My First Year as a Research Supervisor: Developing My Own Model of Supervision

emails-from-a-first-year

This blog has been written by Dr. Sarah L. Cooper one of the academic staff at Birmingham City University. She undertook a practitioner inquiry in the context of a community of practice around research supervision in her faculty and used a strengths based inquiry approach to reflect on her first year of being a research supervisor in a Law School.

In September, 2015 I began supervising my first PhD student. Despite the project fitting squarely within my own research area, which I had published widely on, and the fact I had very experienced colleagues to work with, I felt trepidation about taking on this responsibility. A year later, however, my student has finalised her literature review and methodology chapters, passed her qualification in research methods, and is on target to complete her data collection, analysis and write-up in good time. I helped her get to this stage, and soon I will start guiding two new PhD students along the same journey.

This blog post reflects on my first year as a research supervisor, and my initial ideas for developing my own model of supervision based on a strengths-based approach to supervision.

WHAT IS A STRENGTHS-BASED APPROACH (SBA)?

A SBA is an “approach to people that views situations realistically and looks for opportunities to complement and support existing strengths and capacities as opposed to focusing on and staying with the problem or concern. The problem and the person are separate; however, the problem is never minimised.” (Bernadette Glass)

My rationale for taking this approach as a new supervisor is that when you start supervising, your own strengths and common-sense are all you have to rely on for the diverse range of problem-solving, strategizing, and advising you are required to do. Moreover, your student (usually) arrives at your door equally as green.

KEY AREAS FOR REFLECTION.

Strengths-based analysis involves reflecting on certain areas of practice, including ‘relationships and communication’; ‘honesty and transparency’ and ‘framing.’ Below I summarise my reflections about these areas of practice during my first year as a supervisor.

RELATIONSHIPS & COMMUNICATION

A SBA values high quality relationships and communication. In the context of research supervision, I have found it important to engender good relationships with:

  • Your student. I have made a conscious effort to build a more collaborative and collegiate relationship with my PhD student. This is because I want to be able to clearly distinguish my role as a PhD supervisor from my role as a lecturer. I want my PhD student to see me as more of a colleague than superior. For example, there’s nothing wrong with conducting supervision over coffee or bouncing ideas around whilst on a run. Moreover, you need to be genuinely interested (and show as such) in your student’s research and success. You’ve got to foster a relationship that allows you to be the person they go to for critical feedback, motivation, and praise.

 

  • Your colleagues. Your colleagues are an excellent resource. There are few supervisory challenges that will have evaded an academic school or faculty. And, even if your challenge is unprecedented, someone will know an external colleague who has dealt with it before, or, at the very least, be able offer a sensible resolution. All you have to do is ask. I’ve found the most useful question to ask is “What would you do if…?”

 

These outlets not only disseminate knowledge but they also create networks. For example, there is a large and supportive PhD community on Twitter. Not only does every subject area have specific user accounts, but there are accounts dedicated solely to holistic PhD study. Accounts like @PhD2Published , @PhDForum , @PHDcomics bring together PhD students and supervisors from across various disciplines, offering a platform for discussion, trouble-shooting, collegiality, as well as an outlet for sharing the humour and realities of #PhDLife.

With regards to communication, in my experience, the following communication practices by supervisors are indicative of high-quality supervision:

  1. Communicates meaningfully and regularly about the substantive project. This includes keeping in-touch via e-mail and in-person meetings, and providing timely feedback on questions and work product.
  2. Communicates efficiently about the administrative ‘stuff.’ This includes keeping the student informed of academic regulations, deadlines, library loans, and completing the paper work required for things like ethics requirements, funding applications and conference attendance.
  3. Communicates the Bigger Picture. This means providing students with information about wider career enhancing opportunities, such as conferences internships, calls for papers, and teaching opportunities.
  4. Communicates at the right time and in the right way. This means knowing when to control a situation and when to back-off, and how to meaningfully celebrate success and help overcome disappointment.

 

HONESTY AND TRANSPARENCY

It’s important to be honest and transparent with your PhD student about the following:

  1. Their performance, progress, strengths and weaknesses.
  2. You’re experience as an academic. Tell them about what makes you suitable for supervising their project. For example, tell them about why your colleagues have recommended you as a supervisor.
  3. Your approach to problem-solving and difficult situations.
  4. Your own research experiences. Tell your PhD student about the ‘good, bad and ugly’ side of research. Share your successes, failures, mistakes, and anything else that stands out to you as a defining experience. If you’ve completed a PhD or are undertaking one, tell them about it. It’s really powerful to be able to say you know how they feel because you have felt (or are feeling!) the same way.
  5. Your expectations. Tell your student about how you work and what expectations you have for them. Try and ground your expectations in your institutions research supervision guidelines. For example, if your institution requires students to pass a preliminary research methods qualification, and present at one national conference by the end of year two, tell your student you expect them to do just that. Also set out how expectations surrounding workload, methods and frequency of communication, and feedback.

FRAMING

How you frame key components of the research journey is crucial. In particular, I have found it is important to be clear about the following:

  1. Resources. Give students a list of texts they can consult. A text I have found particularly useful is “The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research” by Marian Petre and Gordon Rugg.
  2. Project Management. You need to help your student to clearly unpack the project into bite-size tasks, set realistic and precise deadlines, help design effective methodologies, and offer advice on how to prioritise and multi- task. In particular, encourage students to keep a comprehensive log of their sole activity and supervision sessions.
  3. Problem-solving. Supervising is a diverse problem-solving exercise. In a single year we have encountered challenges ranging from the organisation of voluminous data that cuts across multiple disciplines and jurisdictions, to how to pitch objective research within an area that houses contentious viewpoints. The most useful thing I have learnt to do is clearly and objectively label the problem, identify its source, and offer possible solutions. 

 

DEVELOPING A GUIDE FOR NEW RESEARCH SUPERVISORS

Although unconventional in a SBA, checklists are a useful way of capturing “a set of tasks or a process that needs to be completed, particularly if the process or tasks contain many detailed elements that need to be completed with great accuracy” (Department of Education and Early Childhood Development Working Paper, 2011). Research Supervision involves just that. As such, based on my experiences so far, I have developed the following ‘to-do’ list, which aims to improve my own supervision practice, form the basis of a model of supervision, and offer guidance to new research supervisors.

 

  1. Draw up an agenda for my first supervision meetings that: Introduces the student to their supervisory team; Sets out clear expectations for the student-supervisor relationship; Suggests short, medium and long-term goals (in relation to the PhD and wider academic field) that the student should consider; Signposts students to helpful resources and people; and outlines typical internal and external procedures related to research practice, such as ethics requirements and funding applications.
  2. Encourage my students to create a virtual network by setting up professional social media account(s).
  3. Create a list of useful resources to share with research students.
  4. Create a list of what supervisors and students consider to be “good” and “bad” research supervision.
  5. Ask new students to carry out a SWOT analysis on their project at the start of their research and review it with them.
  6. Set-up regular meetings for all my PhD students to share ideas, progress and trouble-shoot through mutual learning.
  7. Ask my students to draw up an action plan (perhaps in the form of a Gantt Chart) every six months and ask them to define any problems they foresee, and how they might address them.  

 

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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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