Borderlands and crossroads: spaces in doctoral supervision

This guest blog has been written by Dr. Kate Carruthers Thomas (    @drkcarrutherst a Senior Research fellow and Project Manager Athena SWAN at Birmingham City University.

you must live sin fronteras
be a crossroads

Gloria Anzaldúa, 1987

Doctoral study is frequently depicted as a linear, immersive trajectory between fixed points: student to academic; novice to expert.  In practice, the ultimate destination is uncertain and the journey towards it precarious.  Both student and supervisor travel, often circuitously, in multiple spaces between.  Yet while the doctoral student’s learning journey is well documented in the literature, ‘there is a striking silence about what doctoral supervisors learn through supervising doctoral students and how the impacts on supervisors might be theorised’ (Halse 2011 p.557).  In this blog, I reflect on my current experience as a novice doctoral supervisor.  I draw on ideas of borderlands and crossroads to frame the transitional and formative dimensions of this period and how it impacts on my practice.

My experience of ‘becoming a supervisor’ was effectively contiguous with ‘becoming doctoral’.  I embarked upon full-time doctoral study later in life following fifteen years as a widening participation practitioner in UK higher education.  I was awarded my doctorate in 2016 at the age of 50, took up a research post in a modern UK university and began supervising doctoral candidates in 2018 with little formal training.  I am currently the second/junior supervisor for four doctoral candidates, all of whom are studying part-time at their place of work.  One is studying for a PhD, three for a Professional Doctorate (EdD) in which students research their own practice.  They are all mature adults who have moved into teaching roles in the academy from experienced roles in the health, social work and human resources professions. These individuals negotiate a student identity alongside multiple and prioritised identities (Jackson 2008), shaped by the domestic, caring and financial responsibilities that come with age, but also by their professional backgrounds and teaching experience.  They must navigate between identities often represented as binary opposites: expert/novice, teacher/student, professional/academic.  Meanwhile I too, swap and negotiate identities in the supervision space: expert/apprentice, supervisor/colleague.

Gloria Anzaldúa, Chicana, feminist, queer scholar, writing in the context of a life lived on the US/Mexican border, challenges such binary separations, calling for a ‘new mestiza’, an individual aware of conflicting and meshing identities.  Anzaldúa challenged conceptions of borders throughout her writing life (Anzaldúa 1987, Moraga and Anzaldúa 1981, Anzaldúa and Keating 2002, inter alia), proposing the idea of borderlands instead; the possibility of ‘a third space, a new location where individuals fluctuate between two discrete worlds, participating in both and wholly belonging to neither’ (Abes 2009, p.258).  The borderlands are a space of hybridity, tension and potential transformation.  Imagining novice doctoral supervision as borderlands territory is further enriched by Avtar Brah’s conceptualization of diaspora.  Brah is a sociologist of race, gender and ethnicity, whose life trajectory has taken her across four continents as migrant, refugee and academic.  She explores ‘not only who travels, but when, how and under what circumstances’ (1996, p.189).  Diasporic journeys, Brah writes, are not casual or temporary; they are ‘about settling down about putting roots elsewhere … are potentially the sites of hope and new beginnings’ (p.90).  It is essential to acknowledge the post-colonial context of Anzaldua and Brah’s work and diaspora may seem an unlikely frame for doctoral supervision.  However, Brah’s conceptualization richly encapsulates the hybrid identity and psychosocial dimensions of travel towards an uncertain future.

What does the idea of borderlands mean for my supervisory practice?  I think it is primarily about bringing my ‘muscle memory’ of becoming doctoral to the space of supervision.  How many of us, in the early stages of our studies, puzzled fretfully about the meaning of ‘becoming doctoral’?  I can recall comparing it to completing a jigsaw without a picture to work from.  As a novice supervisor, I can reframe my own experiences as a student as turning points and critical incidents, to support students in mapping their own routes.  For example, when and how did I come to understand that a literature review was not a long list of the big hitters in the field, but a dialogue in which I was entitled to be an equal partner?  When and why did I realise the research ethics application is not just a tedious necessity, but an opportunity to engage in a careful thought process which goes to the very heart what it is to be a researcher?  What helped me to appreciate theory, not as something that only others seemed to understand, but ‘a form of active engagement that gives rise to other ways of inhabiting and imagining this and other worlds’ (Singh 2019)?  Now I can recast these essential tasks as a series of border crossings required to turn the doctoral corner.   

Learning how, whether and when to articulate these critical moments for individual doctoral students at different stages of their journey requires a more practiced and nuanced understanding of the supervisory relationship than mechanistic paradigms of supervision styles: laissez faire, pastoral, directorial and contractual (Taylor and Beasley 2005).  These paradigms are bound up in the profoundly unequal power structure in which supervisors and students are located (Deuchar 2008, p.491) with the student reliant on their supervisor to discharge the many elements of their role, including that of gatekeeper to the academy.  However, given my own non-normative route, I value the ways in which my students’ hybrid identities contribute to their interactions with literature, concepts and methods.  I value what I can now learn from them about becoming doctoral, and adapt for my practice, in my own ‘supervision as becoming’ (Halse 2011, p.569).  In her poem To Live In The Borderlands, Anzaldúa writes:

To survive the Borderlands
you must live sin fronteras
be a crossroads.

Here is a way of re-imagining novice doctoral supervision, as a borderlands space in which student and supervisor ‘fluctuate between two discrete worlds, participating in both and wholly belonging to neither’ (Abes 2009, p.258).  A crossroads offers bridges between experience and knowledge, a way of bringing hybrid identities into a shared, collaborative endeavour.


Abes, L. (2009). Theoretical borderlands: Using multiple theoretical perspectives to challenge inequitable power structures in in student development theory. Journal of College Student Development, 50(2), 141-156.

Anzaldua, G. (1987). Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books.

Anzaldua, G. and Keating, A. (eds) (2002). This Bridge We Call Home: radical visions for transformation. London:  Routledge.

Brah, A. (1996). Cartographies of diaspora: Contesting identities.  London: Routledge.

