Supervising Practice-based Doctorates

By Dr. Geof Hill, Birmingham City University

In the provenance of research practice, practical or experiential knowledge was consistently devalued. The Greeks preferred intellectual knowledge over practical knowledge. During the Renaissance, written intellectual knowledge had precedence over practical knowledge. The emergence of scientific method represented a point of ascendance for scientific knowledge and continued degradation of practical or experiential knowledge9.

Since the paradigm wars, experiential and practical knowledge has found new epistemological popularity in university-based research. Some of this can be accredited to Donald Schön’s9 The Reflective Practitioner that advocated not only the study of practice, but posited an inquiry paradigm to underpin that type of investigation.   Similarly, ‘The Practice Turn’7 signified recognition of professional practice as embodied or being linked to people, and argued for situated study of professional practice in specific professional settings. Both theoretical innovations encouraged practice-based research or inquiry.

Undertaking an investigation into any form of practice involves an amount of reflection. In order to know what we do in any practice, there is a need to think about and articulate what that practice involves. Regardless of the practice being investigated, this form of reflection generates a stream of consciousness which can provide information about a given practice but, unless this knowledge is in some way systematized, it can be overwhelming for a reader, and raises questions regarding its value for other practitioners and more generally for practice theory. There are challenges in knowing how to document this body of knowledge in ways that make it both accessible for potential readers and manageable for interrogation by the practitioner/inquirer.

Research supervisors working with professionals as they interrogate their practice within the framework of research degrees need to help them elicit this often tacit knowledge into a form that makes it reviewable and examinable.

Some Research Supervisor Strategies

I have found that encouraging the student to undertake provenance reflection of their practice can establish a first articulation of the practice they propose to investigate. Provenance is a term more commonly used in antique dealing where it refers to manufacture and ownership of items of antiquity. Within practice inquiry, I posit5 that a practice has a general provenance – a history of that particular practice’s evolution – along with a personal provenance – how a particular practitioner has developed their practice. A given practitioner’s personal provenance may also contain wisdom about the practice derived from other fellow practitioners.

Provenance can be comfortably followed by or paralleled with Naming9 of the practice or elements of the practice. What one professional may call their practice and how that practice is referred to in the literature may have different names. Reflective practice is a good example. What is recognized by some professionals as an ability to think about their practice may appear in the literature as reflective practice9 or can equally be referred to as mindfulness or reflexivity7. Helping the inquirer focus on a name for the practice they are investigating and recognising the contested nature of the name of the practice are both ideas that can be facilitated or encouraged by the research supervisor helping a student to study their practice.

Framing9 a practice involves establishing a way of sorting all the knowledge about a practice – both the inquirer’s own practical knowledge and what is available through literature – into a format so that other people can learn about it. This may even involve expressing the practice diagrammatically. Sometimes this framing can be chronological as a timeline. A given practitioner can list the critical incidents that have informed their development of a given professional practice. Chronologically sorting the literature about a practice can help to reveal specific lines of inquiry in which one author refers to another, or it could reveal a significant change in perception of certain practices over time. This sort of systemizing of the literature can help an inquirer situate what they know about the practice they are investigating within the larger discourse about that practice.

But, not all practices fit these sorts of systematization. Research supervision is a good example of a practice not fitting a chronological system. While individual practitioners may come to research supervision in a recognizable chronology that involves their own completion of a doctoral degree and being supervised, others may have experienced different developmental paths into their observed research supervision practice. Similarly the broader discourse around the investigated practice can be framed in a variety of ways. In my own practice led investigation of research supervision I posited4 a framework for making sense of the variety of different articles on research supervision that presented research supervision:

  1. Research supervision as pedagogy.
  2. Research supervision as relationship.
  3. Research supervision as management.
  4. Research supervision as facilitating contributions to knowledge

I retained that framework for a blog on research supervision I developed: the research supervisors’ friend

Provenance, naming and framing can help an inquirer/researcher articulate their professional practice such that it opens up the articulation of practice to criticality, often thought of as a key feature of doctoral inquiry. For some, criticality involves application of another of Schön’s9 variations of reflective practice, in the form of advanced or critical reflection. Critical reflection is a contested practice. For some16 critical reflection involves identifying the belief systems or the doctrine that underpins a professional’s outplaying of their professional practice or aspects of professional practice. This often involves identifying the philosophy behind their practice. For others (Reynolds, 1998) critical reflection is referenced to neo-Marxists Freire2 and Habermas3 who were concerned with inequality brought about by unequal relations of power within capitalism. Both understandings about critical reflection bring criticality or critical interrogation to bear on a professional’s articulation of their practice, and add to its doctoralness.

As most research degrees are examined on the basis of a written document, research supervision also involves developing a researcher/inquirer’s writing about their professional practice and about their investigation into their professional practice. It helps to understand the dissertation as an extended argument in which one firstly frames a practice from their own experience and from the perspective of the literature; then posits a way to investigate that practice as framed. Thinking about the argument helps a practitioner who is immersed in their own practice to achieve a certain level of distance and ability to view their practice as an outsider. The argument continues as the researcher/inquirer makes sense of the data they have collected about the practice, either from themselves (auto ethnography) or from other practitioners of the practice and articulates their contribution to the knowledge about the practice.


