How Might Research on Supervision Influence Your Practice? Things I’m More Intentional About Now

By Lynn McAlpine, University of Oxford and McGill University

I want to begin by asking you to think back to the highs and lows of your own PhD supervision experience. When I have asked academics to plot their journeys from the start to end of their degrees, they invariably report a number of highs and lows, often with an initial positive momentum, then dropping off as they realize the scope of what is demanded and figure out their supervisory relationship, later rising (or falling) at some points related to positive (negative) feedback and a sense of (lack of) progress – ending with varied emotional, sometimes equivocal, responses (as in the diagram below).

Such reflection reminds us of what worked and didn’t work in our experience of being supervised – which if you’re like me and many of the supervisors I have interviewed becomes our starting point for supervising. Interestingly, when new supervisors draw a plot of their experiences with their first student, they often draw journeys with similar highs and lows as they come to realize that what helped them isn’t always what is wanted or needed by the student they are working with.

When I began to research and really know the 20+ years of research on doctoral and supervisory experience, I realized I could draw on the research (The good news in this research is that students are generally relatively satisfied with their supervisory experiences.) to generate some evidence-based principles to inform my supervisory practices. I’d like to share these principles with you. Some may be ideas you already use; others may be, as they were for me, new ideas.

  1. Get to know the university supervisory policies and particularly how departmental practices relate to these policies since both influence student expectations (and progress). This principle applies particularly if you are co-supervising in another department or university than your own. Things to be attentive to:
    1. University requirements and timelines regarding completion
    2. Administrative requirements, e.g., form filling
    3. Roles/ responsibilities of the supervisory team, e.g., co-supervisors, committee members, students
    4. Roles and procedures for examiners of different kinds
    5. Expectations of thesis quality
  2. If you are co-supervising, get to know your co-supervisor’s views on supervision since each of us has a particular view of the purpose of supervision and supervisory responsibilities. Students report finding it confusing if their supervisors have different and unstated expectations. Be sure to discuss practical aspects as well: frequency of joint meetings, keeping each other informed, etc.
  3. Clarify expectations with the student early on. Similar to working with a co-supervisor, don’t assume any similarities with your own ideas. Of course, it is important to keep checking in since expectations, both yours and the student’s, will change over time. Compare expectations of:
    1. Relationship and responsibilities
    2. The doctoral timeline: Students particularly look to supervisors for a sense of long-term expectations.
    3. Career intentions post-degree: Even if you do not see yourself as providing career advice, students report a desire to discuss with their supervisors their future intentions since these influence their motivation and how they invest their time.   
  4. Provide constructive, frequent and timely feedback. As in all learning, feedback influences student motivation, satisfaction and progress. So be attentive to:
    1. Kinds of feedback: Provide feedback both on a) present work and b) overall progress. Students report the latter is feedback they need but rarely receive.
    2. Frequency: Studies suggest that we should meet at a minimum once a month; after that, there is a drop-off of student motivation, satisfaction and progress.
    3. Timeliness: If you are like me, previously when meeting with a student, I would begin the meeting with follow-up from the previous meeting, e.g., feedback on submitted work. There is evidence an alternate approach can be more productive: begin by seeking out the student’s present concerns; then integrate the feedback about previous work you want to give into the present concerns since the student is then in a better position to use your feedback.
  5. Make your availability clear. This seems a ‘no brainer’ but I did not do this consistently. Research suggests unexpected absence or lack of availability is a cause of concern and/or disruption for students. Keep students well-informed about deadlines, absences and response times so they can plan: particularly foreshadow major changes along with clear alternate arrangements.
  6. Provide explicit guidance on knowledge students look to supervisors for: writing, reading, ethical practice and careers.
    1. Writing: Students often put off writing. Set regular writing tasks from the start while acknowledging the difficulties of writing. For instance, require written reports of the discussion and outcomes of each supervisory meeting or consistent summaries and critical assessments of any reading the student does. As well, include students in your writing of genres that are less visible, e.g., manuscript reviews.
    2. Reading: Provide explicit strategies and structures for reading. Experienced supervisors often report that students don’t know how to read in a strategic fashion and need to have this demonstrated.
    3. Ethical practice: Students report it difficult to find a ‘space’ to explore ethical practices and look to their supervisors for guidance. So, discuss issues around day-to-day potential ethical misbehaviours as they arise.
    4. Careers: Discuss career intentions and related requirements. This is increasingly important since a traditional academic career is no longer the norm post-graduation, nor what all students want. If you don’t feel competent in providing advice, direct students to career services.
  7. Remember supervision is about ‘us,’ not just ‘me.’ This last principle is critical since students often see us, supervisors, as the sole person responsible for their progress. In fact, we should be encouraging them to explore and use the range of resources and individuals on offer in the university and beyond.

Some References

Akerlind, G., & McAlpine, L. (2015). Supervising doctoral students: variation in purpose and pedagogy. Studies in Higher Education10.1080/03075079.2015.1118031.

Amundsen, C. & McAlpine, L. (2009). Learning supervision: Trial by fire? Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 46, 3, 331-342.

Heath, T. (2002). A quantitative analysis of PhD students’ views of supervision. Higher Education Research and Development 21, 1: 41-53.

Holley, K. (2009). Animal research practices and doctoral student identity development in a scientific community. Studies in Higher Education, 34(5), 577-591.

McAlpine, L., (2014). Post-PhD trajectories: Desperately seeking careers? Higher Education Review, 47 (1), 4-35.

McAlpine, L. (2013). Doctoral supervision: Not an individual but a collective institutional responsibility. Infanci y Aprendizaje, 36 (3), 259-280.

McAlpine, L., & Amundsen, C. (2012). Challenging the taken-for-granted: How research analysis might inform pedagogical practices and institutional policies related to doctoral education. Studies in Higher Education, 37, 6, 667-681.

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