Deuchar, R. (2008). Facilitator, director or critical friend?: contradiction and

congruence in doctoral supervision styles. Teaching in Higher Education, 13(4), 489-500.

Halse, C. 2011. Becoming a supervisor’: the impact of doctoral supervision on

supervisors’ learning. Studies in Higher Education 36(5), 557–570.

Jackson, S. (2008). Diversity, identity and belonging: Women’s spaces of sociality.  The International Journal of Diversity in Organisations, Communities and Nations, 8(3), 147-154.

Moraga, C. and Anzaldua, G. eds. (1981). This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. Persephone Press.

Singh, J. (2019). In conversation with Chase Joynt, March 25 February. LGBTQ Speaker Series. Center for Study of Gender and Sexuality, University of Chicago.   

Taylor, T. and Beasley, N. (2005). A handbook for doctoral supervisors. London: Routledge.

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Locating criticality in academic writing

Dr Geof Hill: The Investigative Practitioner

[This blog is based on a Critical Reflection tutorial delivered to doctoral candidates in the context of a Post Graduate Certificate in Research Methods tutorial series. The ideas are drawn from my PhD research (Hill, 2017) which investigated business professional’s use of Reflective and Critical Reflective Practice.] 

A common criticism made by doctoral candidate supervisors about their candidates’ dissertation is that it lacks criticality or critical thinking. Sometimes this deficit is articulated with the observation that ‘the writing is not doctoral’; suggesting that the supervisor/reader is unable to recognise in the doctoral writing, elements that align with academic writing definitions – including a presence of critical reflection.

Sometimes, it would appear, the comment of not being doctoral can be made without the evaluator/reader themself having a clear notion of what constitutes doctoral writing,  but making their comment on a basis that  ‘you know it when you see it’!. Situations such as these in my own lived doctoral candidate experience prompted my making my own dissertation examination criteria explicit when I undertook a practice-led inquiry into doctoral dissertation examination (Sankaran, Swepson and Hill, 2005).

A doctoral inquiry is often distinguished from Master’s research by definitions including a contribution to knowledge. In addition, both research degrees have a range of attributes that represent research capabilities often documented in sources such as the Vitae RDF planner or Graduate Research capabilities – [ accessed May 8th 2020]. Critical thinking or criticality is a commonly identified doctoral capability.

Helping a candidate develop critical thinking can be challenging! Some supervisors rely on the traditional method of encouraging reading of literature and, through that, recognising critical thinking. A strengths based approach to supervision focuses more on helping a candidate see the spaces in their writing in which critical thinking could emerge – such as areas of contestation. The approach is supported with a clear explanation of what is being sought.

On the assumption that ‘every practice has its history’ one way to illuminate the essence of critical thinking is to explore its Provenance (Hill and Lloyd, 2018).

Critical Reflective Practice Provenance

John Dewey (1910, 6), the educational philosopher, defined reflective thought as

active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge, in the light of the grounds that support it, and the further conclusions to which it tends’.

The defining feature of consciousness raising of beliefs was later developed by Van Manen (1977) into a Reflective Practice model incorporating technical reflection, practical reflection and critical reflection. Van Manen’s (1977) model was based on Habermas’ Knowledge model (1973) that posited Technical knowledge, Practice knowledge and Critical knowledge. Other theorists similarly advocated critical reflection as reflection on assumptions or beliefs (Mezirow, 1990; Brookfield, 1998; Reynolds, 1998). Schön (1987), recognised by many as the initiator of Reflective Practice, amended his own description of ‘reflective practice’ with ‘advanced reflective practice’ that involved  reflection on beliefs associated with a practice.

Critical reflection is contested. Mezirow (1990), aligning with the Habermas (1973) knowledge model, defined critical reflection as leading to recognition of one’s paradigms or belief systems. This definition is  likely related to Kuhn’s (1962) construct of paradigm – the beliefs underlining a practice. Reynolds (1998), drawing alternately on Habermas (1973) ‘critical theory’, advocated critical reflection involved raised awareness of power. Consideration of one’s beliefs and assumptions is also referred to elsewhere as ‘reflexivity’ (Cunliffe, 2004) and ‘practical reflexivity’ (Yanow and Tsoukas, 2009, 1341).

The contested nature of ‘critical reflection’ can be ascribed to different authors’ core ideologies – for example Reynolds (1998) reliance on ‘Critical Theory’. Prior to its role in distinguishing forms of reflective practice, ‘critical’ was associated with bringing a critique to an issue or problem. ‘Critical’ also referred to in certain problem solving processes, such as ‘double loop learning’ (Argyris, 1982a, 116) in which is applied to  questioning organisational policies and objectives to raise awareness of assumptions and beliefs (Fook, 2010).

Brookfield (1998) in an essay on Critical Reflection, suggested four different ways or ‘lenses’ to achieve critical reflection in practice:

  1. Autobiography – the practitioner exploring their own story.
  2. Learner’s eyes – understanding teaching practice from the student’s perspective.
  3. Talking with colleagues or peers about the common practice.
  4. Reading the observations made about the practice in literature  examining the practice.

Doctoral capabilities and The Vitae doctoral repertoire both suggest that rather than being a threshold capability, it is one which researchers develop over phases – presumably during candidature:  

Phase 1 involves recognising paradigms and multiple ways of knowing.

Phase 2 involves recognising significant and important arguments and identifying and evaluating others’ assumptions.

Phase 3 involves proficiency and confidence in applying critical thinking.

Phase 4 is described as a creative critical thinking acknowledging national and international discourses surrounding a topic.

Part of a supervisor repertoire supporting candidates as they develop  critical thinking includes providing academic writing feedback that helps to locate examples of critical thinking in the candidate’s writing or identifies opportunities in which critical thinking could apply.

Adopting a Mezirow (1990) view of critical reflection, that a writer consider their assumptions, generates a search for assumptions evident in the writing:

  • Assumptions within the issue or practice being investigated.
  • Assumptions within research practices
    • What counts as data? [an issue explored by Stenhouse (1981) in advocating practitioner inquiry]
    • What counts as analysis?
    • What counts as dissemination?

