my-supervision-process

This blog has been written by Dr. Gerald Feldman one of the academic staff at Birmingham City University. He undertook a practitioner inquiry in the context of a community of practice around research supervision in his faculty and used an analytical framework based on Bøgelund (2015), to reflect on his research supervision in a Faculty of Computing, Engineering and the Built Environment.

A Reflection of My Supervision Process

Introduction

Four main types of supervision can be identified in the literature: (i) the traditional model, which involves a master and apprentice relationship; (ii) group supervision this is one supervisor has multiple students; (iii) team supervision where a team of supervisors are involved in the supervision of one student; and (iii) mixed model, this is a mixture of (i) and (ii) and supported by the use of technology (McCallin and Nayar, 2012; Guerin et. al., 2015). According to Sinclair (2004), these supervision types would either involve a ‘hands-on’ or ‘hands-off’. In the hands-on approach, the supervisee is dependent on the supervisor to guide them in developing the skills to become independent, while the hands-off approach suggests the student to be independent and self-driven (Boehe, 2016). In the hands-on, approach the supervisor or supervisory team adopts a project management approach to provide focus and empower the supervisees to achieve their milestones and make a decision in the direction of their research. The decision on which approach to adopt is dependent student, and thus, there is a need to tailor a supervisory style to a particular student’s needs and personality (Boehe, 2016). Understandably, it would be difficult to identify a single supervision style to suit all students when adopting group supervision. However, group supervision plays a major role in easing students into a research and enabling peer learning which can boost confidence and motivation (Guerin et. al., 2015).

Investigative Framework

In order to obtain a better understanding of my supervisory processes, I adapted Bøgelund (2015), analytical framework, and used two main themes to explore my supervision process: (i) perception of my supervision style; and (ii) my attitude and expectations. Lee (2008) proposed several contexts that refer to perceptions of supervision styles, these are: (i) functional; (ii) enculturation; (iii) critical thinking; (iv) emancipation; and (v) relationship development. In addition, I extended the framework, by extending my attitude and expectations based on the characteristics of a good supervisor proposed by Cullen et. al. (1994): (i) supportive, positive attitude; (ii) open minded and prepared to acknowledge error; (iii) organised and thorough; and (iv) encouraging and conveys interest for research. Reflecting on how my practice using this framework (see figure 1) would allow me to realise what I am portraying as my supervision practice.

My reflection is based on three students that I am involved in their supervision, but not their main supervision. These three cases offer sufficient depth to understand my supervisory process, along with any limitations in my approach, since the students involved demonstrate diversified characteristics. For example, one of the students is organised and independent, thus, requires minimum supervision (I refer to this student as Jo). The second student (John) lacks confidence and is very dependent on the supervisory team, the last student (Doe) has multiple characteristics, which are mostly triggered by extrinsic motivation.

analytical-framework

Figure 1: Analytical framework to investigate my supervision practice

Findings

Before this examination of my supervision practice, I would identify myself as being a facilitator, adviser, mentor and critic during the supervision process, as such, I considered myself as a constructivist. Based on Lee (2008) framework, I would associate myself to the emancipation section. I also felt that my attitude was supportive, open minded and encouraging research, which led me to expect that the students are organised and thorough in their task. However, after a close reflection of the three cases, I established that I tend to be supportive and have a positive attitude towards Jo. I observed that whenever I attend meetings with Jo, I have an open mind and will readily acknowledge my error, and demonstrate an interest in his research, this could be because I consider Jo to be an equal. When it comes to John and Doe, I am supportive and mentor them, but I am guarded, and hence I turn into a gatekeeper, which ensures the earlier task is complete so that I can lead them to the next task. One possible explanation for behaviour could be associated with the student characteristics. For example, Jo is organised and thorough, independent and his motivation is intrinsic, hence prefers a hands-off approach, where he is given space to conduct his research and would seek support when he requires it. For John and Doe, it is quite the opposite since there is a need for a hands-on approach to provide them with the direction that ensures progression. In this case, I feel my role is more of a project manager, who directs, facilitate, mentors and encourages John and Doe to reach independence. This is more of a master -apprentice relationship, which is dependent on how much the student believes the master has the right level of knowledge to guide him or her to the next task.

