Negotiating delivery of research supervision service


Since discussions about research supervision started in the mid 1980s there has been talk about the importance of the student negotiating with their supervisor about a delivery of service. Some of this emerged in the literature under a banner of research supervision agreements and prompted a debate as to whether these were contracts as such with legal status and enforceability, or understandings and vehicles for promoting discussion about what a student’s expectations were related to their candidature. In the shift from the laissez faire of the 1980s, in which it was a -maybe not articulated but secretly believed- ‘the PhD will be finished in due course’ culture, to what I perceive as the current milestone driven culture, where there is not only pressure of completion but pressure to achieve the nominated milestones, perhaps these concepts of supervision agreements need revisiting.
The notion of a supervision agreement is a wonderful tool for eliciting from the research student their view of what a research degree would involve for them, and what they expect in terms of support from their appointed advisor/supervisor. This is always a difficult for a research student as they do not know what they do not know. For this reason a tool such as Role Perception rating Scale, referred to elsewhere in this blog in the series of articles about the first six months, is so useful. It provides the agenda of things to consider as to how the relationship might at least start.

While it is important to encourage a student to articulate what they see as their needs with regard to support for their research degree, I fall short of expecting that one person (the supervisor or advisor) can provide all this, and I see an opportunity within the context of negotiating a delivery of service to help the student begin to network, so that the provision of service comes from a range of sources rather than a single source.
For example a request for daily meetings with a supervisor may be possible for some supervisors to grant. Indeed, I have heard some laboratory managers talk about their daily meetings with research students to both ensure progress in research and protection of sometimes expensive equipment. For others, this sort of request may be the opportunity to explore with the student the possibility of student initiated communities of practice in which a group of research students agree to begin their day with a meeting and share where they are at and use the collective for sorting out some of the challenges of making sense of where you are at with the literature and how you are progressing with writing deadlines. This is not a sole solution. The community of research scholars may have insufficient knowledge of the specific literature pertaining to a student’s investigation to be able to challenge the ways in which they are establishing meaning for their topic and positioning it in readiness for a tilt at investigation. It is but one of many strategies that encourage a research student to be part of a network of peers.

These sort of communities of scholars can be even initiated in compulsory coursework, where instead of the lecturer teaching the specified coursework they adopt a pedagogy of facilitating a community of (research) practice in which participants can share their forming thoughts and have these discussed and maybe challenged by other peer researchers. The community of practice can still proceed through an identified curriculum. The impact of this can be a shift in the knowledge base from the lecturer as guru to the students as collaborators in a journey of discovery. With a greater sense in the worth of their own knowledge, research students are more likely to take hold of the reins of their study and progress.

Along the progress of candidature, early agreements, if they were made, need to be revised as the needs of the student and the demands of the supervisor/advisor change. If agreements have not been made, there is a risk of overwhelming demands when the research student is feeling overwhelmed, thus reinforcing the importance of early agreements that are revised as candidature progresses.

Establishing these minor milestones of meetings and commitments to work to discuss at meetings also impact on the project planning nature of a research degree. These events form the in-between events in otherwise identified and agreed upon milestones. For example, the milestone might be delivery of a research proposal but a service agreement establishes a series of meetings and writing samples to advance toward this important milestone.

One of the other areas of negotiating delivery of service can be associated with the advancement of the written work. For some students, being alerted to their spelling and citation mistakes when they are still formulating an overall argument achieves only a degradation of their ability. This can be particularly the case with students for whom English is their second language. There is much to be said for a student specifying the type of feedback that would be valuable for them at the individual stages of writing. If such a demand creates a dilemma for the supervisor who feels that they need to identify every small blemish in the work in order to maintain their professionalism, this may be covered with a blanket statement encouraging the student to pay more attention to grammar check and helping them with resources that demystify the grammar comments.

Each of these ideas comes from a core belief in empowering the student. By encouraging a research student to articulate their needs at the various points in their candidature I believe this develops ownership of the project and lays the ground work for a more likely completion.


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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