This final question opens up the array of  performative modes being used to disseminate doctoral inquiries.

  • Identify a Provenance of one’s practice to illuminate the spaces for bias in line with Brookfield’s (1998) proposition.

…and taking a Reynolds (1998) approach to critical reflection generates a search for the role of power:

  • Power inherent in the issue/practice being investigated.
  • The researcher/inquirer’s own power (and their potential bias) and the impact that has on making sense of data.

In conversations with a doctoral candidate, whether in the context of a regular supervision of in a viva, critical reflection can be evident in their language if they:

  • Talk about their research/inquiry paradigm – and even make a distinction between the words ‘research’ as representing scientific paradigms and ‘inquiry’ representing the range of post-positivist paradigms.
  • Explore alignment between their inquiry paradigm and the ways in which they propose undertaking the inquiry.
  • Name the assumptions made by other people exploring the issue/practice – critical reflection of the literature.
  • Identifying the assumptions underpinning
    • Being a researcher
    • Being supervised
    • Doing a Doctoral degree (what is doctoralness?) and how those assumptions are expressed in their dissertation writing.

Many supervisors make use of a knowledge building strategy of encouraging candidates to read the literature – expecting that in these examples of good academic writing they will see evidence of critical thinking and adopt the practice into their own repertoire. In addition, a research supervisor can model critical thinking evident in the very meetings between candidate and supervisor.

  1. Expressing a view of multiple truths (or not suggesting that there is a single way to undertake doctoral inquiry)
  2. Actively encouraging the researcher voice (even though their voice may  represent a different way of working/writing to your own researcher voice.)
  3. Posing possibilities for exploration rather than exercising ‘super’ visor – power oriented – directives.
  4. Expecting a candidate to remember and apply everything raised in a specific supervisory session – a classic expression  of power and domination.

Reason and Marshall (2001, p. 415) in talking about their Action Research approach to supervision, describe it as process-oriented rather than content-oriented. Their role is to help students stay in charge of their own research and to find their authentic voices and forms for expressing their action research:

… our primary attention in supervision is on students’ life energies as they engage with their research. We seek to facilitate the personal learning in research, and so help people realise their potential project which has relevance to their lives. In our view, good research is an expression of a need to learn and change, to shift some aspect of oneself.


Argyris, C. (1977). Double Loop Learning in Organisations Harvard Business Review, 55(5), 115-125.

Brookfield, S. (1998). Theoretical Foundations: Critically Reflective Practice, The Journal of Continuing Education in the Health Professions, 18, 197–205.

Cunliffe, A, L. (2004). On Becoming a Critically Reflexive Practitioner. Journal of Management Education. 28(4), 407- 426.

Fook, J. (2010). Beyond reflective practice: reworking the ‘critical’ in critical reflection. In  Bradbury, H., Frost, N., Kilminster, S., and Zukas, M. (Eds) Beyond Reflective Practice: New approaches to professional lifelong learning. London, U.K.: Routledge.

Habermas, J. (1973). Knowledge and Human interests. London, U.K.: Heinemann.

Hill, G. (2017) The use of reflective and critically reflective practice by business professionals.  Business School. (Doctoral Dissertation) Brisbane, Australia: University of Queensland.

Hill, G. and Lloyd, C. (2018). Articulating practice throughprovenance. Action Research

Kuhn, T. (1962). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago, U.S.A.: Chicago Press.

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.

Reason, P. and Marshall, J. (2001) On working with Graduate Research students. In Reason, P. and Bradbury, H. (Eds) Handbook of Action Research

Reynolds, M. (1998). Reflection and critical reflection in Management Learning. Management Learning, 29(2), 183-200.

Sankaran, S., Swepson, P. and Hill, G. (2005) Do Research Thesis Examiners need training? Practitioner stories. The Qualitative Report, 10 (4), 817-835.

Schön, D. (1987). Educating the Reflective Practitioner: San Francisco, U.S.A.: Jossey-Bass.

Stenhouse, L. (1981). What counts as research? British Journal of Educational Studies. 29 (2), 13-114.

van Manen, M (1977) Linking Ways of Knowing with Ways of Being Practical, Curriculum Inquiry, 6 (3), 205-228.

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

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On-line supervision

The 2020 Corona Virus pandemic has impacted every aspect of daily life. In Higher Education we have seen changes in the ways in which many universities operate, and specifically (for this blog), ways in which research candidates receive or experience research supervision. It may be that when we look back on this time in terms of the evolution of research supervision practices, we will describe it as a critical incident in reformulating practice.

Delivering higher education electronically is not new; distance learning has been a vibrant discourse in Education conversations since the very early experiences of a module booklet and assignments submitted through the post. Technology, particularly the internet, improved the ways in which we could communicate with each other; and the world wide web brought all forms of knowledge to bare on academic pursuits. As with any challenge to routines of professional practice, some academic professionals may find that the new challenges of the current crisis require or invite a new range of practices.

Research supervision is a long standing practice, and while technology and changed research philosophies strongly influenced what we accept as contemporary research supervision along with many long held assumptions about research supervision, the practice still remains as either:

  1. a specialist Pedagogy often associated with one-on-one education or
  2. Project management requiring monitoring an apprentice researcher’s progress.
  3. Both aspects invite relational practices.

The three are consistently working towards an explicit contribution to knowledge.


Research supervision is the predominant teaching method by which a research student learns how to do research and how to write about research. This relationship has Provenance to the Master and Apprentice relationships of the medieval guilds, but in contemporary universities, the relationship has attempted to embrace more equitable and less power oriented relationships. The practice provenance also extends to pedagogue relationships from Ancient Greece.

In modern times, one-on-one relationship of supervisor-student has given way to models of multiple supervisors for a single student, multiple students for a single supervisor, and the supervisor and student located in different geography and connected only by technology, but, despite these variations, the learning within the relationship is still predominantly based on a dialogue between the supervisor and their student.

The pandemic repertoire may have recontextualised one-on-one meetings into an array of electronic meetings, but the core research practices designed to support either the actual research or writing about the research in a dissertation or exegesis continue. The core practices emphasise the relational approach to both providing guidance in the apprenticeship of a research project and feedback and teaching is provided to develop a dissertation.

