Acquiring an understanding of the culture

coffee cups_NEW

Over the course of the past week I had two different coffee encounters with fellow students.

The first was in my regular coffee shop and I was approached by another student who, in broken english, asked what one did with their coffee cup once finished. The second was in the faculty coffee shop where a long term colleague and I had a discussion around the ontology and epistemology of their particular PhD study.

Both conversations relate to ‘what do we do around here?’. As one slowly acquires cultural understanding in a new culture they develop answers for this question. These answers can inform an initial insight into a culture – such as do the people at the coffee shops at the university place their cups in a particular place or are they left on the tables for waiters/waitresses to collect; through to the nuances of truth and knowledge that populate deeply profound philosophical conversations between certain members of the population.

With regard to the new international student learning the crockery placement rules at the various coffee shops on the campus she will find that even that simple task varies between different coffee shops. In a similar way, the deeply philosophical conversation also varies between different populations.

For my colleague engaging in the ontology and epistemological conversation, she was well entrenched not only in the university culture, but in the culture of being a researcher and was trying to understand and articulate the depth of the philosophical issues that underpin her particular study. This is particularly important in that her study represents one of the marginal inquiry approaches in a very traditional faculty, and this invites an even greater demand to make your own variation from hegemony explicit and coherent.

As you will have ascertained from an earlier blog about the role that coffee drinking plays in understanding the ways in which we can make contributions to knowledge, here again I am drawing on the coffee metaphor or practice as an insight into the cutural ambiguities and sub-cultural practices that populate the many different interest groups at a univeristy.

Coming into research practices from the perspective of the paradigm wars, in which there were major challenges to the assumptions underpinning research practice, and in particular the appropriateness of scientific method for undertaking human inquiry, exposure to the paradigm, and the ontology and epistemology conversations, was essential reading. Recently writing an article about practice-led inquiry, my co-author and I noted that as management practitioners, epistemology and ontology do not form part of our day-to-day lexicon, and thus having these sorts of conversations is not straightforward. Never-the-less, it is the philosophical conversations around what counts as knowledge (epistemology) and what counts as truth (ontology) that inform so many of the decisions about making the claims that are made out of research practice. In some ways this acquisition of conversational philosophical english is like acquiring a second language, and despite being entrenched in the motions of doing a PhD, we might also find ourselves using broken english to ask the questions and make the claims we are making with regard to these philosophical areas. But better to have done it in broken english than not to have done it at all!

What relevance does this contemplation have for the research advisor/supervisor?

There is a chance that someone now advising/supervising other’s research may have come through their own research journey without ever having been exposed to the concept of paradigm, nor the debates about what might be an appropriate paradigm for undertaking human inquiry. Given the dominance of the scientific model, the hegemony of research practice, it is possible that one could have completed a PhD and not been exposed to such arguments. Because of my particular journey from the marginal side of research, I remember hearing the word paradigm used along with ocassional  reference to Thomas Kuhn. When I saw the book in a bookshop those sublimimal references were sufficient to prompt me to purcahse it and work my way through it. I have to admit that reading the Guba and Lincoln arguments about Naturalistic Inquiry, which applied the notion of paradigm to research practices, proved to be a more beneficial way to enter into these philosophical debates. These thoughts would suggest to me that at least one strategy for an advisor/supervisor is to draw the student’s attention to this literature and, better still, initiate the conversation with them about the paradigm that underpins their research practice. Not an easy ask, and harder if paradigm discussion represents a weakness in your own repertoire.

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Seeking emotional support


Recently I had coffee with a student who, in the pursuit of an appropriate PhD scholarship, had transferred interstate to take up his research studies at the university.  The conversation highlighted one of the emotional elements of undertaking research degrees, and the PhD specifically, the emotional aspects of beginning candidature. This aspect of research degree candidature is a contrast to another emotional aspect which involves the end of the candidature, when conflicting examiner reports can lead the student into an emotional abyss, an issue which has been recently addressed in the thesis whisperer ( ).

