discipline of their study.

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What makes a good supervisor?


This post has been written by Kelsey Halbert at James Cook University. It was prompted by her presentation at the recent International Quality Post Graduate Research conference in Adelaide, Australia. What is inspirational in this post is that it is an encouragement for other research supervisors and advisors to investigate rigorously their own practices and to do this by talking to one of the most important stakeholders of the research degree process, the student.

This post is based on conversations with groups of current doctoral students about their supervisory experiences. These discussions took place as part of a wider qualitative study I conducted in which I prompted candidates to talk about their positive and negative experiences and make recommendations that would improve their candidacy. While we also talked about a range of institutional processes and supports, their supervision was undoubtedly the most significant factor in students’ feeling satisfied and making progress.

In terms of my researcher position, I am a relatively new supervisor, early in my career but conscious of the need to reflect on my own experiences as a student and how those have shaped my own notion of ‘the good supervisor’. Hearing about the different orientations to and traditions of research and research supervision has enriched my own practice and provided recommendations for improving institutional practice. It has also enabled current students to share experiences with each other. I hope that this post extends that sharing even further.

I asked doctoral candidates in focus groups across a range of disciplines: “What makes a good supervisor?”. The seventy students who participated affirmed the importance of a good relationship, expertise in both the field and the research process and an ethic of care and support. Regardless of the form, students want regular engagement with their supervisor or supervisory team. A good supervisor is:

Understanding, flexible, respectful and pushes approachable, switched on, actually cares about students Understanding, communicative. Contactable. Sense of humour. Positivity.
Knowledgeable in the area but doesn’t have to be a major interest to them.

Some supervisors might contend that their expertise is the most important resource they offer to students, but clearly some students’ value communicative practices and the process of support over expertise.

The key practices were accessibility and communication. For some students this means flexibility and for others it means predictability and regular meeting times. The comments below indicate the diverse approaches to communication – formal and informal, regular or needs based:

  • My supervisor is informal. If I want to talk, he says come back after lunch.
  • We never have minutes of regular discussions.
  • My experiences have been quite good. Generally speaking we have a weekly meeting. The meetings are not structured but the meeting schedule is of 1 hour face-to-face each week. I find that really helpful because during the week questions arise so I know I have that opportunity to ask my supervisor.
  • [I] think it’s about finding what suits the people involved. If there are weeks I feel I have nothing to say and am not ready to discuss it we just don’t have a meeting that week. I think it’s about creating that structure at the beginning.

This clear and regular communication is a factor in shaping what Halse and Malfroy (2010) refer to as a ‘learning alliance’ – a mutual commitment and engagement with the research project. Support and enthusiasm for the candidate fit into what Halse and Malfroy (2010) describe as “habits of mind”, which include a disposition and modes of behaviour, self-awareness, reflective practice, responsiveness to student needs, openness, application of ‘lived knowledge’. Several candidates referred to such habits as positive experiences:

  • Highlight and Anchor has been advisors that have faith in what I can do
  • [My supervisor’s are] Patient, into detail, inspire direction that I’m seeking, friends to me, open to thoughts, exchange knowledge.
  • Having a supervisor that encourages you. My supervisor is keen because he’s interested, we’re doing something that hasn’t been done before. He sits in the back and says ‘Go, go, go.’ Can stay passionate and focused. I’ve been at crossroads where I simply don’t know what to do. My supervisor may not know either, but he says let’s sit down and figure out what to do.
  • [I have] two positive, helpful supervisors and relationship where they understanding where I’m coming from because of my background
  • Sometimes I walk into my supervisors where I say ‘I hate my subject and the whole thing. Tell me what I need to be doing and get me back on track!’ And she says, ‘Ok, go and do this and you’ve got this time.’
  • Managed to talk in supervisory meetings – more substance than other students – and he replies to emails.
  • There is a lot of trust both ways.

The comments above offer multiple perspectives on the responsiveness and ethic of care that a good supervisor demonstrates. This is facilitated by trust, patience and supports that go beyond intellectual or technical to acknowledge the affective dimension of supervision.

So what does this mean for current candidates and supervisors?

There is a variety of expectations of supervision: some that stem from previous experiences and perceptions of the ideal and some that stem from the specific demands of the research and the field we might be researching. However, there are fairly consistent ideas of the ‘good supervisor’ as being someone (or two or three people) who are committed, accessible, and supportive and usually in regular communication about the research project (see further research by Barnes, Wolfe, Chard, Stassen, & Williams, 2011; Kiley, 2011; Ward & Gardner, 2008).

As a candidate you can manage the supervisory relationship by being clear about roles and expectations and setting the agenda. The take home message for supervisors is that your contribution is the most significant factor in the research education process. These student voices call for regular and substantive communication, however there are diverse ways of relating. If these are clarified and responsive to the particular candidate then the supervisory relationship will more than likely be a good one.


Barnes, B. J., Wolfe, E. W., Chard, L. A., Stassen, M. L. A., & Williams, E. A. (2011). An evaluation of the psychometric properties of the graduate advising survey for doctoral students. International Journal of Doctoral Studies, 6 (Journal Article), 1.

Halse, C., & Malfroy, J. (2010). Retheorizing doctoral supervision as professional work. Studies in Higher Education, 35(1), 79-92. doi: 10.1080/03075070902906798

Kiley, M. (2011). Government Policy and Research Higher Degree Education. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 33(6), 629-640.