One of the advantages in electronically enhanced supervision meetings is that it draws attention to recording these meetings. This has often been a contested practice, with some research supervisors expressing discomfort as to how the recordings might be used, despite the teaching advantage in a candidate being able to listen (after the event) to how they have orally explained an idea. Their oral expression may be the conduit to finding appropriate expressions for written versions of their arguments.


Learning the craft of dissertation writing is often paralleled to the apprentice experiences in the Medieval guilds. The final work, being it written or communicated in other modes of expression, is likened to the guild masterpiece, crafted with the help of less complex work, often the research proposal, and culminating after their apprenticeship into doctoral writing.

Viewing the research proposal as a forerunner and skill development task for the dissertation lays the foundation for a broader proposal that dissertation writing is acquired across three stages of development.

  1. The development of the research proposal through which a research student builds their academic writing craft.
  2. The middle stage, in which the research candidate progresses the main thrust of their investigation and (hopefully) concurrently writes about their investigation in a range of developing chapters.
  3. The final stages of candidature, the commencement of which is signified by the coming together of the variety of documents (chapters) into a draft dissertation or exegesis.

While the initial stages of developing academic writing might be supported with a range of resources to assist candidates develop their academic writing , the main form of tuition for academic writing is by receiving feedback on their writing from their research supervisor.

One example of a resource supporting development in academic writing is Brown’s (1994) set of questions which scaffold development of a research proposal. In positing this model, Brown (1994) referred to the traditional education for academic writing as learning academic writing by ‘osmosis’, the way in which many research supervisors developed their own writing skills and, unchallenged, what they expected of their own students. Often this resulted in support as being instructions to read research literature. The set of questions developed by Brown(1994) represent one of the forms of pedagogy for this specific task and parallels a Socratic nature of research supervision.

Previously in this blog I have talked about the agendas linked to providing feedback on iterative drafts of the dissertation:’s-academic-writing/?theme_preview=true&iframe=true&frame-nonce=ca7a579bee

  1. Correcting errors
  2. Alerting candidates to genre requirements
  3. Raising criticality or critical thinking
  4. Drawing attention to issues across the full dissertation or exegesis document
  5. Helping the candidate consider questions that might be raised by an examiner or in a doctoral viva.

It helps with any feedback, regardless of whether it is face-to-face or electronic, that there is a core developing document that is always being read and responded to, so that each individual part of the academic writing is seen within a context of the whole document. Such a requirement in electronic only meetings give rise to the importance of being able to both look at a common document. Google documents is one of the technology supports that provisions such joint reviewing of a developing document. A similar effect can be obtained using the comment function ( in contrast to track changes) with a Word document. The comment function facilitates discussion about specific sections of a developing dissertation or exegesis.

In either case there is a constant iterative document that acts as the platform for conversations.

Emotional support

Doctoral candidacy has long been recognized as inviting strong emotional journeys. In recent years, recognizing this support need has been discussed both in terms of research supervision and also alerting candidates to professional counselling services.

The nature of the current crisis heightens the need for emotional support.

Change in the routines will impact different on different candidates. For some, the shift to an on-line only mode of operation raises already present anxiety. The meetings to discuss research may well be channeled into needs to provide emotional support.

Project planning

As with any change in a project plan, it is important to keep a close eye on the overall deliverables of the project. Like the common document for the dissertation/exegesis, it is also worthwhile to have a common project plan document that can be mutually reviewed so that a candidate and their supervisor(s) are constantly aware of the long term delivery of the research and its report.

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Alchemy and research supervision

In 2018, I was fortunate to hear Professor Michelle LeBaron (from the Allard Law School at The University of British Columbia) articulate her (organisational inquiry) model for reflecting on a range of organisational issues at the Artistry of Management and Organisation (AoMO) Conference in Brighton (2018). Recently, as I have edited a journal issue of Organisational Aesthetics based on papers and workshops from the same conference, I revisited Le Baron’s model in a paper written by Michelle with colleague Professor Nadja Alexander Director of the Singapore International Dispute Resolution Academy at Singapore Management University. (available through

The framework is inspired by the Medieval work of alchemy – understanding events from the basis of the four elements Air, Fire, Water and Earth. Their model describes these elements using Latin terminology – sublimatio, caclinatio, solutio and coagulatio.
LeBaron and Alexander (2020) explain

Because air is invisible, sublimatio reminds us that many invisible factors can influence organisational transformation processes including structures and habits that form part of the status quo. Identity is one such factor; it is both critically important and elusive to name. Frequently invisible both to us and others in organisational settings, identity images of self and the collective can keep us from embracing needed change…….

Fire illuminates and cleanses. Replete with kinetic energy, it is dynamic, unpredictable and often beautiful. It can also be destructive, leaving charred remains in its wake. Fire is contagious: it easily spreads. Fire is often invoked by those involved in transformative processes, and not usually in positive ways. Attitudes toward the intense fire of disagreement are all-important. As with fire, we must discern when to avoid conflict, when to try to manage it, and when to try to tap its transformative potential. It is difficult to dialogue with a fierce fire. Deepening understandings of its dynamics, we tap into its unrivalled energy and passion to realise organisational potentials: the operation of calcinatio.

Like water (solutio) , we can freeze and be blocked; we can pretend to disappear like gas; or we can experience a sense of flow together as when the river meets the ocean. As the structures of water molecules alter in adapting to their surrounding environments, so do we…..

The alchemical process of coagulatio, associated with earth, relates to things coalescing, or becoming solid and trustworthy. Coagulatio is frequently encountered at the beginning of transformation processes: people tend to resist change by clinging to the fixed and familiar ways of the past and present; alternatively, they may hold solid views and very clear ideas of what should be changed and how. Well-designed transformation processes can challenge deeply-entrenched home ground positions…..

As I read about their lenses for looking at organisational work, I was drawn to thinking about my own supervisory practices in the context of a university as an organisation.