In the international world of higher education, more and more often students are realising that there is a need to relocate both locality and sometimes country. At the outset of their candidature, in addition to all of the usual emotional baggage of starting a new venture, the trans locating student also has to contend with finding accommodation, navigating their way to the university and coming to terms with the new research culture, as well as for the international student, the new culture more generally. While each of these challenges can be adequately met when one is in their home territory, in a new environment the support network with which you have grown up is less accessible.

The student talked with me about having a strong network of friends in his home state and city, and not realising how significant this network was until he became aware of its absence. He was fortunate, he suggested, having a partner who could provide support as he worked through the range of emotions associated with embarking on any new project. For some international students they are required to leave their families and partners in their home country and survive on letters and electronic  meetings with them.

I have discussed elsewhere in this blog about the ways in which a research supervisor can support their student with emotional needs. That blog emphasised the importance of not taking on the whole load yourself but of being able to alert students to the range of support services that exist in their campus. (see  Recognising and empathising with thesis depression – in the set of blogs related to the supervisory relationship) .

In order to provide those referrals there needs to be firstly some element of noticing that the student is in need of emotional support. Some key indicators might include:

·         Noting the student’s attendance at the university and whether or not they are actually coming to the university. Sometimes the emotion can be so debilitating as to prevent a person even coming to their workplace.

·         Listening to both their language and their tone of language as they comment on their disposition. An ‘I am ok’ delivered in a flat tone could indicate something completely the opposite.

·         Looking at their disposition. Do they walk and move like someone who has a direction they are heading to? Does their physical appearance suggest someone who is confident and excited about their new undertaking?

On a broader horizon there are additional strategies within a realm of supervision/advising  that can be adopted to ensure for a research student’s emotional well- being. These can include ‘buddy groups’ where the student is amongst fellow students and can thus discuss their issues in the company of fellow travellers. They can also include social functions in which other conversations can be generated and through these insights provided to the student’s well- being. Those who are well connected to the various coffee outlets available on campus might even be able to solicit free coffees so that well established students can be encouraged to take newer students out for a coffee and a chat without this being too financial a burden. The more opportunities students have to voice their experiences of undertaking a research degree the more chances there are that they will find confidence to voice the emotional dilemmas and find, if not fellow travellers, at least empathic ones.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the broader research culture is to recognise that getting started with a research degree involves a degree of uncertainty and this may result in a range of debilitating emotions. Despite having a dedicated name, and being often referred to by research students, thesis depression is still a relatively un- referred to issue in the higher degree by research literature.

Posted in research supervision as relationship, The conversations with research students | 1 Comment

The problem with milestones….

milestone 2

This conversation was initiated by a chorus of disapproval from several PhD students with regard to the milestone process that had been established in their faculty. As such, introduction of the specific students is problematic in that such a contentious issue reminds every research student of their precarious standing should they try to ‘rock the boat’. It would seem at the outset that this issue may be site specific, but listening to the comments from these students I have concluded that they address a broader set of issues that apply to any faculty implementing a Project Management approach to managing PhD student’s research.

There was a time, which many have only heard about in the literature related to the early years of higher degree research in Australia and around the world, when the undertaking of a research degree was a time consuming and almost life absorbing matter. Such was the lack of deadlines that many students were ‘doing a PhD’ but fewer were ‘completing a PhD’. In Australia, and elsewhere around the world, these halcyon days ended with the introduction of a range of completion encouraging initiatives to ensure that research students finished what they had embarked upon. Soon after these research culture changing events a new form of research advising/supervising entered the repertoires of practice of many research managers, in that they began to identify key milestones in the journey and process of undertaking a research degree and used these milestones as evidence towards completion of the undertaken task – the research and the dissertation. The approach drew a real analogy between undertaking a research project  and undertaking any work based project, and infused into the best practice formulae for research project management the benefits of project management. Such was the embracing of this approach to research supervision that it formed its own discourse, and in this blog has warranted it’s own set of discussions (See in the right hand menu  ‘research supervision as management’).  As with any aspect of a multi-faceted repertoire of practice, indulgence in one aspect with ignorance of the other aspects can lead to unfortunate results.

