It is a truth universally acknowledged that university administrators who must report a simple metric to government will develop a tortured system of paperwork to do so. By the time this paperwork reaches the intended target, the original purpose of collecting the information has often become invisible.
As a result, much of the administrative paperwork that lands on academics’ desks can seem meaningless, confusing, trivial or even intrusive. At least, this is what we found when investigating the sad case of progress reporting in research candidature. Despite volumes of paperwork designed to promote transparency and accountability, research students are still taking too long to do their degree and coming into conflict with their supervisors.
What is going wrong?
The most startling finding of our research was that most candidates who had multiple poor progress reports had not been excluded from their program – the purpose for which the process had been expressly designed. Meanwhile, candidates who had spotless records were drawn into extended academic disciplinary procedures at the end of their candidature when it was discovered their dissertations were not up to standard.
Clearly the progress report was not always a truthful account of what happened during the research, or the nature of the supervisor/candidate relationship. Our conversations with research participants shed some light on this complex, but largely hidden problem. I want to highlight two of the key findings and discuss what they mean for supervisors
When people don’t know who the form is for, they make up an audience and respond accordingly.
Candidates spoke about the progress report in a variety of ways: as an empty ‘rubber-stamping’ exercise; a ‘spin job’ providing a sanitised account of the research; an ‘impression management device’ to present themselves in a favourable light; a way of viewing a frozen moment in research time; a benchmarking opportunity against a backdrop of fuzzy expectations; a way to request resources and complain about infra- structure; an opportunity to reflect on learning; a chance to clarify supervisor expectations or, a battleground in which the student struggled to be heard.
The progress report was never spoken about as a neutral recording device – which is what the administrators claimed they intended to make. These responses suggest that candidates had a range of possible audiences in mind: a disapproving authority figure, a helpful scrutineer, a university housekeeper, the supervisor or, more often – nobody. Candidates performed for whatever audience they imagined would ultimately read the document. In some (many?) cases, a truthful account would not ‘play well’, so an alternative performance was mustered.
Supervisors need to bear in mind that the power relations inherent in research candidatures do not disappear when administrative forms are handed out. I want to say that supervisors should encourage students to make honest reports, and make honest reports themselves, but I’m not sure this is the answer. I doubt any written account is entirely honest – and below I discuss why, sometimes, people justify being evasive on compassionate grounds. In the interest of best practice, I instead encourage supervisors and students to make sure they keep good records. Email, calendars, summaries of conversations contain a patchwork of the truth and will no doubt be used instead of the progress reports should any serious conflicts arise.
Progress doesn’t always look like progress (and other necessary research fictions).
From the point of view of research managers, one of the weaknesses of the progress report system is a lack of truthful reporting. Our data reveals the complexities around this phenomenon and caused us to question whether we would ever be able to design a system where the ‘unspeakable’ could be spoken.
We found ample evidence of supervisor reluctance to take responsibility for reporting unsatisfactory progress in writing, which is usually the first step in initiating an ‘at-risk’ candidature classification. The participant responses highlighted the complex nature of student–supervisor relationships and the difficulty some supervisors experience in managing students’ emotional state throughout the degree.
Many supervisors highlighted the difficulty they experienced being completely honest and reporting unsatisfactory progress because the progress report was such a ‘high stakes’ document. Sometimes a surgeon uses and saw, and sometimes they must use tweezers. Supervisors worried that minor problems, ones which may or may not develop into major ones, might be magnified out of proportion by making them ‘official’.
The progress report was too often seen as a saw, not the tweezers that would help candidates through problems they were experiencing. To avoid the ‘nuclear option’ many supervisors preferred to adopt a ‘wait and see’ approach and work to fix problems in other ways (with extra assistance, for example, or by securing the student some leave from candidature and ‘stopping the clock’).
This finding raises serious questions about what constitutes ‘good supervision’. Is good supervision complying with paperwork, no matter the consequences, or is good supervision a matter of creative accounting that recognises the difference between tweezers and a saw?
Here are some questions on the topic to consider. We would welcome you leaving your response in the comments section below.
Do you agree that formal progress reports are often inadequate as a means of genuinely tracking progress?
Do you think that a better alternative would be to encourage supervisors and students to keep good records?
Mewburn, I., Tokareva, E., Cuthbert, D., Sinclair, J., & Barnacle, R. (2013). “These are the issues that should not be raised in black and white”: the culture of progress reporting and the doctorate. Higher Education Research & Development, 0(0), 1–13. http://doi.org/10.1080/07294360.2013.841649
Mewburn, I., Cuthbert, D., & Tokareva, E. (2013). Experiencing the progress report: an analysis of gender and administion in doctoral candidacy. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 00(00), 1–17. http://doi.org/10.1080/1360080X.2013.861054