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How Are Doctoral Students Supervised? Concepts of Doctoral Research Supervision



Literature about doctoral supervision has concentrated on describing the ever lengthening lists of functions that must be carried out. This functional approach is necessary but there has been little exploration of a different paradigm, a conceptual approach towards research supervision. This paper, based on interviews with supervisors from a range of disciplines, aims to fill this a gap. The main concepts identified are: Functional: where the issue is one of project management; enculturation: where the student is encouraged to become a member of the disciplinary community; critical thinking: where the student is encouraged to question and analyse their work; emancipation: where the student is encouraged to question and develop themselves; and developing a quality relationship: where the student is enthused, inspired and cared for. Supervisors of doctoral students are also trying to reconcile the tensions between their professional role as an academic and their personal self as well as encouraging students to move a long a path towards increasing independence. The concepts are examined in the light of each of these tensions. Finally the research illuminates the power of the supervisor’s own experience as a student and the paper suggests that supervisors need to be aware of both the positive and negative aspects of each of these conceptual approaches.
As first submitted to Studies in Higher Education
Final version available in
Vol 33, No 3, June 2008, 267-281
How are doctoral students supervised? Concepts of doctoral
research supervision
Anne Lee
Centre for Learning Development
University of Surrey
Surrey GU2 7XH
United Kingdom
Literature about doctoral supervision has concentrated on describing the ever lengthening lists of
functions that must be carried out. This functional approach is necessary but there has been little
exploration of a different paradigm, a conceptual approach towards research supervision. This
paper, based on interviews with supervisors from a range of disciplines, aims to fill this a gap. The
main concepts identified are: Functional: where the issue is one of project management;
enculturation: where the student is encouraged to become a member of the disciplinary community;
critical thinking: where the student is encouraged to question and analyse their work; emancipation:
where the student is encouraged to question and develop themselves; and developing a quality
relationship: where the student is enthused, inspired and cared for. Supervisors of doctoral students
are also trying to reconcile the tensions between their professional role as an academic and their
personal self as well as encouraging students to move a long a path towards increasing
independence. The concepts are examined in the light of each of these tensions. Finally the
research illuminates the power of the supervisor’s own experience as a student and the paper
suggests that supervisors need to be aware of both the positive and negative aspects of each of these
conceptual approaches.
We know that the supervisor can make or break a PhD student. More specifically the
communication between the supervisor and student is key (Ives & Rowley 2005). This paper looks
at the influences on this partnership mostly from the supervisors’ perspective.
Much of the current literature concentrates on identifying the functions that the effective
supervisor needs to carry out, with occasional nods towards a parenting function. Whilst the
literature on learning and teaching has explored a conceptual approach in some depth (eg Entwistle
1997, Prosser and Trigwell 1999, Biggs 2003, Akerlind 2004) there has been little similar
exploration for supervision (Pearson & Kayrooz 2004). This report on a study of practices in an
UK research intensive university is intended to begin to fill this gap. It builds on the work of
conceptualising research which was begun by Brew (2001) and Pearson and Brew (2002). The
concepts that this paper proposes map on to their work and add a new dimension that of ‘developing
a relationship’. (Lee 2007).
This paper proposes that there are two key influences on the supervisors’ approach to
supervision: firstly their concept of research supervision and secondly their own experience as a
doctoral student. Understanding the implications of these conceptions could enable supervisors to
develop a wider range of approaches, maximise the advantages and minimise the disadvantages of
each category. The paper also proposes widening the range of methodologies used to examine this
issue. The aim of this article is to explore what influences a supervisor’s approach to their work
with doctoral students. It proposes a framework of supervision which can be used in both for the
development of individual supervisors and to create a language which those involved in co-
supervisory roles can use to negotiate and understand their respective roles. The framework has
been created through examining the literature on supervision through the filter of interviews with
supervisors (Lee 2007).
The framework is outlined below (Table 1).