The idea underpinning project management is that a project is scoped and estimated completion times calculated along with significant milestones that help to ensure that the project will be completed on time and on budget. When well scoped, these milestones assist in the same way as more physical milestones help with any journey, they measure your progress and arrival at the desired destination.

For those who have driven from location A to location B (particularly if you seek the assistance of google maps and directions) it will become evident that there are often a variety of pathways that will lead to the same destination.  At the outset of a journey you are sometimes fortunate to have a multi route sign post that advises the different mileage/kilometreage to the nominated destination.

In a well scoped project it is possible to just monitor the milestones and this provides sufficient confidence that the project will be completed. There is also a risk of losing track of the overall destination to pay too much attention to the milestones, such that the milestone becomes the new destination. The latter is the case with this set of conversations in which students raise several problems with their faculty implemented milestone process- problems that have bearing on any faculty following a similar approach.

One problem which students identified was the lack of explicitness both within the faculty and between the faculty and the wider university about the nature of the specified milestones. In particular, one milestone commonly used for research process, the research proposal or confirmation document was defined in ways to make its quality performance criteria at odds with the general consensus for a research degree candidature of 3 ½ years.  The general expectation that a research proposal is an argument which proposes how a topic can be understood and how it can be investigated ( ) had been blown out with the addition of such performance indicators that the research proposal be suitable for publication in an A level journal. Other expectations of the research proposal included completion of an empirical study or separate publication a journal article. Each milestone in itself presents a worthy marker of progress towards the destination of a completed dissertation, but when amalgamated into one large milestone, turned it into an often unachievable milestone requiring so much energy that it detracted from the more important journey of completing the dissertation.

A second problem looked more to the timing of the milestones such that they allowed a research student to benefit from the feedback. The feedback becomes the important outcome of completing the milestone as it represents the first taste of double-blind peer review. When feedback on close-to-completion milestones was suggesting major shifts in the direction of the research, and shifts that had not been identified in earlier milestones, then it turned into a case of the milestone directing the research rather than the other way around. Some of this could be attributed to misguided understanding of the peer review process and application of review to various chapters of a dissertation that would have otherwise been reserved for journal articles submitted for publication.

Thirdly the different stakeholders involved in the milestone process are often engaged in political one-up-manship to demonstrate their own knowledge and prowess rather than focussing the milestone process on helping the student to produce more acceptable research. As a result, students comments on receiving contradictory information about milestone requirements from the different stakeholders. Each stakeholder seemed to be vying for the most control of what counted as suitable PhD research.

The fourth problem compared the milestone process as one strategy to achieve completion with a comparative strategy of offering seminars and coursework. It was expected that these different strategies would complement each other and that success in coursework would reflect success in the milestone process, such as having an acceptable research proposal (confirmation document). Sadly this was not always the case and the two seemed sometimes at odds with each other.

These problems may sound familiar to some supervisors/advisors and may also reflect the impact of faculty devised processes that fail to take into account the very stakeholders for whom the strategies are devised, the research students. As is too often the case, research students fail to have a voice in determining some of the administrative procedures that govern their activities.

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A conversation about the Adelaide University Research Framework

with Mickey (Z), Graduate student and author of the Blossoming Fledgling Researcher.

rsd framework

This conversation was initiated by a question posed by Micky on the research supervisor’s friend blog. She asked me my opinion of the RSD (Adelaide University Research) framework. I had been exposed to the framework at the Quality in Postgraduate Supervision ( conference some years prior and saw it in the light of the then emerging debate/discourse about Graduate Capabilities. This discourse addressed the need for research graduates to be comfortable to talk about the sort of capabilities they had acquired through undertaking a research degree as this improved their chances when talking to prospective employers why they would make ideal employees. It advanced the idea that someone graduating from a research degree could do much more than undertake research, and the process of undertaking a research degree had exposed them to a broad range of marketable skills.