My identity as someone knowledgeable about different methodologies and strengthened with two doctoral degrees, is what secured my research supervisory positions and roles. This is my sublimato. I am constantly adding to my identity with conference presentations and journal publications (I have also published in the same journal at Michelle and Nadja about Provenance). As a result of these identity factors, I have secured different doctoral candidates – ones who might be embracing more of the creative; and I have been invited to examine more creative dissertations.

The experiences of conflict are commonplace in all organisations. In the context research supervision there can be conflicts between the candidate and their supervisors, and indeed between the candidate and doctoral administration. My own candidature as well as the candidates I have supervised have many examples of calcinatio. I am reminded of the importance of engendering resilience and attempting to resolve conflicts with a sense of the candidate realising their own power in what is often perceived as a deficit position compared to their supervisors.

The lens of looking at what is frozen and blocked became very evident as I shifted my research supervision from the Australian context into a U.K. context. Even the professional doctorate, my own first doctoral degree, was understood differently in a different setting, and this brought with it need for different scaffolding and different ways of empowering candidates. This was my solutio. By seeing different ways of embarking on the professional doctorate, I was able to move beyond some of my long held views about what counts as doctoral. This had a major impact on the ways in which I examine a doctoral dissertation.

And finally, to what became solid and trustworthy- my sublimato. Having a greater number of research candidates than I previously had enjoyed, gave me strength in realisation of some of the ways I worked and advocated supervisors working.

The model may also provide you, the reader, with ways of thinking about your research supervision!

Lebaron, M. and Nadja M. (2020) Optimising Performance: How Jungian Alchemy Informs Organisational Transformation, Organizational Aesthetics: 9 ( 2) , 62-82. Available at:

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Practitioner inquiry and…


One of the ways to investigate research supervision is by the supervisor undertaking a practitioner inquiry. In the booklet from which this blog is taken (Hill and Vaughan, 2019), we elaborate nine different practitioner inquiries undertaken by research supervisors based at Birmingham City University in U.K. Each of these studies was initiated with a Provenance exercise (Hill and Lloyd, 2018) taken from the professional development program (Hill and Vaughan, 2017) they were undertaking.

The idea of Provenance is borrowed from antiquity study. It refers to the history of development of an artefact – who has made it, where it was made, what it represents in movements. Provenance can also apply to any professional practice with the notion that each practice has a history and each practitioner of that practice has their personal history or provenance.

Provenance within research supervision aligns with the notion that many research supervisors develop their initial supervision practices in response to their own experiences of being supervised (Pearson and Brew, 2002). Such migration may bring with it the ideas of what the student ‘liked’ and then attempts to reactivate these processes with their own students. It may also give rise to uncritiqued practice, such that what has been modelled in previous supervision experienced by the supervisor in their own student experiences is accepted without question as being ‘that is the way it is’.

As Finlay (2002, 536) suggests, Provenance as a mode of reflective practice needs to start from the moment that the practitioner inquiry is conceived to embrace the investigator’s motivations, assumptions and interests seeking to illuminate forces that might skew the research in particular directions. Once identified through reflection, the investigator can mark those experiences and literature that may bias their analysis of other practitioners’ descriptions of their practice, opening the ways in which they frame problems, make assumptions and understand power (Torbert, 1991).

Research supervisors’ reflecting on practice has been encouraged since the emergence of the professional discourse (Johnson, 1995). The idea of focused reflection mirrors recent higher degree research, such as Lee’s (2012) framework for research supervision and Taylor’s (2015, 2016) supervisor questionnaire, that encourage supervisors to audit their own practice. Within the reflective practice and self-auditing agenda are possibilities for supervisors to address institutional requirements for their own professional development, as well as raise their awareness regarding the professional choices they make in undertaking research supervision. Raised awareness about professional choices is an identifying feature of Practitioner Research (Stenhouse, 1981). This agenda highlights critical reflection on beliefs common to professional practice investigation within the ‘practice turn’ (Schatzki, Knorr- Cetina & von Savigny, 2001).

In terms of my own research supervision provenance I know that I started to informally supervise others while I was still completing my own doctoral inquiry. Higher degree research practices were the focus of my doctoral investigation so it helped that I had some first hand experience as I studied the practice. Two significant events informed the ways in which I supervised. The first was examining my first doctoral dissertation and developing a set of examination criteria (Sankaran, Swepson and Hill, 2005). Having this set of criteria sharpened my supervision practice. The second was my Readership at Birmingham City University which afforded an opportunity to concurrently supervise fourteen doctoral candidates. This provided a wealth of knowledge about the ways in which I varied my core practices to accommodate individual student’s support needs. Many of these insights have been shared on this blog. In many ways this was my equivalent to Salmon’s (1992) study of her research supervision experiences.

The practitioner inquiries (Stenhouse, 1981; Andersen & Herr, 1999) undertaken by participants in the BCU communities of practice around research supervision are a defining feature that secured SEDA accreditation. Each inquiry involved a two-month focus on one aspect of their own research supervision and a report back to the community of practice of their discovered knowledge. Projects were identified and supported through scaffolded community of practice discussions that took place in the preliminary community of practice meetings (elaborated in the final section of this booklet) when practitioners discussed issues within research supervision that ‘troubled’ (Schön, 1983) them. In later community of practice meetings, discussion focused on what counted as ‘good’ supervision, the different resources that can support supervision practice and finally an invitation for each participant to identify their proposed practitioner inquiry.

Positioning a practitioner inquiry in the context of a community of practice takes reflexivity from a private practice to a communal one whilst maintaining the personal and individual focus through individual practitioner inquiries.
If, as a result of reading this blog, you are inspired to begin working on your own research supervisor provenance, I am happy to act as ‘critical friend’ – send a copy of your first thoughts on Provenance for your research supervision to me at


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.

Finlay, L. (2002). Outing the Researcher: The Provenance, Process, and Practice of Reflexivity. Qualitative Health Research, 12, 531-545.