Functional Enculturation Critical
thinking Emancipation Relationship
Activity Rational
through tasks
Gatekeeping Evaluation
Challenge Mentoring,
Supervising by
developing a
knowledge &
Diagnosis of
analysis Facilitation,
Reflection Emotional
Possible student
reaction Obedience
Organised Role modelling Constant
inquiry, fight
or flight
Personal growth,
reframing Emotional
Table 1: A framework for concepts of research supervision
As it is used here the terminology of an ‘academic concept’ implies a definition and
description of an approach, belief or experience about the nature of supervision which can then be
communicated but which is also drained of its contextual links (Entwistle 2007). This article begins
to define the salient elements of these concepts so that readers can discern the key features. It also
begins the exploration of the interconnections that create a firmer understanding of the over-arching
concept. The words ‘approach’ and ‘categories’ are used in this paper to refer to the pragmatic
level, the action informed by the concept.
Literature Review
There is much sensitive work written about how to supervise doctoral students (eg: Taylor and
Beasley 2005, Wisker 2005, Cryer 1997) which has identified (ever increasing) lists of tasks for the
supervisor to undertake and some suggestions for anticipating and handling problems. Whilst there
has been less qualitative research carried out on the topic there has been some sociological research
(Delamont et al 2002). This has identified the powerful impact of the supervisor’s previous
experience as a PhD student on how they supervise now.
How are doctoral students supervised? Concepts held by supervisors of doctoral research students.
An article prepared for the Journal of Studies in Higher Education. © Dr Anne Lee 2007
A phenomenological review of research provided a new discipline-neutral, framework for
understanding research which proposed that experienced supervisors have views of research as
either: a series of tasks (domino variation), a production orientation (trading variation), a series of
theories where the researcher is absent (layer variation) and an encounter where the researcher is
transformed (journey variation) (Brew 2001). Brew argued that she had uncovered ‘aspects of
research which are often hidden from view but which influence research at every level’
Meyer (2007) has looked at modelling postgraduate students’ conceptions of research as
another way of exploring variation and identified eight conceptually discrete dimensions of
variation. (Research as: information gathering; discovering the truth; insightful exploration and
discovery; analytical and systematic enquiry; incompleteness; the re-examination of existing
knowledge, identifying and solving problems; and a set of misconceptions.) This modelling
approach has not yet been applied to postgraduate supervision.
The anthropologist would combine interviews and observation data to try to close the gap
between espoused-theory and theory-in-use (Argyris & Schon 1974). In applying this approach to
research in schools Foster (1996) argues that this approach could bridge the gap that has developed
between qualitative and quantitative methodological approaches and rightly argues that there is a
need for a wide variety of methodological approaches to investigate educational phenomena.
Postgraduate supervision has essentially been a private act between consenting adults and pressure
to open this to observation will raise hackles as well as ethical issues, but it could provide us with
very helpful data.
This article reports on a research approach where the literature and the interviews have
iteratively informed the development of the concepts. The theoretical level of the work has been
informed by the reported practice of the interviewees and vice-versa. This inevitably leads to some
blurred boundaries between theory and practice, but I hope it also leads to a richer and more useful
analysis and description.
Further details on the method are given in the definitive version of this article published in Studies
in Higher Education. Detailed interviews with twelve supervisors from a range of disciplines in a
research intensive UK university were carried out. (This data later was compared with interviews
with two PhD students and a discussion group of PhD students for further illumination and to check
for face validity). The twelve supervisors ranged from those with over 20 years experience of
working with doctoral students to those who were still supervising their first students. There were
three female and nine male supervisors. Between them they had experience of supervising over 150
PhD students both full and part time. The students were studying a mixture of traditional PhDs and
professional doctorates.
A major finding was that the supervisors’ own experiences (when they themselves were
students) had significant impact on how they now supervise. This means that this study also
reflects a range of experiences from doctoral students at UK universities (including Oxford,
London, Cardiff, Birmingham and Warwick) over the last 20 years.
The supervisors were asked a range of questions about their experience of supervising PhD
students. These included asking them to describe what they actually did in their meetings, what
they expected students to do, what problems arose and how they were coped with, what their
objectives were and occupationally what their students have subsequently gone on to do. The
interviewees were then asked about their own experiences as a doctoral student. Finally the
interviewees were invited to comment on the proposed approaches (see Table 1) to see if they were
accepted for face validity and whether they could place themselves.