I thought that the RSD framework was an excellent example of deconstructing the very complex skills set required for research students to undertake a research degree. More importantly it gave the graduate student names for their skills that improved their chances of employment when they had discussions with prospective employers.

Mickey had been exposed to the tool through (she thought) one of the many blogs onto which she stumbled in her organic searching. It may have been the Thesis Whisperer site ( . She found that the RSD framework was a HUGE ( her emphasis) eye opener for her. ‘When I first read over it, I was both relieved and filled with a little dread: There was so much within the framework that I was just . . . oblivious to, frankly. I was astonished that I’d been attempting to earn a graduate degree for years and had never encountered the information in the RSD framework except for perhaps on the fly, in passing, in disconnected  snippets, informally’.

The usefulness for the framework for her as a research student was that it gave a picture of both a developmental trajectory and end point of a graduate degree and this was in keeping with her philosophy ( taken from Stephen Covey’s  (1990) The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People), that one should begin with the end in mind. ‘Beginning graduate research education without the information in the RSD framework, in my opinion, is to embark without a complete, accurate picture of the very end (point) of graduate studies. It is easy to mistake the point of graduate studies to be the earning of credentials that might allow you to get a particular job or start a particular career. The problem is that you want to ensure that you are developing such that you can operate in that career. The RSD explains what’s going on in that regard, or what should be’.

She also found the framework useful for auditing her own skills against a ‘best practice’ model, commenting that the words used in the framework enabled her to recast some of the descriptions she had used for talking about her skill and capability repertoire.

Micky referred me to another related framework which talked about the affective domain of researching ( ). This framework’s importance was in addressing the vast array of emotional experiences associated with undertaking a research degree and by recognising these responses as cognition-related one was better equipped to manage both the positive and negative aspects of those emotions.

So great was Micky’s enthusiasm for this framework that she shared the framework with a newly tenured professor who had several students to advise. He fell in love with it. His response was, she reported, “Yes! Yes! This is what I need my advisees to understand.” She was glad to have been able to point him to the framework, but also surprised that this proffering of supervision resources was coming from an MA student.  Why hadn’t it already been part and parcel of advising at his institution? Why hadn’t he been better mentored to be an advisor, provided with something like the RSD framework? Why is everything so haphazard or black-boxed?

Micky’s questions with regard to supervisor/advisor/mentor’s  awareness of resources that can assist their practices align with my own. After ten years resourcing research supervisors I reached a conclusion that there is not a shortage of resources, just a lack of knowledge of where to find those resources.

Micky’s final assessment of this tool:

‘There are a few areas that I am very passionate about. One is that when a person embarks on a huge journey (that costs time and foregone income, for example, and touches upon self-identity so strongly), he or she deserves to understand the nature and point of the journey . . . to be able to begin with the end in mind. Otherwise, you can neglect significant areas of development that you need in order to complete the journey (and transition to the next phase, if that’s the aim). Clarification of behavioural, affective, and cognitive pitfalls, spectrums, and targets (the latter framed developmentally) . . . they are indispensable knowledge for this journey. Fundamental, I feel. In my opinion, people who are aware of the content of the RSD framework are so much better positioned than people who are just trying to write a thesis or dissertation during the years before they plan to seek work in the academy.

The RSD framework empowers me to attend to my own growth, understand how people perceive my research activities, and know the aim of my research activities. It’s like a compass and a map. It gives me tremendous awareness, comfort, and confidence: I can say that I’m moving forward toward more autonomy on various levels, and I can understand where I am not, how to do so, or what help to request. It helps me to understand what it is that my time and effort toward developing as a researcher actually yields’.

