Nurturing creativity within the PhD

bean sprouts

Creativity maintains an uncomfortable alliance within research. On the one hand definitions of research suggest that the process generates ‘new’ knowledge, while on the other hand, publication of research is imbued with traditions that sometimes discourage difference and creativity.
The recent article in the Times Higher Education supplement (Oswald, 2014)
describes the early years when research on happiness was new and how those ideas were blocked by hostile academics and gate keeping journal editors. Oswald makes the point in that article that it can be very difficult to get a new idea published.
I would attest to Oswald’s (2014) proposition. From early in my academic life I have championed different ways of both doing and publishing research. I established my career as an action inquirer, once considered quite marginal, and developed that into practice-led inquiry. I have also championed cabaret as academic discourse. Perseverance pays off and after over fifteen years challenging some quite established traditions of research publication I find that my new ideas are welcomed in a variety of outlets, as is evidenced by the recent publication in The Conversation
Because of my stance with regard to creative approaches to publishing research I am often engaged in conversations with colleagues who both admire my drive to retain and celebrate creativity in my research and regret the road blocks that are placed in their path when they make attempts to nurture their own creativity. Ana Duffy is one such colleague. She is a PhD student investigating the creative writing of Argentinian author Luisa Valenzuela .

In a recent conversation with Ana she commented that while she reads and analyses this other writer’s creative work, she also grieves the apparent barriers in academic writing that prevent her from nurturing her own creative writing.
I encouraged her to write about that grief!
Below is the short story that Anna wrote.

The dead nun: a requiem for I. – Ana Duffy
Once upon a time I was told I could write. The day I wrote a composition on the Argentinean flag, it was read aloud. And after that came Independence Day or the May Revolution, the war or, on the following year, the flag again. And I wrote. I wrote for me and for my friends. My friends in need of written flags. My hand was easy and there was no such a thing as a draft. My flags had the colours right and my wars had Tom and Jerry bombs to fight with and missing match boxes to stop them. My wars were wrong but my words were right.
Once upon a time I was told I could write. And I happened to believe I could.
I got older, and the flag was a serious matter but my words could still say it. And they were right. But the nun died anyway. Mine was a nun’s school and the serious matters wore black and white and fondled holy rosaries. And they were mostly old, like everything above the seventh grade was then. A nun died and I was commended to write about her. Not that I knew her, not that I did fight any wars with or without matches. But I wrote the dead nun anyway. Words were wordy then, like a tomb stone, they were a couple of sizes bigger than me. But I could grab any word I liked and make them all mine. That was a nice death made into a poem, about some nun, written on demand. The war and the nun. Death was wrong but my words were right. Once upon a time I was told I could write.
I am a PhD student now. One that once upon a time believed she could write.
I am not a PhD student. There is no I. There is a We. We are a PhD student. We, with the name of I.
I cannot grab any word; there is a proper way to say things with the precise words. And definitely I cannot make them mine. Which makes it one major drawback. Neither I nor mine.
I cannot write Tom and Jerry wars, they are not even scholarly. Let alone peer reviewed.
I cannot say war is wrong, I have to find someone that says it is someone that says it is not. And be critical, form an opinion I cannot quite express. Because there is not I.
I cannot write the flag because I changed flags. And the flag around my language is a foreign one now. My words are flagless. The ones with a flag, I borrow. Still not mine.
I cannot write the dead nun. Or quote her. I did not know her, neither the academic world. She died outside my scope of work.
I am a We and a PhD student now. But is wrong. However is right. Furthermore is better.
Once upon a time I was told I could write. I cannot quote who said it. It was not the dead nun.
Once upon a time I could make any word mine. Even the ones from the tomb stone. Unquoted.
Once upon a time, a nun in a poem.
Once upon a time, I.
One dead nun. One PhD student that thought she could write.

At the moment this is one story that gives voice to a grief that I expect is familiar to many PhD students, that they also feel their creative spirit is crushed by some of the requirements of academic writing.

How can an advisor nurture a creative spirit?
When I think back over my own candidature, I can identify two key moments of support in which my advisors encouraged my creativity. That is not to say that there were many others but these two shine out!
The first incident was encouragement. One of my advisors attended a cabaret I performed and following this she encouraged me to include a cabaret in my doctoral publications as a means to give voice to my researcher’s journey. That cabaret was written and ‘Doing a Doctorate’ was performed just prior to my candidature completion and graduation.
A second incident relates to the performance of my ‘Doing a Doctorate’ cabaret. I did not witness this first hand but heard of a morning tea room conversation about my cabaret the morning after I had presented. There was discussion as to whether I should be awarded my doctoral degree for my cabaret. My supervisor set the assembly straight in explaining that the cabaret was one of many publications that emerged from my study, and that my degree was being awarded for the monograph, my dissertation not the cabaret which was but one part of the monograph.