Hill, G. and Lloyd, C. (2018). Articulating practice through provenance. Action Research

Hill, G. and Vaughan, S. (2017). Conversations about research supervision – enabling and accrediting a Community of Practice model for research degree supervisor development. Innovations in Education and Teaching International DOI: 10.1080/14703297.2017.1406388

Hill, G. and Vaughan, S. (2019) Ten ways to investigate research supervision. SEDA, London: U.K.

Johnston, S. (1995). Professional development for post-graduate supervision. Australian Universities Review, 2, 16-19.

Lee, A. (2012). Successful research supervision: Advising students doing research. Abingdon, UK: Routledge

Pearson, M. & Brew, A. (2002) Research Training and Supervision Development, Studies in Higher Education, 27:2, 135-150,

Salmon, P. (1992). Achieving a PhD – ten students’ experience. Staffordshire: Trentham Books.

Sankaran, S., Swepson, P. and Hill, G. (2005) Do Research Thesis Examiners need training? Practitioner stories. The Qualitative Report, 10(4), 817-835.

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

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

Stenhouse, L. (1981). What counts as research? British Journal of Educational Studies. 29 (2), 103-114.

Taylor, S. (2015, April) Benchmarking supervisory development, paper at 2nd International Conference of Developments in Doctoral Education and Training, UK Council for Graduate Education, 30-31st March

Taylor, S. (2016) UK Professional Standards Framework (UKPSF) Dimensions of the Framework for Doctoral Supervisors. U.K.: Higher Education Academy

Torbert, W. R. (1991). The Power of Balance: Transforming Self, Society, and Scientific Inquiry, Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

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10 ways to investigate research supervision’


The publication of this blog coincides with the Staff Educational Development Assoc (SEDA) publication of a booklet celebrating eleven research supervisors investigating their supervision practice in single authored and co-authored vignettes/case studies of different ways in which an academic could investigate research supervision practice. The tenth way – the final section of the booklet – invites the reader to embark on their own practice-led inquiry into their research supervision. With growing numbers of doctoral candidates, more and more academics are becoming involved in research degree supervision. Supervision is a specialist academic practice that tends to be learnt through the experience of the practice, through supervising.

The booklet is the culmination of a university wide professional development program around research supervision based on communities of practice (Hill and Vaughan, 2017) and introduced into Birmingham City University in 2016. The program sought and obtained Staff and Educational Development Association (SEDA) accreditation. In the course of the program, academic staff across four different faculties engaged in communities of practice leading to and scaffolding their practitioner inquiries into their own research supervision. Eighty eight academic staff across the university secured their SEDA accreditation by engaging in the program, undertaking their practitioner inquiry and reporting on their interim outcomes in the final community of practice session. Eleven of those accredited practitioners took an extra step in writing up the inquiry methodology they adopted in undertaking their practitioner inquiry. These approaches included discourse analysis, strengths based analysis, time and motion analysis and a repertory grid, and were undertaken by academic staff in a range of disciplines including Education, Law, Psychology, Media, and Fine Arts.

The set of inquiries have been edited by Dr Geof Hill, the Principal Director of the Investigative Practitioner and a Reader in Higher Education at Birmingham City University, U.K. and Dr Sian Vaughan , a Senior Lecturer in Birmingham School of Art at Birmingham City (U.K) University and site Director for Midlands 4 Cities, an Arts & Humanities Research Council funded Doctoral Training Partnership.
The booklet can be purchased from SEDA .

The discussion of the model for the Communities of Practice around research supervision can be found at Innovations in Education and Teaching , under the title ‘Conversations about research supervision – enabling and accrediting a Community of Practice model for research degree supervisor development’. The Community of Practice handbook is available on request from Dr Geof Hill ( and he will also address inquiries about Australian based workshops for ‘Ten ways to investigate research supervision’.


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No-one is alone!: Five strategies for collaboration for professional development.


Dr Geof Hill The Investigative Practitioner

The idea of doing research is often associated with the lone journey. In doctoral research and inquiry, the supervisor can also feel alone!
Although most supervisory relationships now involve more than one supervisor as a precautionary strategy in case one of the supervisors needs to leave a team, this partnership does not always provide the individuals with reflective colleagues. Also, despite predominance of the co-supervision model, this does not always translate into both supervisors spending time together with their doctoral candidate – it may be that one of the two or more supervisors takes the predominant role and the candidate meets occasionally with the other supervisor.

The ‘busy’ ness of professional’s lives can often mean that time available for planning and after a supervision meeting for review is also not available.

As early as 1985 (Johnston, 1985), there has been discussion in the research supervision discourse about the importance of reflective practice for professional development. Clegg (2000) reaffirmed this position and reviewed some of the studies that entrenched reflective practice in Higher Education and specifically research supervision practices. Reflection can always be done as an individual professional, however when there is an element of conversation and discussion with peers, it enhances the learning emerging from the process.

Strategies for collaboration:

  1. With the official co-supervisor.

When a university appoints two or more supervisors for a doctoral candidate they are often implementing a risk averse strategy to provide a contingent in the event of one of the supervisors needing to leave the partnership. This model opens the opportunity for the supervisors to review the progress and process of each supervision meeting. If time permits, an ideal arrangement is that supervisors can meet prior to a candidate meeting and plan how they would like the supervision session to unfold, then at the conclusion of the official supervision, they can remain after the candidate has left to review the process and plan for their next meeting with the candidate.

2. With a community of practice.

For some time, universities around the world have been adopting research supervisor professional development models based on communities of practice. Research supervisors meet on a regular basis to discuss real issues in supervising doctoral candidates in a confidential atmosphere, drawing ideas from their colleagues. The model developed for Birmingham City University was discussed in Hill and Vaughan (2018) and involved five community of practice meetings over the course of seven months. These meetings scaffolded each participant/member of the community to investigate their own research supervision. In an earlier professional development model developed for Queensland University of Technology, several participants involved in an on-line community of practice talked about their different experiences in co-supervision and later converted their conversation into a journal publication (Spooner-Lane, Henderson, Price and Hill, 2007).