Covey, S. (1990) The seven habits of highly effective people.  Simon and Schuster, New York, U.S.A.

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Reviewing research supervision/advising pedagogy.

images 003

Recently I came across a document detailing intentional teaching practices for teachers working in the Early Years Planning Framework. It highlights the importance of an early start with pedagogy. With a simple shift in terminology, it also highlights the relevance of pedagogy in higher education, particularly in the context of research advising or supervision.

The only editing I have undertaken is to replace children with research students and, in one of the examples, to exchange road safety for ethical practices.




In the context of secure relationships, educators gauge when to offer challenges and opportunities for research students to extend their skills and ideas. Educators can extend research student’s thinking through provocation and reflection.


Working together with research students to investigate and explore ideas. Educators take their own ideas and those that research students bring, and build on them to discover new possibilities and develop and test hypotheses.


Enabling research students to take the lead in an investigation or an idea while working alongside them to contribute to, rather than dominate, the direction of the experience. This can also include involving others, such as family members and members of the community, who may have particular expertise or knowledge that can inform the learning.


Motivating and supporting research students to persist with a task, particularly one that requires effort.


Making ideas and requests clear for research students, particularly when they want or need to understand a concept or idea, often in relation to their own and others’ safety or rights.


Drawing research student’s attention to new ideas and topics. Pointing out things of interest may generate areas for exploration and investigation.


Creating environments where research students are encouraged to use imagination and creativity to investigate, hypothesise and express themselves. Educators plan opportunities for research students to freely engage in experiences with no set expectations for outcomes, and where students can explore their own possibilities.


Using techniques that engage and are respectful of research students ideas. Educators use direct instruction when other strategies might not be appropriate. For example, teaching research students about ethical research requires educators to be clear about their expectations of  research students, and to identify the ethical practices needed in these types of situations.


Through actively responding to research student’s contributions, educators create opportunities for authentic and lengthy exchanges resulting in sustained shared conversations. Deeply and thoughtfully, encourage research students to lead conversations.

Making connections

Assisting research students to see relationships and incongruities. Educators contribute to research student’s thinking by comparing and contrasting experiences and ideas.


Demonstrating a skill or how a task is done. Modelling should always be supported with opportunities for research students to attempt and practice the skill.


Enabling research students to attempt to solve problems themselves, and address challenging issues. Educators provide scaffolding to allow students  to see multiple sides to an argument or issue, and encourage students to find reasonable solutions to address their own and others’ perspectives.

Providing for choice

Recognising research student’s capacities to make safe choices and experience the outcomes. Provisions for choice need to be well-considered, and should not place students at risk or in danger. Enabling students to make choices is valuable when autonomy and independence are encouraged.

Questioning to engage students  in thinking and problem-solving

Questions should be genuine and respectful, and not used to gather responses already known by educators. Educators should encourage students to ask questions of them and of their peers.


Working with students to find out and investigate. This can involve them in asking others, using the internet and local library, or telephoning relevant agencies. Researching helps students learn about the many ways of finding solutions and gathering information.

Revisiting and revising


Taking the opportunity to revisit experiences and thinking, which enables students  to reflect on and build on prior learning.


Using knowledge of student’s abilities, educators break down tasks and ideas, and provide students with a supportive framework for taking the next steps or moving onto a higher level of thinking.


Given the agenda of pedagogy in research supervision, and the apparent absence of specific names for some of the pedagogies that might be appropriate in the research advisor/supervisor/ research student relationship, this edited list appears to me to provide some specifics with which to work.



Commonwealth of Australia 2009, Interpreting the Early Years Learning Framework: A guide for educators, Draft for trial, April, pp. 35–36.

