Research Supervision as relationship

A research study undertaken by Ingrid Moses (1984), at the time numbers of research students in Australia were increasing, is likely to have established an agenda for the relational aspect of research supervision. This study explored the idea, common in most relational work, that both parties to the relationship have expectations. Later, Moses’ (1985) devised a tool for teasing out both the student’s and the supervisor’s expectations. To my knowledge this is still used by research supervisors. James and Baldwin (1999) pursued a similar line of encouraging a research supervisor to get to know their student.

Other theorists in the early days of writing about research supervision also alluded to the relational aspect of research supervision, suggesting it was a ‘mentoring’ relationship (Shannon, 1995) and some of these ideas further developed into the notion that research supervision is pedagogy. Still other theorists took what might be considered a critical approach to examining the mentoring relationship, exploring issues of power involved in research supervision (Green, 2005; Manatunga, 2007) drawing attention to the power imbalance in the relationship that is often related to both the term supervisor suggesting a power differential and the knowledge of doing a research degree disadvantaging the student. As the student comes to understand better what is involved in a research degree, and through this research they become an expert in their topic, this serves to equalise the power imbalance, but supervisors who like to maintain control may still exercise their power and thus disempower their students.

The relational side of research supervision opened up an element of boundary spanning between Research Supervision and Interpersonal Communication, with exploration of some of the strategies for resolving conflict in relationships as well as some of the more emotional aspects of the research journey (James and Baldwin, 1999). My own background as a Psychologist and Crisis counsellor influenced the way in which I saw the relational side of research supervision and drew my attention to Interpersonal communication skills such as Reflective Listening (Nelson-Jones, 1986, p. 168), and Reframing (Egan, 1975, p. 173), as well as to emotional issues such as
• Impostor hood
• Resilience
• Thesis depression
• Motivation
and the types of skills that were useful in supporting students experiencing these issues. Within this I also recognised the limitation of one’s communication skills as a research supervisor and advocated the need to refer to skilled counsellors.
I advocated critique of the relational aspects by pursuing the agenda established by Grant (2008, 2010) of using the supervisory dialogue as a basis for exploration.

Use the Research Supervision as Relationship portal at the end of this blog to access each of these articles.

Egan, G. (1975) The Skilled Helper: Model, Skills and methods for the Effective Helping. Monterey, California, U.S.A. Brookes/Cole Publishing Company.

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

Green, B. (2005) Unfinished Business: subjectivity and supervision, Higher Education
Research and Development, 24(2), 151-163

James, R. and Baldwin, G (1999) Eleven practices of effective post graduate supervisors. Centre for the Study of Higher Education, Melbourne University. Melbourne Australia

Manatunga, C. (2007) Supervision as mentoring: the role of power and boundary crossing. Studies in Continuing Education Vol. 29 (2): 207-221.

Moses, I. (1984): Supervision of Higher Degree Students — Problem Areas and Possible Solutions, Higher Education Research & Development, 3:2, 153-165

Moses, I. (1985). Supervising Postgraduates. Higher Education Research and
Development Society of Australasia. Sydney, Australia.

Nelson-Jones, R. (1986) Human Relationship Skills: Training and Self Help, Sydney Australia. Holt, Rinehart and Winston

Shannon, A. G. (1995). Research degree supervision: More mentor than master,
Australian Universities Review 38 (2): 12-15.


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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