I have taken these two forms of encouragement to heart as I have worked with other students to help them nurture their creative spirits through the doctoral process.

  1. Perhaps the most important factor is that I try to live out my espoused beliefs of alternate paths for researchers. I take a political stand in advocating practice-led inquiry and I put my own work on the line taking cabarets out to present them to academic audiences. I believe that modelling is one of the most powerful forms of facilitating change.
  2. A second important factor is providing time to read and comment on examples of creative work to help a research student plot out both a vision for the creative work and re-vision it into their research. I believe that creative expression provides an ideal strategy for a researcher to articulate their researcher’s voice.
  3. There is an early childhood pedagogy of provisioning the environment and that translates into my own perception of research supervision, that my knowledge of what is required for a doctoral degree helps to mould the student’s research and creative expression into something that it recognised for its PhDness. The environment has changed and new rules about what constitutes a research contribution have opened up so many doors for creative expression.
  4. A fourth factor is actively seeking opportunities to support their publication through creative means so that multiple examples populate the terrain.
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Reviewing the political terrain


A comment about ‘underhand’ tactics for getting a journal article published made by Blake Ashforth in a recent Art of Writing Theory workshop left me wondering about ‘what constitutes under-handness? And when is under-handness seen as political savvy?

Ashforth told an anecdote about another academic who had submitted a journal article to several A level journals only to have it summarily rejected. Later, as the editor of a special edition of the journal, the academic was able to include his own previously rejected article in the mix of papers. This series of actions was labelled by Ashforth as ‘underhand’ and as I listened to the anecdote I thought it represented a good example of ‘political savvy’. The anecdote suggested to me that the article author had assessed the political terrain regarding his article and his ideas, moved to a position of power and then used that power position to get his article published.

Whether we are aware of it or not, or like it or not, academics operate in a strongly political terrain. Despite rhetoric of openness and nourishment of new ideas, my observations of academic practice over thirty years of working in universities, give me an impression of gatekeeping. The journal publication process is a good example. So many journals require conformity to the style of their journal, which reinforces the traditions. I still remember the freshness I experienced as a would be publisher in the Qualitative Journal, when they not only welcomed the work, they worked with the authors to facilitate publication of the ideas and at the same time not compromise their quality criteria. I now realise that that journal’s approach is not the norm. It becomes difficult for someone with a new idea or a different way of communicating their research to break into the market. What may be commonplace in one discipline may be described as not even research in another. I found this out first hand when a journal article I had written based on a single case study, quite common in writing about research supervision, was rejected as not even research by a journal devoted to research on academic writing.

When I was first exposed to research practice through the culture of action inquiry, I realised very quickly that while there were pockets of active action inquiry in many universities around the world, these were often marginalised. Over time, this changed and now action inquiry has its own journals that are considered A level journals. As I developed as a researcher I learnt to share my work in selected sites, and with my experiential learning work even developed a hierarchy of conference venues at which to share differently developed experiential learning. This knowledge comes with longevity in the culture.

It begs the question as to how a new research student can begin to consider the implications of the political terrain within their discipline when they are still trying to come to terms with the variety of tribes within a discipline. This sort of question and knowledge becomes important when, in inviting the research student to comment on the choice of potential readers or examiners for their work, either at research proposal level or at dissertation level, they may still be quite novice in terms of political awareness. While it is a good idea to include them in the decision making, their knowledge of the potential of each of the readers may be limited or politically naïve.

The role of the academic advisor/supervisor can be quite significant at this point in a research student’s candidature, as the student is reliant on the advisor/supervisor’s knowledge of the political terrain for advice on from whom to seek assistance. Which professors will try to cobble your ideas into something that seems to fit into their own? Which professors have a track record of providing pertinent feedback? Which professors are attempting to champion their own causes, sometimes at the expense of disempowered research students?

The academic advisor/supervisor may also know who in the organisation will champion the work. Who has political clout to help a research student discern their way through the epistemological minefield? Who is a worthwhile member of a panel who can stave off paradigmatically inappropriate questioning?

All of these options fill out the role of the research advisor/supervisor as advocate!

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Post PhD – should you mention the PhD?