How are doctoral students supervised? Concepts held by supervisors of doctoral research students.
An article prepared for the Journal of Studies in Higher Education. © Dr Anne Lee 2007
These questions therefore concentrated on the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ of the experience of
supervision. The aim was to understand how supervision is experienced and perceived.
The method of analysis was inspired by phenomenography (Ackerlind 2007) but this is not a
phenomenographic piece of work. An iterative analysis of the interview transcripts was carried out.
A random first transcript was used to create an initial coding and these codes were then added to,
amplified and amended by all the subsequent transcripts. The approaches were then compared
again with the literature around each of these concepts.
Outcomes and discussion
Analysis of the transcripts illuminated, redefined and reorganised the concepts first proposed from
the literature search, it also identified a series of tensions which supervisors try to reconcile and to
which we will return.
Five main approaches to supervision were identified which all link to the potential conflict
between the academic and the personal self. These approaches are not independent of each other.
1. Functional: where the issue is one of project management
2. Enculturation: where the student is encouraged to become a member of the disciplinary
3. Critical thinking: where the student is encouraged to question and analyse their work
4. Emancipation: where the student is encouraged to question and develop themselves
5. Developing a quality relationship: where the student is enthused, inspired and cared for
Of the five main approaches that were identified, the functional approach is the one which sits most
closely with the professional role of the academic. Many of the books written about effective
supervision are instruction manuals. They are full of practical advice about interviewing, agreeing
the ground rules, introducing the student to new colleagues, project and time management, raising
ethical issues, transfer from M Phil to PhD, preparation for the viva etc. (Whisker 2005, Eley and
Jennings 2005, Taylor and Beasley 2005).
This is similar to the technical rational model which gives priority to issues of skills development
(Wisker et al 2003 p 92). The supervisor’s task becomes one of directing and project management.
Supervisors who were interviewed explained their functional responsibilities with clarity and often
“Day One I tell them: ‘you have three years’ They are given a schedule. We are geared up
for 3 years and know what can reasonably be achieved in 3 years rather than what is a
complete piece of work. We have become more focussed. People treat it like a 9-5 job. You
have to do something that someone is prepared to pay for.”
“I have a weekly timetabled formal slot for them and follow-up if they do not turn up”
“ The timeframe is: the first 3 months are more relaxed to search and do the literature
survey, by the end of the first 6 months the focus of the work is fixed, at the end of the first
year they will have completed their transfer report. We pressurize everyone to get them
How are doctoral students supervised? Concepts held by supervisors of doctoral research students.
An article prepared for the Journal of Studies in Higher Education. © Dr Anne Lee 2007
The requirement for students to be obedient was also evident here:
“In the 2nd year we see them monthly and they produce 5000 words before each meeting”
The functional approach could be extended to manage a group of PhD students,
“I organise regular pair or small group meetings with a supervisor where students present
and although no interviewee confessed to doing this themselves, a couple of them admitted that the
functional approach is a well worn path for numbers of students who were all carrying out pieces of
research which are part of a larger grand plan
“I know of places where there is a PhD factory”
This type of comment was made by three interviewees and is an approach often attributed to the
sciences. Only one of the interviewees in this case was a pure scientist. There are grounds for
believing that it applies to an approach which can span the disciplines.
In this perception achieving a PhD is about becoming a member of an academic discipline.
(Leonard 2001 p 98). The supervisor’s role in directing the student may become more apparent
here and there is an apprenticeship element included in this model.
Conceptualising research communities as communities of practice enables us to look at the social
dimensions of the research supervision model (Pearson and Brew 2002, Lave & Wenger 1991).
There are issues of acculturalisation into both the institution, the community of the discipline, the
country/civilisation and epistemological access.
