What constitutes relevant knowledge about a research student?

The little things we do together

When I present workshops (or cabarets) on research supervision, particularly the relational aspects of research supervision, I often draw on the lyrics of Stephen Sondheim’s song from ‘Company’, the little things we do together. One particular line refers to

‘It’s the little things you share together, bare together, dare together,
that make perfect relationships.

This line draws attention to something that I have been considering with regard to building relationships between research supervisors/advisors and their students. As in any relationship, the quality of the relationship grows with mutual sharing. Sometimes what is shared and how much is shared, need to be acknowledged, because this sharing provides indicators of the level of awareness and concern that is developing between the two stakeholders or participants of this important relationship.

In thinking about the relationship between academic and student, I am drawn to consider an event from an earlier time when I was a senior academic, teaching in a post-graduate diploma. I had to follow up what appeared as an anomaly between submitted assignments from two different students. The commonality of phrases gave the impression of plagiarism. One of the students had recently had a baby and my more senior colleague, knowing my tendency to get straight to the heart of the matter of the discussion, reminded me to ask how the baby was faring. It was a respectful alert, that in dealing with any student there is an expectation to recognise that the student is operating in ever widening circles of experience, and sometimes what is happening in the wider circles of experience, what might otherwise be considered irrelevant, is in fact what is behind the current issue. The same philosophy I believe applies to the relationship between supervisor/advisor and their research student.

Remembering this story also alerts me to an instance in my own doctoral candidature when I was quite disinterested during a meeting with my pair of research supervisors. One of the two picked up my despondent mood and suggested we have coffee. In the course of the coffee she learnt that I was due to fly to the U.K. the following day to see my wife whom I had not seen for several months, and everything else seemed irrelevant in the light of this agenda. In reflecting on this event I also realize that, in that instance, my supervisor had made a priority decision that my emotional state seemed more important than any of her other pressing projects at that time, and that she could devote 30 minutes to going perhaps a little beyond the expectations of the relationship to demonstrate concern for me. In the big scheme of things this small event carried a lot of weight in my regard for her and her supervision practices, and added to what remained a good relationship long after I had graduated from my doctoral degree. I am pleased to say that relationship still continues.

These rambling stories and ideas have a point in that I believe that a research student has expectations about what a supervisor/advisor should know about their research and potentially should know about other matters which, while they may be outside the focus of the research per say, may still be relevant in the broader relationship building. These expectations influence the conversations between student and supervisor/advisor.

Given that an advisor/supervisor is reading the student’s work, I believe it is a sound student expectation that the supervisor/advisor would demonstrate command of the student’s writing such that they can point out anomalies in their work. An example comes to mind from talking with one of my students, that part of her description of how a participant had acted in a workshop had bearing on comments she had made elsewhere in her dissertation, and, because of my familiarity with the whole document, and particularly the data she had collected and analysed, I was able to remind her of the relationship between these two aspects of her written work. I was able to demonstrate my intimate knowledge of what she had written in her working documents.

A second level of fair expectation for knowing what the student is doing is where the student is engaged in a range of experiences on the peripheral of their research, such as attending conferences and workshops. If they have shared those experiences with their supervisor/advisor, then I believe it is a fair expectation that a supervisor will bring those into the conversations related to the work, because they often represent opportunities for research publication. That expectation means asking students about their presentations and particularly looking for what the student has learnt by presenting and how that has filtered into the dominant discourse of their dissertation. Similarly, it is a fair expectation that when these ideas are initiated by the student, this is a clear indication that the student is happy to talk about them and from their perspective, these peripheral matters have bearing on the core matter of the research.

A third level of knowledge links to what the research student is doing outside the periphery of their research. If for example a student has been unwell, then I believe it is reasonable for them to expect that a research supervisor/advisor would ask about their health. But, if they have mentioned in a previous conversation that they had tickets for a ballet or a sporting match, that may not be expected to be remembered and may be seen as social chit chat. This is a grey area, because there are no clear rules about what is relevant and what it not, and perhaps each shared piece of knowledge needs individual consideration.

There is in my mind reciprocity related to this sharing of information that reflects the development of academic peers emerging from the advisor/supervisor and student relationship into academic colleagues. If the research supervisor/advisor is aware and noting events in the student’s life, then events that they, the advisor/supervisor have shared, can also be part of the student’s growing awareness of the juggling act that many academics undertake. The student needs to be mindful of these other commitments that impact on the research supervisor’s/advisor’s portfolio when placing other expectations on them, such as the reading of work drafts. If for example a supervisor has commented about a key journal article they are working on, then it would be expected that a student might be more lenient in deadline expectations related to their own work, recognizing that completing the journal article may dominate their supervisor/advisor’s horizons at that time. Even what seems a peripheral comment, such as alerting an absence due to a medical procedure could have bearing on their attendance to the student’s matters. If an advisor were to share that they were having eye surgery, then this directly affects their ability to read the student’s work, and as such needs to be considered when the student establishes expectations about their work being read.

The strength of the relationship between a student and their supervisor/advisor is a key factor in the success of the candidature, and more importantly the likelihood of completion. Scratching the surface of this relationship can often lead to improved relationships and greater certainty of win:win outcomes.


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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