I was fortunate recently to attend a workshop on Career Strategy delivered by Dr Edwin Trevor-Roberts, an alumnus of the university at which I am undertaking a PhD. The workshop was so popular that they had to schedule an additional day! Not that surprising, given the figures I was made aware of at the recent International Quality in Postgraduate Research Conference in Adelaide, Australia. Those figures suggested that the traditional Australian trend of PhD graduates taking up academic appointments is declining due to reduced Higher Education funding and a general trend in universities of seeking potential employees who can generate income for them rather than just expend it. The Australian experience was contrasted with European trends that indicated a growth in non-university employment of PhD graduates. Each of the key-note speakers at the International Quality in Post-Graduate Research conference suggested that the European trend is likely to take off in Australia.

One of the engaging activities in the Career Strategy workshop was to discuss at the table of participants the questions that you had always wanted to ask a career consultant about post PhD career choices. This activity generated a number of pertinent questions from just and soon-to-be graduated PhD candidates. An interesting dilemma at the table at which I was sitting was the comment from a soon-to-be graduand that having a PhD in some disciplines in Australia was sometimes a hindrance rather than a help. This perception was later confirmed by the speaker and the advice was not to spend too much time in your career interview talking about ‘when you did your PhD’ and to focus more on how the knowledge and the inquiry processes acquired from undertaking a PhD could add value to a potential employing company. The concern resonated with a story I had heard from a recent graduate that at the high school at which they were teaching, the Principal refused to acknowledge the academic achievement of a doctoral degree. It seemed clear to me that that Principal of that school demonstrated some of the fear from a PhD graduate that Edwin Trevor-Roberts had mentioned. It also made me wonder why the Principal had not adopted an appreciative inquiry approach and celebrated this staff member’s achievement and publicized it as an advantage of the school that one of their staff had been successful in one of the highest levels of academic achievement.

The flip-side of this scenario is recognizing the importance of acquiring a PhD as an exemplar of learning and knowledge. It is important to make this feature of a research degree one of its saleable features when you are competing in the job market. One of the often overlooked features of a research degree is that the process you have undertaken to make a contribution to knowledge can stand as a separate entity to the knowledge the research process has generated. Regardless of which industry you approach, the process of investigation, of which you have become experienced through the grueling task of completing a research degree, can be translated into any field. The process brings with it a greater demand for evidence based thinking and an ability to communicate that thinking to a range of audiences and in a range of media. The ability to make transparent any part of a problem solving process, so that the process itself can be evaluated, is a skill that is useful in any industry and in any position.

For a supervisor or advisor working with their PhD students as they head towards the ultimate milestone of completion, it is important to help them recognize the individual industry contribution of the knowledge generated through their study as well as the trans-disciplinary process that they have undertaken which qualifies them for a much broader range of investigative practices that are limited to just the industry or discipline of their study.

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What makes a good supervisor?


This post has been written by Kelsey Halbert at James Cook University. It was prompted by her presentation at the recent International Quality Post Graduate Research conference in Adelaide, Australia. What is inspirational in this post is that it is an encouragement for other research supervisors and advisors to investigate rigorously their own practices and to do this by talking to one of the most important stakeholders of the research degree process, the student.

This post is based on conversations with groups of current doctoral students about their supervisory experiences. These discussions took place as part of a wider qualitative study I conducted in which I prompted candidates to talk about their positive and negative experiences and make recommendations that would improve their candidacy. While we also talked about a range of institutional processes and supports, their supervision was undoubtedly the most significant factor in students’ feeling satisfied and making progress.

In terms of my researcher position, I am a relatively new supervisor, early in my career but conscious of the need to reflect on my own experiences as a student and how those have shaped my own notion of ‘the good supervisor’. Hearing about the different orientations to and traditions of research and research supervision has enriched my own practice and provided recommendations for improving institutional practice. It has also enabled current students to share experiences with each other. I hope that this post extends that sharing even further.

I asked doctoral candidates in focus groups across a range of disciplines: “What makes a good supervisor?”. The seventy students who participated affirmed the importance of a good relationship, expertise in both the field and the research process and an ethic of care and support. Regardless of the form, students want regular engagement with their supervisor or supervisory team. A good supervisor is:

Understanding, flexible, respectful and pushes approachable, switched on, actually cares about students Understanding, communicative. Contactable. Sense of humour. Positivity.
Knowledgeable in the area but doesn’t have to be a major interest to them.

Some supervisors might contend that their expertise is the most important resource they offer to students, but clearly some students’ value communicative practices and the process of support over expertise.