3. Establishing an electronic partnership

Collaborations and communities of practice do not have to be face-to-face. The provision of electronic portals means that it is possible to join electronic communities and become involved in electronic conversations about research supervision. This site – The research supervisor’s friend – is one such site that promotes conversations with and between research supervisors. A similar arrangement can be generated with a colleague at a different university where there is a common interest in exploring the nature of research supervision.

4. Research Supervision mentoring

In some university research management programs there are opportunities for official research supervision mentoring to be set up. At two of the universities where I have worked I have been involved with research supervision mentoring. At one university, the appointment was made when a research student was placed ‘at risk’ and the mentoring was arranged to provide the official supervisor with additional resources to manage and supervise through this challenge. At a different university, the role of ‘research supervisor mentor’ was used for pairs of supervisors with insufficient completions to meet the university requirements for a supervisor. Having a mentor with additional completions provided a cover for the inexperienced supervisors until their track record developed sufficient completions to meet the eligibility requirements.

5. Using the discourse as a constant ‘friend’ to help you to reflect on your research supervision.

Research supervision is a long standing academic practice with a well established discourse. Since the early emergence of practice-led inspired journal articles about research supervision there has been a growing conversation to provide food for thought for a research supervisor who feels alone. My own experience has been that following the lead of a published article with a contact email may even lead into long standing conversations with colleagues and peers around the world.

And now about the catalyst picture….

Pictures can play an important role in thinking about your research supervision. In some professional development programs, different images can be used to help participants talk about different models of research supervision. This particular image – a Leunig cartoon – lends itself to that form of interpretation but begs the question who is cradling whom? Is it the supervisor nurturing and cradling their doctoral candidate or the reverse. With the reputation of some quite demanding research supervisors, some doctoral candidates may see that it is they who manage and nurture their research supervisor!


Clegg, S. (2000). Knowing through reflective practice in higher education, Educational Action Research, 8(3), 451-469. DOI: 10.1080/09650790000200128

Hill, G. and Vaughan, S. (2018). Conversations about research supervision – enabling and accrediting a Community of Practice model for research degree supervisor development. Innovations in Education and Teaching, 55(2), 153-163.

Johnston, S. (1985) Professional development for postgraduate supervision. Australian Universities Review, 2, 16-19.

Spooner-Lane, R. S., Henderson, D. J., Price, R. A., & Hill, G. (2007) Practice to Theory: Co-supervision Stories. International Journal of Research Supervision, 1(1), pp. 39-51.
[and is available on request from]

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Cirque du research supervision

juggling balls

Dr Geof Hill The Investigative Practitioner

As discourse around doctoral completions has expanded, so too has the identified need for research supervisors to constantly reflect on their practice. Universities around the world have initiated a variety of professional development approaches to ensure that, not only do research supervisors reflect on their practice, but they have a constant agenda to improve. Sometimes these agendas require them to think outside the hegemony of the ways they have been supervising that have remained un-critiqued.

Amidst many models for research supervision are a plethora of metaphoric references. People see the research as the journey and the research supervisor as the guide; the research as the challenge and the supervisor as the coach or trainer. These different metaphors provide lenses through which to explore research supervision and by which to develop a range of intervention strategies to enable research students to complete.

In the same expanse of time in which research supervision professional development has been evolving, there has also been a popularity rise in performative research. This workshop, inspired by work in an Arts Design and Media faculty, embraces performative research supervision from a Cabaret/Circus genre associated with Cirque du Soleil. Different ‘circus’ acts provide catalysts for discussion about individual research supervision issues, and thus create an atmosphere of excitement and interest in advancing this aspect of academic practice.

balancing act 2

The paper, co-authored with Sian Vaughan (Birmingham City University) explores a process to bring together Performative Inquiry and Research Supervision Professional Development. We drew on the multiple references to ‘circus-skills’ embedded in contemporary research supervision discourse. Terms such as ‘juggling’, ‘walking a tight rope’ and a ‘balancing act’, often used when research supervisors talk about the nature of their supervision practices. We used experiential methods – i.e. circus skills – to encourage research supervisors to reflect on their supervision.

Setting the Scene
This paper was prepared in the context of practice-led inquiry (Gray, 1996) in that it arose out of a real problem experienced in our university in which both authors hold different positions related to research supervision and research supervision professional development. The problem we faced being how to engage research degree supervisors in professional dialogues (Haigh, 2005: Pilkington, 2013) about supervision as an academic practice. As discourse around doctoral completions has expanded, so too has the identified need for research supervisors to constantly reflect on their practice (eg. Johnston, 1995; Pearson & Kayrooz, 2004) and not just become licensed to supervise through one-off initial training. Universities around the world have initiated a variety of professional development approaches to ensure that, not only do research supervisors reflect on their practice, but they also have a constant agenda to improve. Our concern was how to engage both novice and experienced supervisors in reflective professional dialogues that would require them to think outside the hegemony of the ways they have been supervising that may have remained un-critiqued. Metaphors and analogies are common in the discourses of research degrees and research degree supervision, both in the growing body of literature on supervision and in the daily academic practice of supervisors and students. Thus, drawing on the use of metaphor and inspired by work in an Arts Design and Media faculty, the authors devised a workshop that embraces performative research supervision through a Cabaret and Circus genre associated with Cirque du Soleil. Different ‘circus’ acts provide catalysts for discussion about individual research supervision issues. Our aim was to challenge expectations of professional development programmes and to create an atmosphere of excitement and interest which would enable dialogues advancing this aspect of academic practice.

Gray, C. (1996). Inquiry through practice: developing appropriate research strategies. No Guru No Method? UIAH Helsinki.

Haigh, N. (2005). Everyday conversation as a context for professional learning and development. International Journal for Academic Development, 10(1), 3–16.

Johnston, S. (1995). Professional development for post-graduate supervision. Australian Universities Review, (38) 2, 16-19.

Pearson, M. and Kayrooz, C. (2004). Enabling critical reflection on research supervisory practice, International Journal for Academic Development, 9(1), 99-116.

