Supervisors at Barchester are required to complete an initial professional development programme and to act as second supervisors for one student cycle before becoming principal supervisors. Once confirmed, principal supervisors are required to attend an updating workshop at least once every three years.
At the start of my career I attended the initial half-day programme, which was mainly devoted to understanding the university’s rules and regulations relating to research degrees. This was helpful in alerting me to the regulatory environment at Barchester – which was different to that in Uttoxeter. But it was ultimately disappointing because there was so little on the pedagogy and practice of supervision, an experience which does not seem uncommon (see Feather and McDermott 2014).
This might have been less of a problem if, when I became a second supervisor, my experienced colleague had properly mentored me but, as noted above, our relationship was often conflictual and I learned relatively little.
Overall, I felt very much that I had been left to muddle through, and one of the consequences of that was an initially overly-directive style of supervision. But, as noted above, I soon learned that there was a need to vary my style in accordance with the different needs of my student, and I determined to learn more. To find out more, I then attended an external workshop on the pedagogy of supervision and found out more about research on the relationships between styles and needs (see Lee 2012) and, moreover, how these should vary over the course of a research degree cycle (Gurr 2001). When I returned to Barchester, I suggested to the colleagues in the Centre for Academic and Researcher Development that this should be included in the supervisor development programme, and this has been done.
‘Muddling through’ also extended to supporting candidates to complete on time; most did so off their own bat but a couple sometimes seem to lose the plot and achieved very little for long periods of time. Supporting timely completion was actually a topic which was considered on an updating course I attended, which introduced me to the work of Ahern and Manthunga (2004) on ‘clutch-starting stalled research candidates’. I found their classification of the causes of stalling into the cognitive, affective, and social domains useful both in understanding why candidates were under-achieving and in deciding how to support them to progress. In particular, this led me to change my strategy with one of my candidates whom I had thought to be simply idle but realised that the problem was actually lack of self-esteem – what Kearns (2015) has called imposter syndrome – and that the solution lay in boosting her confidence. This proved effective and, while she went over time, she got there in the end.
As with my teaching, I evaluate supervision through a combination of self-evaluation and the Lee and Mackenzie (2011) questionnaire. For the latter, I devote one supervision per year to going through the items with the student and my co-supervisor just to make sure that we are all happy and on track.
In 2017 my candidates nominated me for a university’s award for excellence in doctoral supervision. I was particularly humbled by their testimonies. Extracts include:
‘Dr Other always went the extra mile to support me to successfully complete my thesis on time, to co-publish with me while I was a student, and to learn to teach. He was a brilliant role model who motivated me to become an academic and it is in no small part to him that I owe my success in gaining an academic post’.
‘I became pregnant during my doctoral studies. Dr Other was very understanding and supportive throughout the pregnancy and the first year of my baby’s life. He very strongly encouraged me to come back and complete my studies and arranged for me to transfer to part-time status. He scheduled supervisions for the evenings and weekends when my partner could look after the baby. When I was tired and flagging and ready to give up, he always had faith that I would get there in the end. I did, thanks to his support.’
‘When I came to Barchester from China, I had little idea of what was involved in research. Dr Other discussed many potential topics with me and showed me how to evaluate them until I came up with a good one. He helped me to design the study and then taught me how to work independently. At the end, he helped me to improve my writing and to prepare for my viva. His support was vital in helping me to gain my doctorate, and he has continued to collaborate with me after my return to Bejing’
I am pleased to say that I won the award. As a result of that, I was asked by my department to talk about my supervision at the research away day, and my talk went down well with both colleagues new to supervision and experienced ones, so much so that I have been asked to repeat it for the faculty and interest has been expressed by the Institute of Widgetology in a national workshop.
It has been a long journey from research student to novice supervisor to experienced supervisor to award winner, but an extremely worthwhile one; next to producing my own research, I find that supervising others to do the same is the most rewarding part of being an academic.