The key practices were accessibility and communication. For some students this means flexibility and for others it means predictability and regular meeting times. The comments below indicate the diverse approaches to communication – formal and informal, regular or needs based:

  • My supervisor is informal. If I want to talk, he says come back after lunch.
  • We never have minutes of regular discussions.
  • My experiences have been quite good. Generally speaking we have a weekly meeting. The meetings are not structured but the meeting schedule is of 1 hour face-to-face each week. I find that really helpful because during the week questions arise so I know I have that opportunity to ask my supervisor.
  • [I] think it’s about finding what suits the people involved. If there are weeks I feel I have nothing to say and am not ready to discuss it we just don’t have a meeting that week. I think it’s about creating that structure at the beginning.

This clear and regular communication is a factor in shaping what Halse and Malfroy (2010) refer to as a ‘learning alliance’ – a mutual commitment and engagement with the research project. Support and enthusiasm for the candidate fit into what Halse and Malfroy (2010) describe as “habits of mind”, which include a disposition and modes of behaviour, self-awareness, reflective practice, responsiveness to student needs, openness, application of ‘lived knowledge’. Several candidates referred to such habits as positive experiences:

  • Highlight and Anchor has been advisors that have faith in what I can do
  • [My supervisor’s are] Patient, into detail, inspire direction that I’m seeking, friends to me, open to thoughts, exchange knowledge.
  • Having a supervisor that encourages you. My supervisor is keen because he’s interested, we’re doing something that hasn’t been done before. He sits in the back and says ‘Go, go, go.’ Can stay passionate and focused. I’ve been at crossroads where I simply don’t know what to do. My supervisor may not know either, but he says let’s sit down and figure out what to do.
  • [I have] two positive, helpful supervisors and relationship where they understanding where I’m coming from because of my background
  • Sometimes I walk into my supervisors where I say ‘I hate my subject and the whole thing. Tell me what I need to be doing and get me back on track!’ And she says, ‘Ok, go and do this and you’ve got this time.’
  • Managed to talk in supervisory meetings – more substance than other students – and he replies to emails.
  • There is a lot of trust both ways.

The comments above offer multiple perspectives on the responsiveness and ethic of care that a good supervisor demonstrates. This is facilitated by trust, patience and supports that go beyond intellectual or technical to acknowledge the affective dimension of supervision.

So what does this mean for current candidates and supervisors?

There is a variety of expectations of supervision: some that stem from previous experiences and perceptions of the ideal and some that stem from the specific demands of the research and the field we might be researching. However, there are fairly consistent ideas of the ‘good supervisor’ as being someone (or two or three people) who are committed, accessible, and supportive and usually in regular communication about the research project (see further research by Barnes, Wolfe, Chard, Stassen, & Williams, 2011; Kiley, 2011; Ward & Gardner, 2008).

As a candidate you can manage the supervisory relationship by being clear about roles and expectations and setting the agenda. The take home message for supervisors is that your contribution is the most significant factor in the research education process. These student voices call for regular and substantive communication, however there are diverse ways of relating. If these are clarified and responsive to the particular candidate then the supervisory relationship will more than likely be a good one.


Barnes, B. J., Wolfe, E. W., Chard, L. A., Stassen, M. L. A., & Williams, E. A. (2011). An evaluation of the psychometric properties of the graduate advising survey for doctoral students. International Journal of Doctoral Studies, 6 (Journal Article), 1.

Halse, C., & Malfroy, J. (2010). Retheorizing doctoral supervision as professional work. Studies in Higher Education, 35(1), 79-92. doi: 10.1080/03075070902906798

Kiley, M. (2011). Government Policy and Research Higher Degree Education. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 33(6), 629-640.

Ward, K., & Gardner, S. K. (2008). Three Magic Letters: Getting to Ph.D. (review) (Vol. 79, pp. 240-242). Columbus: Ohio State University Press.


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Distractions and solutions



18 minutes

This blog is inspired by a comment made by one of the participants in the PhD buddy group to which I belong. The comment was about how easily they got distracted when they are trying to write their academic work. It prompted a response from another participant in the form of a book review of a book that inspired their own time management: Bregman’s 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done <; .

In his award-winning bestseller Peter Bregman offers a simple system for staying on track at the office. My colleague suggested that it applies just as well to the workplace for the PhD student. They highlighted five of the strategies which they believe are particularly beneficial.

Getting the Right Things Done

First, you need to give up on getting it all done, as some time management systems attempt to do. That means staying focused. Even when we know better, distractions have a mysterious magnetic effect on us, pulling us away from our best laid plans.