Ward, K., & Gardner, S. K. (2008). Three Magic Letters: Getting to Ph.D. (review) (Vol. 79, pp. 240-242). Columbus: Ohio State University Press.


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Distractions and solutions



18 minutes

This blog is inspired by a comment made by one of the participants in the PhD buddy group to which I belong. The comment was about how easily they got distracted when they are trying to write their academic work. It prompted a response from another participant in the form of a book review of a book that inspired their own time management: Bregman’s 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done <; .

In his award-winning bestseller Peter Bregman offers a simple system for staying on track at the office. My colleague suggested that it applies just as well to the workplace for the PhD student. They highlighted five of the strategies which they believe are particularly beneficial.

Getting the Right Things Done

First, you need to give up on getting it all done, as some time management systems attempt to do. That means staying focused. Even when we know better, distractions have a mysterious magnetic effect on us, pulling us away from our best laid plans.

Decide What Really Matters

The best way to enhance your immunity to distraction is to know what really matters. Without that, you are at the mercy of every shiny thing that gets your attention. Identifying your top priorities does require some reflection. Before you balk at spending the time, consider all the wasted hours (or days!) that this will save you. Once you know what matters most, you know what to say “yes” to. More importantly, you will be clear on what you must to say “no” to. The trick, of course, will be remembering those priorities when temptation comes your way–and Bregman has an answer for that too.

Identify Your Five Goals for the Year

Bregman says that thriving at life is like going through a buffet: The secret is to choose fewer things, but do it strategically. Through trial and error, he discovered that in any given year, he could concentrate on five major areas of focus. He noted that someone else might come up with three or seven, whatever keeps you moving forward without feeling overwhelmed.

In his top five list, Bregman has two work related goals and two personal goals: “Do great work with current clients; attract future clients, write and speak about my ideas; be present with family and friends; have fun and take care of myself.” My colleague nominated a possible five priorities in:

  1. Get my PhD to Mid Candidature Review stage (because that is where I should be by the end of the year)
  2. Grow things with her partner.
  3. Build up means for future (post PhD) career.
  4. Take care of myself so I can be at my best.
  5. Take care of family and have fun with friends.

…and noted that if your dissertation does not make your “Top Five Priorities” list, consider abandoning it entirely and investing your time in what you really do care about.

Bregman advised spending 95% of your time on those five things–and only 5% on all the rest. That’s right, just 5% for paying the bills, getting repairs, washing clothes, getting a new printer ribbon. What hits most people right away is that this leaves very little time for a lot of those things that crop up during the day. How can you keep focused on your top five priorities on a day-to-day basis with so many distractions lurking nearby?

Make Each Day Count

The secret to translating priorities into daily action is Bregman’s own little invention: the “Six-Box To Do List.”

To make one, take a sheet of paper and making six large boxes (a 2×3 grid works well). Five will be for listing your top five priorities and the sixth becomes your “everything else” box. Put each of your tasks into those boxes. (You can also download a free template<; that Bregman offers.)

An interesting and helpful side effect of all this is that you quickly become aware of imbalance across priorities. Are you putting lots of tasks (and time) into the box for your current job and social connections, while leaving the boxes for dissertation and self-care blank day after day? Reflect on that and take the necessary actions!

The Power of When and Where

As has been noted in the All But the Dissetation Survival Guide, <; simply stating when and where you will do a task doubles the chances that you’ll actually do it. While a ‘To Do’ list does a great job of collecting the tasks, to keep on track, Bregman recommends a calendar to guide your daily actions.

De-clutter your schedule for maximum focus by following Bregman’s “Three-Day Rule.” If a task has been on your To Do list or more than three days, you have four choices: do it immediately, schedule it, let it go, or put it on a “someday/maybe” list (where it usually dies a slow death).

Create Your 18-Minute Daily Ritual

Even with your priorities clear and your tasks defined, distractions can still entice you from those carefully designed plans. Here’s where those 18 minutes a day can help you stay on track.

STEP 1: (5 minutes) Your Morning Minutes. Before turning your computer on, plan which of the tasks from your Six-Box To Do list will make you feel most productive and schedule them into your calendar. Apply the “Three-Day Rule” to any lingering items.

STEP 2: (1 minute every hour) Refocus. Set your watch, phone, or computer to ring, beep, or chime every hour and start working your list. At the beep or chime, breathe deeply and then review your productivity. Check your calendar and be intentional about how you use the next hour. Continue to manage your day, hour by hour.

STEP 3: (1 minute) Your Evening Minutes. At the end of your workday, turn off the computer and review your day: “How did the day go? What did I learn about myself? Is there anyone or anything that I need to update?”

“Just 18 minutes a day can save you hours of inefficiency. The trick is to choose your focus deliberately and wisely, and then consistently remind yourself of that focus throughout the day.” ~ Peter Bregman.

For supervisors/advisors

A student procrastinating raises a range of questions about ‘whose research is this?’, however a failure to complete, for which the procrastination may be an early sign, becomes a problem for you and for the university. That is a way of looking at student’s procrastination that may prompt some interventions. Ahead of interventions is actually recognising that a student is procrastinating as many of the signs appear to simply be time-management problems, or may coincide with your own busy ness and hence may be providing you with much needed valuable hours.
The value of this blog is perhaps in proposing a suitable recommendation that can be made to a student who appears to be procrastinating. It may even prompt you to challenge your students about where tutoring, teaching and marking fits into their priorities.
It is not only research students who procrastinate. You may even ask yourself ‘where does supervising your students fit into my own priorities? ‘
….how much time are you making for them?

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