Here are some questions on the topic to consider. We would welcome you leaving your response in the comments section below:

  1. Is it different undertaking research where the starting point is practice and even the researcher’s own practice?
  2.  How do you prevent an act of provenance being perceived as self-indulgent?


One of the tools I have used with my own doctoral students to elicit their knowledge of practice is based on a set of catalyst questions:

  • What do you know about your practice?
  • What do you know about investigative practice?
  • What do you know about university based investigation and academic writing?

Some of my doctoral students have added to this with more specific questions such as

  • What is your own relationship with the practice you are investigating? 
  • Do you consider yourself an insider/outsider to this profession?
  • What do you think are the critical incidents that have led to your development/understanding of your practice?
  • What are your own attitudes towards the aspects of the practice that you are investigating? Are you aware of any theoretical frameworks that may underpin these beliefs?
  • What sort of impact do you hope for your research to have e.g. on practice?

As this posing of questions often coincides with a first research supervision meeting, there may be parallel questions relating to the nature of the supervision, such as, ‘What are your expectations from me as a supervisor?’

These questions are asked in an initial meeting with a student to start a short term process leading to production of a research proposal and a long term process of their doctoral candidature. The questions are underpinned by the assumption that students have answers to these questions and just need prompting to begin to affirm the knowledge that has already started to formulate their investigation. A contrasting and perhaps traditional strategy might be to encourage the student to look to literature to contextualize their investigative topic. Drawing on an inquirer’s background knowledge as compared to asking them to seek knowledge about the practice they are investigating in literature affirms their self-knowledge and focuses on marshalling and clarifying that knowledge into a research proposal.

The initial meeting is the first step in a model that includes six face-to-face meetings and five writing assignments over a period of (usually) six months.

The first writing task involve writing no more than two pages following the initial meeting addressing the following questions:

  • What do you intend to investigate?
  • What is the context of the investigation?
    • Practice based context and
    • Literature context And
  • What role do you play in the practice based context?
  • Why is it important to investigate this issue?
  • First thoughts on how you think you might investigate this topic.

Feedback on this writing focuses on identifying in the writing where the student has described ways in which he (she) has been undertaking research in their industry. This helps the student to identify their ‘investigative practice’ as compared to the practice which is being investigated, their ‘professional practice’.

Following the second meeting the student builds the previous two page document into a four page document which again receives feedback, and generates the agenda for the next meeting. In our subsequent meetings we discuss the developing text and also address a number of issues, such as ethics, that are pertinent to writing about and undertaking practice based research.

After five meetings the student has written a document of about 32 pages. This is often the size specification for a research proposal. In this working document they have positioned their own proposed investigation within a summary of what is ‘known’ about the topic (a literature review) and suggested how they might go about investigating this topic (methodology). This supervision process is focused on producing a research proposal.


  1. Argyris, C. (1982)Reasoning, learning and action: individual and organizational. San Francisco, U.S.A.: Jossey-Bass.
  2. Freire, P. (1986) The Politics of Education: Culture, Power and Liberation. (trans Donald Macedo ), U.S.A.: Macmillan.
  3. Habermas, J. (1968)Knowledge and Human Interests. Boston, U.S.A.: Beacon Press.
  4. Hill, G. (2011). Diffracting the practices of research supervision. In Kumar, V & Lee, A. (eds) Connecting the Local, Regional and International in Doctoral Education, Serdang, Malaysia: Universiti Putra Malaysia Press.
  5. Hill, G. (2015). Cycles of Action and Reflection. In Coghlan, D. & Brydon-Miller, M (Eds) The SAGE Encyclopaedia of Action Research. Thousand Oaks, Calif: U.S.A.: Sage  (pp234-239)
  6. Mezirow, J. (1990). How critical reflection triggers transformative learning. In J. Mezirow (Ed.), Fostering critical reflection in adulthood: A guide to transformative and emancipatory learning. San Francisco, U.S.A.: Jossey-Bass.
  7. Schatzki, T.R., Knorr-Cetina, K. and von Savigny, E. (2001) (Eds) The Practice turn in contemporary theory. London: U.K.: Routledge.
  8. Schippers, M., Homan, A., and Van Knippenberg, D. (2013). To reflect or not to reflect: Prior team performance as a boundary condition of the effects of reflexivity on learning and final team performance. Journal of Organisational Behaviour, 34, 6-23.
  9. Schön, D. (1983)The Reflective Practitioner: How professionals think in action. U.S.A.: Basic Books.

[I would like to express my gratitude to Rebecca Snape, Fiona Wilcox, Martha Lopez and George Hart, my doctoral students, whose feedback and discussion about draft versions of this resource contributed to its final format]

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