Decide What Really Matters

The best way to enhance your immunity to distraction is to know what really matters. Without that, you are at the mercy of every shiny thing that gets your attention. Identifying your top priorities does require some reflection. Before you balk at spending the time, consider all the wasted hours (or days!) that this will save you. Once you know what matters most, you know what to say “yes” to. More importantly, you will be clear on what you must to say “no” to. The trick, of course, will be remembering those priorities when temptation comes your way–and Bregman has an answer for that too.

Identify Your Five Goals for the Year

Bregman says that thriving at life is like going through a buffet: The secret is to choose fewer things, but do it strategically. Through trial and error, he discovered that in any given year, he could concentrate on five major areas of focus. He noted that someone else might come up with three or seven, whatever keeps you moving forward without feeling overwhelmed.

In his top five list, Bregman has two work related goals and two personal goals: “Do great work with current clients; attract future clients, write and speak about my ideas; be present with family and friends; have fun and take care of myself.” My colleague nominated a possible five priorities in:

  1. Get my PhD to Mid Candidature Review stage (because that is where I should be by the end of the year)
  2. Grow things with her partner.
  3. Build up means for future (post PhD) career.
  4. Take care of myself so I can be at my best.
  5. Take care of family and have fun with friends.

…and noted that if your dissertation does not make your “Top Five Priorities” list, consider abandoning it entirely and investing your time in what you really do care about.

Bregman advised spending 95% of your time on those five things–and only 5% on all the rest. That’s right, just 5% for paying the bills, getting repairs, washing clothes, getting a new printer ribbon. What hits most people right away is that this leaves very little time for a lot of those things that crop up during the day. How can you keep focused on your top five priorities on a day-to-day basis with so many distractions lurking nearby?

Make Each Day Count

The secret to translating priorities into daily action is Bregman’s own little invention: the “Six-Box To Do List.”

To make one, take a sheet of paper and making six large boxes (a 2×3 grid works well). Five will be for listing your top five priorities and the sixth becomes your “everything else” box. Put each of your tasks into those boxes. (You can also download a free template<; that Bregman offers.)

An interesting and helpful side effect of all this is that you quickly become aware of imbalance across priorities. Are you putting lots of tasks (and time) into the box for your current job and social connections, while leaving the boxes for dissertation and self-care blank day after day? Reflect on that and take the necessary actions!

The Power of When and Where

As has been noted in the All But the Dissetation Survival Guide, <; simply stating when and where you will do a task doubles the chances that you’ll actually do it. While a ‘To Do’ list does a great job of collecting the tasks, to keep on track, Bregman recommends a calendar to guide your daily actions.

De-clutter your schedule for maximum focus by following Bregman’s “Three-Day Rule.” If a task has been on your To Do list or more than three days, you have four choices: do it immediately, schedule it, let it go, or put it on a “someday/maybe” list (where it usually dies a slow death).

Create Your 18-Minute Daily Ritual

Even with your priorities clear and your tasks defined, distractions can still entice you from those carefully designed plans. Here’s where those 18 minutes a day can help you stay on track.

STEP 1: (5 minutes) Your Morning Minutes. Before turning your computer on, plan which of the tasks from your Six-Box To Do list will make you feel most productive and schedule them into your calendar. Apply the “Three-Day Rule” to any lingering items.

STEP 2: (1 minute every hour) Refocus. Set your watch, phone, or computer to ring, beep, or chime every hour and start working your list. At the beep or chime, breathe deeply and then review your productivity. Check your calendar and be intentional about how you use the next hour. Continue to manage your day, hour by hour.

STEP 3: (1 minute) Your Evening Minutes. At the end of your workday, turn off the computer and review your day: “How did the day go? What did I learn about myself? Is there anyone or anything that I need to update?”

“Just 18 minutes a day can save you hours of inefficiency. The trick is to choose your focus deliberately and wisely, and then consistently remind yourself of that focus throughout the day.” ~ Peter Bregman.

For supervisors/advisors

A student procrastinating raises a range of questions about ‘whose research is this?’, however a failure to complete, for which the procrastination may be an early sign, becomes a problem for you and for the university. That is a way of looking at student’s procrastination that may prompt some interventions. Ahead of interventions is actually recognising that a student is procrastinating as many of the signs appear to simply be time-management problems, or may coincide with your own busy ness and hence may be providing you with much needed valuable hours.
The value of this blog is perhaps in proposing a suitable recommendation that can be made to a student who appears to be procrastinating. It may even prompt you to challenge your students about where tutoring, teaching and marking fits into their priorities.
It is not only research students who procrastinate. You may even ask yourself ‘where does supervising your students fit into my own priorities? ‘
….how much time are you making for them?

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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.

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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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