The supervisor may see themselves as being like the family doctor. They will provide some
specific expertise but will also be a gatekeeper to many more learning resources, specialist opinions
and networks. The supervisor can choose which gates to open, particularly in the early stages of the
researcher’s life. Within this understanding therefore, there is also an understanding of the power
of the supervisor in its widest sense. Not only is the researcher ‘present’ (Brew 2001) in this model,
the supervisor is also ‘present’ as well.
There is another aspect of the power dynamic that arises from the supervisor being gatekeeper to the
qualification and the academic discipline: that of ownership (or even suppression) of the final result.
Original research can be dangerous in that it can undermine previously dearly held beliefs and
careers. The struggle can be political on several levels. The student needs to be aware of how
powerful (or not) their supervisor is in the institution. In the case of international students the
supervisor is also gatekeeper to an even bigger issue: the cultural context in which the degree is
being taken (Wisker 2005 p 202). There are opportunities for power games and argument about
who ‘owns’ the research and subsequent conference presentations and publications.
The student begins by being offered ‘legitimate peripheral participation’
How are doctoral students supervised? Concepts held by supervisors of doctoral research students.
An article prepared for the Journal of Studies in Higher Education. © Dr Anne Lee 2007
“I believe they need to get in the lab straight away, they learn more by doing practical work
and then they will appreciate the literature. Initially I will suggest tasks and introduce them
to the technical staff and lay out what I want done to get them started.”
“I give my book to all my students”
“Students need to know what ‘good enough’ looks like.”
“I get them to do conference presentations and write proceedings, I go with them if they are
presenting for the first time.”
The supervisor aims to move to a point of independence, the objective is a ‘mutual engagement,
joint enterprise and a shared repertoire’ (Cousin and Deepwell p 59):
“I ask are they safe to be let loose on the community because technically those with a PhD
are in charge of their own research?”
“I would feel I had failed if they did not stay in the field….my students all know their
The failure to move to independence causes anxiety:
“The students you worry about are those who still turn to you in the viva looking for
confirmation that they are OK”
Critical thinking
Traditionally this is the heart of the PhD supervision. Brown and Freeman (2000 p 301) offer the
following definition: ‘critical thinking comes in many forms, but all possess a single core feature.
They presume that human arguments require evaluation if they are to be worthy of widespread
respect. Hence critical thinking focuses on a set of skills and attitudes that enable a listener or
reader to apply rational criteria to the reasoning of speakers and writers.’
Stevenson and Brand (2006) point out that critical thinking is largely a western, secularist
intellectual tradition, and we need to be sensitive to this when applying it in different cultures or to
some disciplines.
In practice this approach addresses such questions as what is the underlying conceptual framework,
what are the arguments for and against, what has been considered and what has been left out.
Wisker (2005) argues that practicing using the metalanguage of viva defence is a very useful
supervisory skill because it ensures that the student addresses gaps in knowledge, boundaries, and
Critical thinking implies a ‘researcher absent’ process (Brew 2001, Pearson and Brew 2002) and is
only part of the model suggested by Barnett (1997) of ‘critical being’. One version of this process
has been called ‘Gentle Socratic Inquiry’ (Jackson 2001). The ‘gentle’ is inserted to counteract the
image of Socratic inquiry where the consummate lawyer cleverly manipulates his adversary into a
How are doctoral students supervised? Concepts held by supervisors of doctoral research students.
An article prepared for the Journal of Studies in Higher Education. © Dr Anne Lee 2007
position of ‘got you’. Whilst the common perception of the Socratic method is a methodical
questioning and cross-examining, peeling away layers of half-truths, exposing hidden assumptions,
the gentler Socratic method proposed by Jackson assumes a position of co-operative inquiry and
accepts that there is no right answer.
This type of critical thinking model typically works through three stages:
finding connections
uncovering conceptions/the shape of an answer
Some writers support constructive controversy above gentleness. Johnson and Johnson (2001)
argue that more than 40 studies indicate that constructive inquiry produces higher achievement and
retention than concurrence seeking debate.
