Empowering the student

ID-flower

We read a lot, or at least see the rhetoric , that the PhD is the student’s work.
I know from experience with my own doctoral dissertation that there was a point in my candidature at which I saw the dissertation as mine and found a voice for myself as a researcher. In the cabaret I wrote about doing a doctorate I described this moment as

‘I’ve got a feeling of excitement. I know my way around here. The literature, the discourse the ground here’

There is much anecdotal evidence to support the notion that if the student is empowered to see their research as their research, then this factor alone can make all the difference between completion and the alternative, often referred to as ABD – all but the dissertation! On the counter side there is a history of uncontrolled power, that unless checked, works against the student finding and claiming their own voice. Even the term supervisor has power elements embedded in it. Where universities have shifted the term to the less ominous ‘advisor’, that at least changes the rhetoric but these rhetorical changes may not change the range of practices which have served to sustain a power imbalance with the advisor/supervisor as powerful and the student in the powerless position.

In the field of practice-related inquiry in which I work, there is an additional anomaly about power. All of the students whom I have supervised have come into doctoral programs with extensive knowledge of their practice. In most instances their knowledge of their own practice is greater than what I would asses as my knowledge on that topic. In these instances, my knowledge based is familiarity with the various practices associated with undertaking doctoral inquiry, and I try to use that knowledge to ease their journey through the degree, as I grow in understanding about the particular practice which they are investigating by reading their developing work and having substantive conversations with them. I find at the end of the process I have gained additional knowledge about the topic that my students have been investigating.

A call to look to the power relationship in research supervision/advising is in essence a call to critical reflection. It is inviting awareness of inbuilt processes and structures that inadvertently reinforce the institute power over that of the research student. Some experiences I have seen from the eyes of my own doctoral journey include:

  • Milestone challenges that lack specific and explicit assessment criteria. The lack of such criteria gives the impression of ‘secret business’ which disempowers the student as the outsider.
  • Policies such as ‘show cause’ when a student has not met some of the identified milestones frames the student in the lesser power role.

Call to action!
In the early years of my undergraduate lecturing, where I taught Self- Esteem within Interpersonal Communication, there appeared to be two different ways of looking at a notion of empowering people. The dominant theme involved the powerful person sharing their power with the less powerful. A less common theme which was articulated in F Scott-Peck’s the Road less travelled, took the view that everyone has power and if a powerful person became conscious of their use of power and actively reduced their levels of power, this left space for the less powerful person to flourish and find their own (rather than someone elses’) power. The image of the unfolding powerful person reminded me of an unfolding flower.

Some of the ways an advisor/supervisor might critically reflect on their practices of supporting the research student include:

  • Examine how you describe the student’s knowledge. Is there an effort to reinforce one’s own knowledge base that inadvertently positions the student’s knowledge, not so much as different, but as other, or of less value than that of the person supervising. In an effort to prove oneself worth of the role of supervisor there may be discounting of the student’s knowledge base.
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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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One Response to Empowering the student

  1. Paul Dillon says:

    This post is an authentic reflection of the supervisor’s friend’s approach to…dare I use the term… doctoral supervision. I was fortunate to have him ‘walk beside’ me as I struggled to balance the demands of doctoral studies and full time employment in a demanding professional position. While our student/advisor relationship was built on a mutual respect, it was his provision of clear and explicit milestones that enabled me to pragmatically work my way through my research and mould my dissertation. The reality is that without his approach I would certainly have been “ABD”, overwhelmed by the disconnect between a professional doctorate and professional work!

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