The full paper is on Pg. 77 of the conference proceedings made available at  [in a 1.7 mg booklet]

If you are interested in this form of workshop for research supervisors at your institute contact me at

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Viva-centred research supervision- defending the thesis

Medieval armor on the body in the style of a lion with large shoulder pads on an isolated white background. 3d illustration

Dr Geof Hill The Investigative Practitioner

A defining element of the doctoral degree is that it can be seen to have made a contribution to knowledge. Validation of this evidential/definitional claim is an important part of the doctoral process. In most research, validation is through peer-review. One’s peers ascertain whether a contribution to knowledge has been made. In doctoral examination the peers are usually professionals who themselves have completed a doctoral degree, and their verification of the contribution to knowledge involves reading and evaluating the dissertation. The dissertation reading is often followed by an oral examination – the viva – in which a doctoral candidate defends their thesis.

The term “thesis” comes from the Greek θέσις, meaning “something put forth”, and refers to an intellectual proposition. Aristotle was the first philosopher to define the term thesis (source Wikipedia). In research, the term thesis often refers to the core argument. “Dissertation” comes from the Latin dissertātiō, meaning “discussion” and is often associated with the written version of the thesis – the examinable artefact. A researcher presents their argument in written form and then defends this argument either through correspondence with their examiners or in an oral defense – the viva. This act of defending one’s thesis can be traced to the medieval monasteries, institutes for education and precursors to the modern day university. Potential monastery applicants were required to present a thesis which they defended. The notion and practices of ‘research’ have changed substantially since Medieval times. When the Humboldt University was established in Berlin, research practices became aligned with university work, and the doctoral degree became a research degree. The paradigm wars broadened notions of research, as did a redefinition of research by OECD in 2002 to include creative and performative work. These definitional shifts impacted on what was recognised as a dissertation and what counted as a viva or defence.

The Viva paradigm

Research practice, since Kuhn’s identification of ‘paradigm’, has been seen to be underpinned by a set of beliefs – or a paradigm – about research practices. The viva similarly has an underlying paradigm. Minimally this paradigm articulates notions of truth (ontology) as well as what counts as knowledge (epistemology). The paradigm may also incorporate reader/examiner/peer beliefs about their professional identity. Do they see themselves as critical friends or experts? This identity paradigm strongly impacts examiner conduct in a viva. It can make a difference between the examiner/reader seeing themselves as an adversary or challenger to your thesis and a critical friend – supportive but raising legitimate questions and challenges to the dissertation.

Supervisor strategies

A supervisor draws on different strategies or pedagogies to support their doctoral candidate. Some of this pedagogy invokes notions of a final ‘viva’.

Discussion about the viva can begin with the initial meetings between the researcher and their supervisor. In the early stages of candidature, as a researcher develops their research project plan, they would include the viva as a culminating event. Their project plan may also include additional steps such as a ‘reader’ reviewing the final dissertation before it was sent for examination, and a ‘mock’ viva to prepare the candidate for the examination process. In addition to these end of project moments, a research supervisor might also position milestone events such as progress assessment presentations as rehearsals for the final ‘defence’.

Many of the research supervision pedagogies involve feedback provided on iterations of candidate writing. An academic writing feedback strategy aligned with the defence or ‘viva’, is to identify parts of the candidate’s writing that would invite certain questions at viva. This strategy might also be adopted by a ‘reader’ of the ready-to-submit dissertation.
If a supervisor is working from the doctoral candidature as research apprenticeship, they can support their student to develop a range of competencies (a repertoire of practice) that will help them defend their thesis. This repertoire might involve:
a. Written and oral skills for articulating or talking about their thesis.
b. Skills for defending a thesis.

How do you defend an intellectual argument?

It is important for a doctoral candidate to develop an understanding about how they might defend their intellectual argument. This can involve a number of different competencies:
1. Be clear about the provenance of the issue or practice at the heart of your investigation. Schön’s (1983, 50) notion of ‘troubling’ is a useful vehicle for talking about how the particular focus of the investigation migrated into a research proposal.

2. Accept the contested nature of most practices and issues and be clear about how the practice/issue that you have investigated is framed within the broader discourses. These discourses might include the literature to which you referred, along with other discourses, such as your own story about practice that led to the investigation or your ‘provenance’ with regard to the issue you are investigating. It is useful to know the relevant discourses that have shaped your understanding of what you are investigating and be able to explain how you identified these discourses.
3. From a position of multiple truths, consider how others may view your thesis and the types of questions they may ask. Invite others to read your developing thesis so that you can build up a repertoire of answers to possible questions.

4. Understand clearly the process that you have followed as you investigated your particular focus. Be able to explore the problems that you faced, the ways in which you acted ethically as a researcher and where there are recognisable deficiencies in the approach you adopted. This clarity of articulating the research/inquiry process contributes to the transparency of your investigation – one of the defining features of a doctoral inquiry.

5. Develop your resilience in being able to listen to critique of your thesis. In particular build up reflective listening [ and conflict resolution techniques of ‘I’ messages [ as well as an understanding of the ways in which readers/reviewers frame the problems that they pose about your investigation [].

Some common viva questions

Given that each reader will read a dissertation from their own view of the world. It helps to consider different questions that different readers may ask. One way to source these question is to look at some of the common questions asked at vivas.
1. Why did you chose this topic and how do you think your study makes a contribution to knowledge about that topic?
2. Tell me how you framed the issue in the context of what is already known about your topic. What was the search strategy you used to identity the relevant literature and discourses?
3. How did you identify the way in which your issue could be investigated and what did this involve in a research or inquiry process?
4. Did you find anything unexpected in your study?
5. What contributions do you think this study has made to practice?
6. What do you consider your next step following examination? This is often referred to as the ‘now what?’ question and positions doctoral candidature within a much broader researcher lineage.

The ten minute presentation

It has become a custom in contemporary vivas for the candidate to present a short (ten minute) presentation to begin the viva. Traditionally this has been an overview of the study, but in the light of the increasing endorsement of performative work in both research and research publication, this presentation could also be a performative piece. In some doctoral investigations around performative work, the ten minute presentation might be extended so that a fuller version of the performance work can been seen by the reviewers enabling them to examine in situ and see the work under investigation as it was intended to be performed.
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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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