Looking for signs of quality in the research culture.


On a regular basis, the waterways around Australia are extensively investigated and a report is made to the community about their quality. The investigators look at a range of factors. The longevity of these studies provides additional information over time about whether changes in the practices of some of the population are producing evidence of improved environment.
Most research cultures get nowhere near this level of scrutiny, but there are signs that can be brought to our attention that are worthy of note. In the course of my work related to research supervision I have experienced first-hand two research cultures and been on the periphery of several others, either as a stakeholder or participant. Of the two I have lived in, one I watched change from an educative culture in which research supervisors were supported in improving their practice to a compliance culture in which practice was monitored against a range of indicators. Shifting to a compliance culture did little else but substantiate that people were breathing. It appeared to me that the actual research supervision declined over this period.
Like the waterways analysis there are benchmarks for quality universities. One of these benchmarks by Gardner (1968) suggests that a university stands for

  • Things that are forgotten in the heat of the battle;
  • Values that get pushed aside in the rough-and-tumble of everyday living;
  • The goals we ought to be thinking about and never do;
  • The facts we don’t like to face; and
  • The questions we lack the courage to ask.

Weick (2002), citing Gardner (1968) suggested that thinking related to organisational learning could benefit with reference to such benchmarks. When we think about the research culture in a particular university or faculty, this is a form of organisational learning analysis.
In the research culture of which I am currently a part, I have started to notice signs that I believe point to concerns about the research culture. These signs are often in research student conversations. While these conversations may be to some ‘sounding off’, they also provide what I consider to be valid signs about the quality of the research culture.
One student told me that he had supported his supervisor in a grant application only to find when the grant was granted that the money was given to another person and his contribution was labelled as editing, even though the professor in question had not previously been successful in obtaining a grant.
Another student, whose research proposal presentation I attended, explained to me when I questioned the do-ability of the breadth of his study, that his supervisor wanted both qualitative and quantitative elements of the study, thus generating almost three fully blown studies, because quantitative methods was the professors speciality, even though the student could see a valid argument for qualitative methods.
A third student found that his supervisor’s insistence at a late stage that there be changes in the research proposal resulted in inconsistencies between the research proposal and what was presented in an oral presentation. This meant that he failed to meet the requirements for a particular milestone and was thus denied support to attend a conference.
At the same time as hearing these conversations I also had the opportunity to read transcripts of supervision meetings between research students and their advisors. These transcripts appeared filled with instances of not answering quite specific student questions and at times appearing to take a quite condescending tone towards students and telling them what to do.
Recently, listening to students present their emergent work at a PhD colloquium I was particularly taken aback by the lack of support for students and the apparent need for some professors to show their own knowledge at the expense of highlighting shortcomings of a student. At the same colloquium the key note speaker talked about research publication synonymously with publication in ‘A’ star journals. One lone voice in the assembly of students and their advisors spoke up and expressed concern that this definition of publication was quite a narrow one. I seconded this voicing, suggesting that such a narrow view takes away from the role that publication of any form plays in the overall research process.

Weick (2002, S10) suggests that

‘a surprisingly large number of occupations treat novices as people who must be tested and who must prove themselves. Legitimacy is earned. And in the earning of it, learning suffers, especially for women and minorities. The idea of ‘developing’ these novices, supporting their efforts and stepping in before they fail is foreign to a surprising number of learning organisations’

As I read this general description of organisations and learning organisations I resonated with the articulation of the research culture, the signs of which I have indicated.
There is a chance that in my own view I am also blinded to other indicators of quality culture and this disenchantment moves me to actively look for examples of a quality culture. What it suggests to me as a research advisor/supervisor is to be mindful of what I am seeing around me and constantly asking myself whether these a passing observations of signs of the research culture in which I work and to which I contribute. This generates an agenda of constantly what I can do as an individual to build up a positive and encouraging research culture.

Gardner, J.W. (1968) No easy victories. Harper, New York.
Weick, K.E. (2002) Puzzles in Organisational Learning: an exercise in disciplined imagination. British Journal of Management, 13, S7-S15.


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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2 Responses to Looking for signs of quality in the research culture.

  1. Robin says:

    I suspect that you are collecting a series of examples of unconscionable research supervision conduct.

    • Thanks for your comment Robin. Yes they are unconscionable research conduct and what worries me is that I am hearing about them in unsolicited conversations;overhearing comments made by students in coffee shops and around the water cooler. Having heard these, I now have to train myself to hear alternative viewpoints from an appreciative inquiry perspective.

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