The core relationship within a research degree is the supervisory one. As with an understanding of any culture, it is influenced by the first people from that culture with whom we make contact. The same applies to research, hence the importance of research supervision which in many cases represents the first contact with a research culture. This contact can be face-to-face or it may be in the form of an overture email inquiring about the interest in a particular topic.
When I write about the supervision meeting establishing the research culture I draw on three main sets of experience:
The first is my own experience of supervising students and reflecting on the way in which an agenda of university based research was established through these initial meetings. In addition to these experiences I also draw on the ways I am experiencing being supervised by my supervisors. A third and more clandestine basis for my knowledge about research supervision is the conversations to which I am an eavesdropper in the university café where I regularly take coffee. There are many dialogues occurring in this café atmosphere and my ears are tuned to the turn of phrase which alerts me to the possibility that supervision is taking place under my very nose. It is easier to observe others in the role of supervision than it is to reflect either on my own receipt or delivery of research supervision.
When I think about experiencing a culture for the first time I am reminded of my wife’s first exposure to the Italian city of Milano. It is one of my favourite Italian cities, and as we lined up at the exchange office to obtain some local currency before we boarding our train to Reggio, she had an encounter with pick pocket. This has forever influenced her thinking about the culture in that city. My memory, based on my different previous experiences, is a city filled with smart fashion, delightful coffee shops and amazing art galleries. That first encounter can influence the ways in which we perceive the culture. For many research students, the meeting with a supervisor or potential supervisor, whether face-to-face or on-line, is their exposure to the research culture.
When we are experiencing a new culture for the first time, an element with a strong impact to our impressions is the way in which we are welcomed. I think of some of the countries I visited for the first time and whether there were soldiers with tommy guns or a welcoming smile to meet me at the border, or whether there even was a border as such. The same can be said of research supervision.
One thing that seems important in the meetings with one’s supervisors is the way in which the student’s knowledge is valued. A research degree is all about knowledge. By the end of it a researcher needs to have made a clear contribution to knowledge so the ways in which knowledge is referred to and managed in many ways represents a threshold concept for research students. Inadvertently, with intent to give the student confidence in the supervision, the supervisor may be excluding their knowledge. The assumption that I work from is that if the university has seen fit to invite a student to undertake a PhD then there must be something about their topic that is tantalising and worthy of making the essential contribution of knowledge. I have never seen myself as the expert in their topic. I see my role as supervisor as a process consultant, helping them fathom the mysteries of university and university based research. I have always believed that the student is knowledgeable about their topic and that perhaps my knowledge base is related to the processes of getting a doctoral degree.
As Oscar Wilde suggests in The Importance of Being Ernest, ‘first impressions are the most important impressions’. If a university is hoping for students to contribute to the research discourse and make a contribution of their own, considering how welcomed they are into a culture is an important factor, and often the research supervisor acts as both the immigration official and the welcoming party.