Considering the research student-supervisor dialogue.

Research supervision is the predominant teaching method by which a research student learns how to do research and how to write about research.

It is based on conversations between the research supervisor and their student and as a teaching method has a long provenance stretching to the Master and Apprentice relationships of the medieval guilds, predecessors to the Medieval universities, as well as pedagogue relationships from Ancient Greece.  Although the conversations may no longer be as Socratic, the intent of the supervisor-student dialogue remains the same in advancing the research student’s knowledge such that their research and their dissertation make a contribution to knowledge.

One of the dilemmas in any conversation is that what a speaker thinks they have said is not necessarily what a listener in the conversation thinks has been said. This is often articulated as a truism in communication. Because of the likelihood of miscommunication, it is important to reflect on the various conversations that take place between you and your research student.

As reflection is both time consuming and, for complex practice such as  research supervision, difficult, it helps to have some frameworks by which to scaffold your reflection.


Grant (2010), in an article discussing the research supervisor-student relationship, chose the word dialogue as a touch stone for reflecting on the supervision conversations. The choice of this word emphasised that the conversations between the student and their supervisor involve an exchange of ideas. Elsewhere in the article (2010, 275) she suggests three elements of the dialogue:




These provide an initial framework for reflecting on the supervisory dialogues.

Is there a good mix of speaking and listening by both (or in the case of more than two in the relationship –all) speakers in the dialogue?

Are questions raised by one or other participant in the conversation responded to by others in the conversation?

Substantive Conversation

A second method for reflecting on the student-supervisor conversation is based on the notion that research supervision is pedagogy, and a particularly named pedagogy called Substantive Conversation.

A Substantive conversation (Education Queensland, 2001) is evident when there is considerable student-teacher and student –student interaction about the ideas of a substantive topic; the interaction is reciprocal, and it promotes coherent shared understanding.

A substantive conversation has

  • Intellectual substance. The talk is about the subject matter and the discussion encourages critical reasoning such as making distinctions, applying ideas, forming generalisations and raising questions. There is an emphasis on clear definitions of the terms being used.
  • Dialogue. There is an emphasis on sharing of ideas and interaction between participants.
  • Logical extension and Synthesis. The dialogue builds on the ideas of all the participants such that there is an improved collective understanding of the issue.
  • A sustained exchange. There is a series of linked exchanges and discussion rather than simple question and answer or question and comment.

The detail defining what constitutes a substantive conversation provides a framework for reflecting on a particular research supervision meeting, asking yourself whether elements of the conversation could be considered substantive conversations?


Exploration of power

A third approach to reflecting on the conversation between the supervisor and student is to consider issues of power evident in the relationship. Grant (2008) examines the transcript of a dialogue between a research supervisor and their student. This transcript had been previously published (Wisker, Robinson, Trafford, Warnes and Creighton, 2003) and interpreted as evidence of a student being empowered by the supervisor. In Grant’s (2008) analysis she suggests that the transcript is evidence of how a research supervisor can dominate a student.

While the two analyses may be different, the importance of both is that it uncovers issues of power for reflection. Power is at the very heart of many relationships, more so one in which the word supervisor is invoked, as the word supervisor itself has tones of power suggested in the prefix. The issue of power in the research supervisor-student relationship has also been addressed with some of the metaphors that have been used to describe t5his relationship, such as mentoring. In Grant’s (2008) paper we also have an example of power being explicitly discussed in relation to the supervisor-student relationship.

Power is an important construct by which to examine the supervisor-student relationship. The relationship is not static. Across the period of candidature a research student would move from neither knowing their topic well nor the process of investigation inherent in research. By the end of candidature, it is hoped that a research student is ready to join the academy of researchers, and as such would enjoy a sense of being accepted by their peers. While this type of candidature journey may represent an ideal, not every culture embraces a notion of equal partners in research and some students and supervisors will attempt to maintain the hierarchy that is evident in the early stages of candidature and expect deference to the research supervisor well after candidature.

Empowering a person is a much discussed and debated issue. Drawing on F Scott Peck’s (1978) philosophy in The Road Less Travelled there is a sense for me that the responsibility for alertness about power issues within the research supervisor-student relationship lies with the research supervisor. As the initial more powerful partner they need to regularly monitor the relationship and look for opportunities to encourage the research student to take the lead in their investigation.


 Education Queensland (2001) School Reform Longitudinal Study (QSRLS), Brisbane, Queensland Government.

 Grant, B.M. (2008) Agonistic struggle: master-slave dialogues in humanities supervision. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education 7(1) 9-27

 Grant, B.M. (2010) Improvising together: The play of dialogue in humanities supervision. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education 9 (3) 271-288

 Peck, M, Scott. (1978) The Road Less Travelled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth. Simon & Schuster: New York. U.S.A.

 Wisker, G., Robinson, G., Trafford, V., Warnes, M. and Creighton, E. (2003) From supervisory dialogues so successful PhDs: strategies supporting and enabling the learning conversations of staff and students in postgraduate level. Teaching in Higher Education 8(3): 383-97


About the (research) supervisor's friend

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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s