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Focussing on IT skills in writing a dissertation.

working with microsoft

Such is the dominance of Microsoft that a book linking dissertation writing and effective Word skills becomes both viable and marketable. Having started my first research degree with a ‘lap top’ computer that was as big as a sewing machine, and attached to a dot printer, and later an electric typewriter, I can see the benefits in just the changes in word processing technology with regard to writing the various documents associated with undertaking a research degree.

The dissertation I wrote with my ‘lap top’ and dot printer had to be totally transcribed and formatted because the particular word processing program was not capable of changing the margins. The incorrect margin sizes had not been noted in the early drafts of the dissertation and when it came time to deliver the final product, the concerns raised by the Office of Research at that university were too late.

We talk about graduate skills of research and many of these are writing technology skills. Having capacity to use the ever growing number of technology tools assists both research and research writing. In that context, the review copy of a book that was sent to me raised my interest. I likened it to the Australian Psychology Association writing guidelines handbook that became my editing bible when I was writing my dissertation.

The techniques offered in this book can save candidature time in that time can be wasted with lengthy editorial processes. Being able to format the document as you go enables the groundwork to be laid well before the volume of content is overwhelming. Something as simple as continual updating the contents list helps the researcher/writer locate important parts of their text and saves that searching time. For students whose inquiry draws on and develops data tables, any assistance in formatting the range of tables can save time.

The book is quite comprehensive and thus overwhelming, however following the authors own suggestion of ‘not to read it all in one sitting’ and to think of it as a reference book, reduces the information overload. It draws attention to the effectiveness of the index and whether an IT solution to a problem that you are encountering at any given time can be located within the text. Of the ideas that I located pertinent to my own research, I was taken by Word services such as the auto format provision, one which in the author’s words is ‘quite well hidden’. Mastery of such a tool can mean that first attempts at writing are being corrected in your own styles of writing, but, as with any services it also brings with it a range of other options that you may need to control. Another of the insights was the formatting help to set up structure for the whole document so that as individual parts of a document are introduced they confirm to the styles already adopted.

One of the important issues for research advisors with regard to a book like this is how to go about introducing it to students. I see two options of problem solving are available to advisors. One option is that they solve the problem themselves and tell the student what to do. The other option is that they introduce appropriate references at key problem based points in the candidature and support the student in using the reference book to solve the particular problem. The later seems to me to engender a self-help approach and establish problem solving practices that work well after the dissertation is completed.

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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.

Posted in research supervision supporting a research culture | 2 Comments

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.

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Supporting the final (dissertation) chapter

Winning runner with cloud background

There would appear to be very little written about the last chapter of a dissertation, and even less about how a research supervisor can support the student in this final important effort. There are multiple metaphors of sustaining oneself through various races. The writing of the final chapter is akin to that last stretch of the race where you can see the finish line in sight but your body is aching and you are unsure whether you will make it to the end. Many a sports coach has advised their athlete on strategies for the final surge. There is nothing worse than collapsing with exhaustion before the end has been reached!

When we think of pedagogy for supporting the final chapter it is worthwhile to take a lead from Socrates and Socratic questioning – asking the research student about their overall study is a good way to help them focus on what needs to be said in this final chapter. This pedagogy brings with it an attitude toward the student that is often talked about, but not always made explicit. After undertaking a long term study, the research student has become the expert in their own topic. They are knowledgeable about this particular study and there is a risk that with all their knowledge they may forget to scaffold their achievements in ways that those who have not journeyed the journey can comprehend. It is akin to choosing a selection of travel photos to share your trip with an interested audience, rather than requiring friends who express interest in your trip to view every photo in order to understand what you enjoyed about your travel.

The whole dissertation is an argument. The final chapter serves a purpose to make explicit the contributions being made by this particular study to the body of knowledge. This idea that research makes a contribution to knowledge is quite a traditional one and one which has been reinvigorated by the Bologna Agreement to ensure that doctoral or research work is clearly focussed on contributions to knowledge.