Reflection of my supervision practice

Supervision is a balancing act of the supervisor’s attitude and expectations against the student autonomy. Similar to earlier studies (Boehe, 2016; Bøgelund, 2015; Guerin et. al., 2015; Harrison and Grant, 2015; Vehviläinen and Löfström, 2016), there are several aspects that I have identified to be core to the research supervision process (see figure at the top of the blog).

  • Identifying the student characteristics facilitates determining case by case the student needs and characteristics that allow adapting a particular supervision process to provide adequate support and guidance to the student;
  • Open communication is important in establishing good working relations and trust between the supervisor or supervision team with the student, which in turn allows the student to be comfortable to discuss progress and challenges;
  • The structure allows controlling the outcomes, for example, in the case of paper authorship, I am a strong believer that the someone should be added to paper only if they contributed towards that paper and not because they are part of a team, which is mostly what most people assumes to be the norm. In fact, the level of contribution should determine the order of authorship. This is something I would like to establish with the student and the supervision team so that we are all on the same page. So establishing structure is not only for the student but also for the supervision team, thus ensuring each person plays his or her assigned role in providing the right level of support and guidance to the student. I think the establishing of a structure will support and encourage the student to make significant decisions about the research direction and research independence.
  • Relationship and boundaries in any supervision process are vital, as a healthy relationship between the supervision team, the supervisor and the student, provides a conducive environment that makes the whole experience enjoyable. However, it also important to establish a clear boundary in that relationship, as being very friendly to the student may create a situation where the student would assume that you could cover up for their indecision or progress. Understandably, this is not common, as most students take ownership and feel responsible for their research; and
  • Formal meetings are important to satisfy the university requirements and establish the formal supervision structure. However, informal meetings provide a sense of freedom to discuss research issues and challenges openly since students feel supported and the supervisor more approachable. This can also result in trust and open communication which can help the students.  

Integrating these activities as part of the supervision process could lead to making the students more comfortable and confident in their work, especially if all the supervision team is involved. Thus, there is a need to move away from the master and apprentice model towards a hybrid model, which allows balancing the students’ needs and characteristics to the composition of the supervision team. However, research supervision is a complex process, suggesting that the supervisor needs to be adaptable to the students’ need since no single style fits all situations. Acquiring these skills to accommodate the different students’ needs and characteristics is a learning process, which early career supervisors’ (like myself) can best learn when integrated within an experienced team. Thus, I believe being part of a team when supervising a student is ideal as it facilitates acquiring various supervision practices and approaches, to improve my supervision practice.

References

Boehe, D.M., 2016. Supervisory styles: a contingency framework. Studies in Higher Education41(3), pp.399-414.

Bøgelund, P., 2015. How supervisors perceive PhD supervision–And how they practice it. International Journal of Doctoral Studies10, pp.39-55.

Cullen, D.J., Pearson, M., Saha, L.J. and Spear, R.H., 1994. Establishing effective PhD supervision. Canberra: AGPS.

Guerin, C., Kerr, H. and Green, I., 2015. Supervision pedagogies: narratives from the field. Teaching in Higher Education20(1), pp.107-118.

Harrison, S. and Grant, C., 2015. Exploring of new models of research pedagogy: time to let go of master-apprentice style supervision?. Teaching in Higher Education20(5), pp.556-566.

Lee, A., 2008. How are doctoral students supervised? Concepts of doctoral research supervision. Studies in Higher Education33(3), pp.267-281.

McCallin, A. and Nayar, S., 2012. Postgraduate research supervision: A critical review of current practice. Teaching in Higher Education17(1), pp.63-74..

Sinclair, M., 2004. The pedagogy of’good’PhD supervision: A national cross-disciplinary investigation of PhD supervision. Canberra: Department of Education, Science and Training.

Vehviläinen, S. and Löfström, E., 2016. ‘I wish I had a crystal ball’: discourses and potentials for developing academic supervising. Studies in Higher Education41(3), pp.508-524

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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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