The early stages of encouraging critical thinking were evident amongst the interviewees:
“They need to explain to me: ‘why, what and how’
“I ask them to email me a question about their project every week”
“I use ‘magic’ words to help them identify the thread in their argument eg arguably,
conversely, unanimously, essentially, early on, inevitably etc
“I think my student is more geared up towards reporting than thinking. I told her to shift
into second gear. Her thinking is there but it does not come out in her writing. I am going
to inspire her to be brave and give her some tips on how to present her data and make her
voice more distinctive. I am going to encourage her to use fill in words such as ‘conversely’
to synthesise and structure thoughts”
The movement towards independence is evident once again in this category
“I avoid dependency by getting them to think about some problems and giving them
“I want them to stand on their own feet and challenge the thinking”
“My tutor was not confrontational, she encouraged me to be critical of my own ideas”
“Most students do make the leap from dogmatic to provisional thinking”
“At the end of the process I want the student to have the maturity to know when a good idea
is worth following or not”
Pearson & Kayrooz (2004) argue that research supervision is a facilitative process requiring support
and challenge. It involves providing educational tasks and activities which include: progressing the
candidature, mentoring, coaching the research project and sponsoring student participation in
academic practice. This is similar to the journey conception identified by Brew (2001).
How are doctoral students supervised? Concepts held by supervisors of doctoral research students.
An article prepared for the Journal of Studies in Higher Education. © Dr Anne Lee 2007
“I want to know what their connection is with the research why are they asking this
question? For student x it was not external research, it was quite existential.”
A defining question which can mark the line between the facilitation and enculturation model is:
“how much responsibility should the student or the supervisor take for arriving at the destination?”
Mentoring is a powerful concept in this arena (Pearson and Brew 2002).
There is much literature on mentoring in general and facilitation skills in particular (Lee 2006). The
mentor is usually seen as a non-judgemental adviser. Mentoring builds upon Rogers’ belief that self
experience and self-discovery are important facets of learning (Morton-Cooper and Palmer 2000).
Acknowledging the dependency stage, supervisors would say
“I try to get them to admit and confront their problems”
“I act as a bridge between the knowledge and the student and eventually they don’t need
Again there is acknowledgement that this is only a beginning.
“I am always waiting for that epiphany moment when they say ‘no I don’t agree’.”
“You get a lot of satisfaction, you have facilitated that growth in them”
The lack of need for control is what makes this category differ from enculturation
“At the start you know a little bit more than them, but not much. Your job as a supervisor is
to get them to the stage of knowing more than you”
“I want it to have changed how they see the world”
“Very few of my students are doing it for an academic career, they want the intellectual
rewards. I want my students to have had adequate challenge and support to get that”
The doctoral supervisor can be a mentor in two ways in this situation, responsible both for doctoral
students and for overseeing probationary staff acting as a co-supervisor (Code of Practice for
Research Degrees 2000).
Relationship development
Wisker et al (2003) argue that emotional intelligence and flexibility play a large part in working
with students through to successful completion. There is some evidence that poor emotional
intelligence, a mismatch in styles (such as when the student is still dependent but the supervision
style is one of ‘benign neglect’) leads unsurprisingly to poor completion rates (Stanley and Beasley
2005 p 69).
The need for a positive relationship was demonstrated again by Ives and Rowley (2005) in their
interviews of supervisor/student dyads and in particular in their examination of relationships where
there was dissatisfaction. They found that interruptions in the relationship caused students
problems. In their work a good relationship did not necessarily imply friendship at the beginning,
indeed they suggest that friendship can get in the way of a good supervisory relationship because it
How are doctoral students supervised? Concepts held by supervisors of doctoral research students.
An article prepared for the Journal of Studies in Higher Education. © Dr Anne Lee 2007
might blunt the ability to be critical. “The power dynamic between supervisor and student makes
friendship difficult” (p536). The interviewees in this piece of research identified additional difficult
aspects of the friendship issue.
