Advancing your research supervision

The idea of improving research supervision arose from studies undertaken at around the time that the funding formula for university based research changed to focus on completion rather than enrolment (Ingrid Moses, 1984). This shifted the emphasis for universities from having students undertaking research degrees to examining the impact supervision had on assisting a student to complete a degree. Successive research indicated that supervision was a key factor in research student attrition and was also a professional practice that could be improved (Edwards, Aspland, O’Leary, Ryan, Southeyand Timms, 1995).

Johnson (1995), writing early in this agenda, and undertaking an action inquiry on research supervision, pointed out that change to research supervision practice did not take place overnight (or in one workshop) and needed the time and energy of sustained reflection on practice through action inquiry. Although she did not consider that the action research process had been a success, the study posed a possibility for exploring this aspect of professional practice in this way.

Pearson and Brew (2002) similarly advocated reflective practice as a way in which research supervisors ccould advance their practice, and encouraged groups of supervisors to work collaboratively in Communities of Practice to explore the complexity and ever changing nature of research supervision practices. They drew attention to the possibility that different research supervisors will have different constructs about research practice itself, and that therefore advancement of the practice involved not only reflection and acknowledgement of previous experiences, but also critical reflection involving exploration of assumptions underlying practice.

Brew and Peseta (2004) described the reflective practice program which they initiated at Sydney University, in which participants wrote case studies about research supervision, drawing on their experiences of being supervised. They critically reflected on these case studies, identifying one or two features that they wanted to improve. Similarly Bruce and Stoodley (2011) discuss a program they developed for a Science and IT faculty, which encouraged research supervisors in that faculty to reflect on their superivsion practices and offered a scaffolding of nine elements of teaching by which to do this.

My own writing in this blog about advancing the practices of research supervision has been based on a university wide project with which I was associated for the past ten years, providing professional development for research supervisors at a Queensland university. This project was underpinned by Schon’s (1983) notion of reflective practice, specifically focussed on research supervision in studies such as Johnson (1995), Pearson and Brew (2002) and Brew and Peseta (2004).

The topics I have written about, summarised below, are accessible via the portal labelled advancing research supervision at the end of this blog:

Advancing research supervision practice by looking backwards.
I believe that reflecting on practice requires firstly an understanding of the provenance by which that practice has evolved. This means generally understanding the ways in which literature has defined and developed the practice and how the individual practitioner, wanting to advance their own practice, has developed this as part of their professional repertoire. Looking backwards at the emersion of their research supervision practice for many supervisors invovles exploring their exposure to researach supervision by being on the receiving end of it in the role of a research student.

Practicing and reflecting on the practice of research supervision.
This approach to advancing research supervision is the one that most supervisors consciously or unconsciously use. They get underway with the practice and they reflect on what happens when they supervise. Just the practice without the reflection is unlikely to lead to any improvement in practice. I even suggest that without reflection many supervisors would be unaware of their practice. The flipside of this assertion is that even with minimal reflection, a research supervisor can be assured that their practice will be improved and the chances of their research student completing their degree will be enhanced. This pay off of seeing improvement and an easing of the pressure of research supervision is perhaps the greatest motivation to invest some time in reflecting on what is happening when you supervise a research student.

Being mentored
Anmother common way in which academics learn about research supervision is through a process of mentoring. A more experienced supervisor, or in the case of the research supervisors I mentor, a person who has access to and knowledge about the range of strategies useful in research supervision, can help a novice research supervisor to learn the practice. Even without intending to, when you are working with another supervisor you are learning. Hopefully all of this is good practice. It helps if the supervisor doing the mentoring is conscious of how they act and aware that their every act of supervision is also an act of mentoring their supervising colleague.

Co-supervision is a model of supervision which while it has evolved essentially to provide for continuity in research supervision in the event of one of the research supervisors being unable to continue in their role, it is also lauded as a vehicle for a more experienced supervisor to mentor a less experienced supervisor.

Being in a community of practice
In more recent literature about advancing research supervision (Brew and Peseta, 2004) there has been some discussion about the value of communities of practice to help both novice and experienced research supervisors advance their practice. Bringing together a group of practitioners and creating an atmosphere in which they feel safe to share their practice and constructively critique each other’s practice is an ideal way for any practitioner, including research supervisors, to advance their practice. The tricky part of such professional development is providing a process by which they can critique each other’s practice when there is no single correct way to supervise students. When I run communities of practice for research supervisors, I usually make explicit a set of protocols for sharing and commenting on each other’s practice to ensure that everyone is edified in the process.

Advancing your research supervision through rigorous investigation.
It is one thing to reflect on your practice. I advocate that investigating your practice is a step higher. By investigating I mean observing your practice in such a way as to make tacit knowledge about your practice explicit. It helps if the process by which you intend to make the practices explicit, is also made explicit. These acts of making tacit knowledge explicit brings a level of transparency to the practice and this helps to illuminate not only the nature of the practice but the decision making that works behind the practice. Such rigorous investigation is part and parcel of the movement of practice related researchers. When you pursue this line of advancing your research supervision, you not only improve your own knowledge about research supervision, but through an agenda of publishing your findings as a way of authenticating the investigation outcomes, you share your knowledge and findings with other people. Even with as few as a single research student, articulating the interventions you make in the pursuit of helping your research student to complete their degree, adds to the body of knowledge about this often private academic practice.

Evaluating your own research supervision practice
In the context of a university demonstrating to the funding bodies of government that they are actively improving the quality of research supervision at their institute they may well instigate formal evaluation processes or emphasise the element of research supervision within the broader performance appraisal system that is already established.

These topics are accessible via the portal labelled advancing research supervision at the end of this blog are:

Bruce, C. & Stoodley, I. (2011): Experiencing higher degree research supervision as teaching, Studies in Higher Education, 1-16

Brew, A. and Peseta, T. (2004) Changing postgraduate supervision practice: a programme to encourage learning through reflection and feedback, Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 41(1): 5-22

Edwards, H., Aspland, T., O’Leary, J., Ryan, Y., Southey, G. and Timms, P. (1995) Tracking Postgraduate Supervision, A.S.D.U. Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Australia.

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

Pearson, M. & Brew, A. (2002) Research training and supervision development, Studies in Higher Education, 27(1), 135–150.

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

Johnson, S. (1995) Professional development for postgraduate supervision Australian Universities’ Review, 38(2), 16-19.


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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