The problem with research supervision as a private practice

I was recently asked to talk about research supervision at a faculty forum. I asked the audience what they wanted me to discuss and what were the problems that they were confronted with in their everyday practice of research supervision. They asked for discussion about the time requirements involved in research supervision.

This seemed at first like an isolated incident, but reading a university wide review of research supervision I was not surprised to see a similar concern voiced. Does anyone know how much time is actually involved in research supervision?

The question opens up into a Pandora’s box, as once we start to know how much time it takes to supervise a research student we become aware of incongruence between different types of students:

  • Does it take more time to supervise a student for whom English is a second language?
  • Does it take more time to supervise a student who has completed earlier undergraduate studies and perhaps other research in a different culture?

There are also flow on issues, that when we can estimate accurate amounts of time required to supervise various categories of students, this can help inform resourcing and staffing formulae, such that appropriate resources are provided for research students and realistic goals are set for their supervisors.

It made me think of an article by Catherine Manathunga in the International Journal of Academic Development in which she describes research supervision as existing in a private space. Unlike other forms of academic teaching, research supervision often takes place in the privacy of a research supervisor’s office, and save for the possibility of an associate supervisor, private from any assessing or learning eyes. In this privacy each supervisor may well wonder about their own benchmarks and particularly their own practice. Particularly from my privileged position of being involved with many research supervisors through their exercises in reflective practice, I have learned that many worry about how much time it takes them to achieve the task.

The comment also reminded me or made me make a comparison to another practice with which I had been involved, Accountancy, in which it is sometimes possible to identify how much time it is likely to take to fulfil a particular task so that you can estimate accurate chargeable services. This thought took me back to my first years as a Work Study Analyst where we would help people in administrative positions start to estimate and calculate how long various tasks took so that they had benchmarks when a practice might be improved with technology or by gaining a new insight into it.

The amalgamation of these thoughts and requests figured in my mind about what might make an excellent research study. Starting to identify and quantify the amount of time taken for various aspects of research supervision.

If I started with my own practice I was aware of a model I had developed and used for the first six months of candidature:

I estimated that I would meet with my student once per month and read their written work once per month. The time taken in each of the meetings was about one hour and the time taken to read varied from about 30 minutes with the early written exercises to much longer as the work approached a research proposal. This averaged out to about one hour every fortnight. This was the answer I gave when I was asked this question during various speaking engagements associated with providing professional development for research supervisors. This model was very much based on my experience working with humanities type dissertations and my exposure to other disciplines saw variation in this:

  • The research that was being undertaken in a laboratory that required more regular but often shorter meetings to clarify certain procedures that were part of the developing the necessary research skills.
  • The lengthier meetings that were required in creative industries as creative practitioners struggled with the concepts of reflecting on and documenting their practice.

I am hopeful that as some of the readers of this blog think about their own practices they post responses which start to inform the general question: How much time does it take to supervise a research student? Maybe this might be considered a form of light that is turned onto an otherwise private space.

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


About the (research) supervisor's friend

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