Some of the questions I have used with students setting out their final chapter include:

  • What are the conclusions you have reached through your investigation? Where do these conclusions fit in the frame you established to contextualise your study at the start of the investigation?
  • How do you think these conclusions will make a difference to whatever you have been studying?

Both these questions make explicit links to earlier chapters, particularly those chapters that helped to frame the issue or question your research was investigating. When these links are made explicit, a reader can remember what they have read earlier in their reading of the dissertation and can then make the connections you want them to as they read the final chapter.

An additional pertinent question about the contributions made by a particular dissertation comes from a discussion I had recently with a colleague about the relevance of theoretical findings to practice. The line of the argument was that as taxpayers have in some way contributed to a research study, they have an entitlement to see that the engagement in research has made a difference in their lives or in the lives of those people whom they know. I likened this to the experience many members of a graduation audience have when they listen to the summaries of the graduating PhD students and struggle to understand what it is they have been studying, and more importantly how their research actually makes a difference. My colleague alluded to a challenge made about a number of Australian research council grants that resulted in one of the academics explaining the relevance of her innocuous topic on talk back radio. This helped to make the connection for the person in the street, or as in this case, the listener on talkback radio.

The second agenda I hope I bring to the writing of the final chapter is one of scaffolding. As claims are made about the conclusions arising from the analysis of the data, it is hoped that the line of argument is also evident. That a reader can remember what they have read about the positioning of the study in the initial chapters, and remember the conclusions reached from the analysed data and make the appropriate connections to the claims being made in this final chapter to the contributions to knowledge. Because of the size of the dissertation, sometimes these claims need quite explicit referencing so that a reader can flick back a few pages and see how the line of argument is being made.

A third agenda relates to other contributions the study has made alongside the obvious contribution to the knowledge base of the topic being studied. One of my students improved a framework used to analyse the data of her study. In her final chapter she wrote about this being a contribution to methodology. Another student, early in the practice-related inquiry phase, had advanced the notion of what it meant to undertake practice-related inquiry, and this at a time when the approach was still emerging within research practice. This also constituted a contribution to the knowledge associated with practice-related inquiry. These additional contributions also need to be teased out in a final chapter so that an examiner is fully aware of all of the ways in which a student has advanced their thinking.

A final strategy that I have found useful in reading the student’s dissertation and particularly in advising about what is needed in the final chapter, is based on a notion that earlier chapters contain promises of what is to come. These may be explicit or may be implied in the writing, and as I read the earlier chapters I try to note the promises being made so that in the final chapters I can audit whether these promises have been delivered. The best example is linking the abstract to the actual dissertation and checking whether promises made in the abstract actually came to pass. That is not saying that all promises made have to be fulfilled. Sometimes the promises produce unforseen problems and explaining how that problem was addressed and resolved is also an important contribution to knowledge as it provides evidence of the problem solving abilities achieved through undertaking an investigation. In the final chapter these threads are drawn together and if still hanging loose, their looseness is identified so that a reader knows that the researcher knows that these issues are not fulfilled. These issues may turn into a section of future directions for this particular study.

A conversation with a research student on day I posted this blog has prompted me to look at a further issues related to the writing of the final chapter. While I see the final chapter as making explicit the contributions of knowledge, I realise that many people also see this chapter as laying the groundwork for studies that may follow in the wake of the study articulated in the dissertation. In this regard there is space in the final chapter for also making explicit the new questions that have emerged as a result of undertaking the study. The student to whom I spoke also added an important coda to this idea. His final chapter not only laid the groundwork for future studies but revealed the emergent passion for future studies that has come out of his initial investigation. In a sense his final chapter celebrated his finding his researcher’s voice. Too often students finish a study and complete their dissertation with the Peggy Lee line ’is that all there is?’ and when the final chapter can thus embrace and celebrate the emergent researcher, this in my opinion is a bonus both for the writer and the many readers who will benefit from their work.

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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.

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