Recognising and rewarding excellence in doctoral supervision: Superdupervisor Awards – How, Why and to What End?

By Professor Doug Cleaver and Dr Nicola Palmer, Doctoral School, Sheffield Hallam University

Stan Taylor’s blog on Rewarding Excellence in Research Supervision[i], together with the instigation of pan-institutional schemes such as the THE/UKCGE Outstanding Research Supervisor of the Year award[ii], indicates that there is an assumption that excellence in doctoral supervision can be measured and benchmarked sector-wide. Having operated such a scheme at an institutional level since 2010, the following gives our reflections on its potential benefits and pitfalls as well as our take on the ultimate purpose of recognising and rewarding good research supervision.

Our university has a strongly student-led framework for its Inspirational Teaching and Inspirational Research Supervisor awards, capturing large numbers of nomination statements and feeding these into blind-reviewed selection processes. Coupled with carefully applied anonymization, this effectively overcomes various sources of bias. It also allows ‘excellence’ to be self-defined by the supervisees, which is important in the context of an empowered learner culture where student voice and satisfaction are acknowledged to be vital metrics of higher education institutional performance and as policy and strategic initiative[iii]. We “reward” at this organic level, with a “well done” message to all supervisors who have received a nomination. However, alignment with institutional cultural values becomes inevitable at the next level, as criteria are introduced against which to judge the naturalistic student statements.

We have thought long and hard about what these criteria should be for our institution – there is no need for them to be the same everywhere – driven by both the themes that have emerged from our student statements and the supervisory behaviours that we are seeking to promote. For us, raising the level of academic aspiration and attainment, being a positive role model and providing strong support (whilst maintaining professional boundaries) are the key factors.

Recognising strong supervisor performance has then proved relatively straightforward – the winners have emerged very easily each year via a Eurovision-style voting panel comprising PGR leads and student reps (we’ve not seen any distortions due to block voting!) Usefully, the ‘prize’ is mainly recognition (an awards dinner, poster portraits around the institution, being highlighted at Graduation ceremonies), so there is little ill-will from the vast majority who lose don’t win. However, even in this modest form, the scheme has proved to be a remarkably (and unexpectedly) effective profile-raiser for PGR in an institution which is very much teaching-led.

Promoting the wonderful supervisory practices we have unearthed remains a work in progress – having established what ‘research supervision excellence’ means for us, is it useful or desirable to disseminate these as ‘ideal’ (or ‘idealised’?) supervisor values? Whilst it is tempting utilise our past winners in some way to create impact that is meaningful and beneficial for future cohorts, continuing to have their excellence embedded across the University can be more useful than separating them out as an elitist group. The collateral which has far less baggage is our growing collection of students’ nomination statements (the vast majority agree for these to be shared in anonymised form) which give a direct link to the student voice. The best of these can teleport you into the supervision far more effectively than our other supervisor training materials. Being able to use these student paragraphs to help develop the next generation of supervisors (arguably, they are the group we are seeking to inspire) isn’t a bad start. And they have even been known to encourage some of our established supervisors to reflect on their practice! Thus, in recognising and rewarding outstanding practice and behaviours in research supervision, we cannot lose sight of the fact that our ultimate goal is for such ‘excellence’ to become the norm.

Questions

  1. What are the potential benefits and pitfalls of recognising supervisory excellence in the context of your institution? 
  2. How would you use such an award to incentivise outstanding supervisory practice throughout your institution?
  3. What happens to the winners? Can winning be made a staging post rather than an end point or pinnacle of research supervision success?

[i] Taylor, S. (2016) Rewarding Excellence in Research Supervision

URL: http://www.ukcge.ac.uk/article/rewarding-excellence-doctoral-research-supervision-340.aspx 
Accessed: 26th October, 2017  
http://www.ukcge.ac.uk/article/rewarding-excellence-doctoral-research-supervision-340.aspx

[ii] UKCGE (2017) Outstanding Research Supervisor of the Year. Times Higher Education Awards 
URL: http://www.ukcge.ac.uk/more/awards.aspx 
Accessed: 26th October, 2017

[iii] Hall, V. (2017) A tale of two narratives: student voice—what lies before us? Oxford Review of Education, 43 (2), pp. 180-193.

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