The more dependent side of this relationship rests on the supervisor taking the initiative. It includes
a desire to enthuse, encourage, recognise achievement and offer pastoral support:
“Research supervision is a very personal thing. It is about relationships. If they don’t have
the motivation you need to fire the imagination, it is different for different students”
I wanted to call my supervisor the moment I solved the tough maths”
the more pastoral support of the supervisors was really important. I remember being
surprised at how helpful they were. This was as important in helping me to get through as
any intellectual support”
Friendship at an early stage might cause difficulties, but after several years of close contact some
supervisors found it became inescapable. There is also a pain associated with the relationship
“We ended up being good friends, she (my supervisor) was only seven years older than me”
“My supervisors are lifelong friends. I am still angry with the student who passed and
dropped off the end of the earth after five years working together”
“I wish supervising was more like the critical thinking model – less concerned with the
welfare of the student – because when they stab you in the back it would hurt less. I want to
make sure they have a good time.”
The independent end of the relationship model was characterised by altruism.
“I really think my relationship with my supervisor opened my eyes. It was the character of
my supervisor, it went beyond mere mentoring. He was considered unconventional, a
maverick…..My supervisor helped me with my writing but never pressed me to publish”
Within this approach there are also issues relating to gender, caring and sexuality. It was interesting
to observe the warmth with which one supervisor hugged his PhD student on her return from
holiday, but the communication was unspoken. Delamont et al (2000) refer to the problems that can
arise when sexual relationships are entered into and suggest that the academic should follow the
rules suggested by the medical profession in these cases. Two quotations illustrating the gender
and caring issues are below.
“Women tend to listen more and look at body language, rather than just listen to what is
actually being said. ‘Everything is fine’. Women are better at caring, for example we will
go through the data and then ask ‘what’s the real problem?’.”
“It is important that students feel cared for. One of my students father died in their first
year. My experience is that there are some students who have a series of problems. When
this student arrived he first was so ill he could not attend the induction, then his father died,
How are doctoral students supervised? Concepts held by supervisors of doctoral research students.
An article prepared for the Journal of Studies in Higher Education. © Dr Anne Lee 2007
then his wife went into hospital, then his wife got pregnant and depressed……..children will
demand attention…….it all happened to one person, it was traumatic for me too.”
The relationship between student and supervisor has many facets, opportunities and problems. It is
an arena where training can raise awareness, enable the creation of professional boundaries and
prevent problems arising.
The tensions that PhD supervisors reported
Supervisors report a variety of tensions which they were trying to reconcile. These have been laid
out along two dichotomies:
Professional Role……………..Personal self
Dependence …………….. Independence.
The tension between professional role and personal self were characterised by the professional
requirement for completion versus a personal desire for quality. There was the institutional
requirement to be a service provider to increasing numbers of doctoral students versus the desire to
provide a truly individual educational opportunity. There is a disciplinary requirement to adhere to
the standards required and a personal desire to ensure that the student is successful and there is
sometimes a tension between the academic member of staff’s own career advancement and that of
the student.
The tensions between dependence and independence have been illustrated in each of the conceptual
approaches above and are summarised in the table below:
Functional Enculturation Critical
thinking Emancipation Relationship
DEPENDENCE Student needs
explanation of
stages to be
followed and
through them
Student needs to
be shown what to
Student learns
the questions
to ask, the
frameworks to
Student seeks
affirmation of self-
Student seeks
own work,
follow own
Student can follow
Student can
critique own
autonomous. Can
decide how to be,
where to go, what
to do, where to find
reciprocity and
has power to
Table 2: Concepts of supervision compared with dependence and independence
The impact of supervisor’s own experiences when they were a PhD student
When the interviewees were asked about their own experiences as a PhD student there was a
noticeable change in behaviour. All became more expansive and the approaches they described are
marked by the shaded area in Table 4. Some relaxed and described intensely positive relationships,
some described deeply unhappy experiences (marked inn Table 4 with an ‘O’). This supports the
How are doctoral students supervised? Concepts held by supervisors of doctoral research students.
An article prepared for the Journal of Studies in Higher Education. © Dr Anne Lee 2007
findings of Delamont et al where their interviewees talked about the strong influence of their days
as a PhD student on their own supervision (Delamont et al., 2000 Ch 8).
Frequently an interviewee in this study described a way that their experience had informed
their current practice. Supervisors would seek to emulate, add to or avoid their own experience.
Some of the examples are in Table 3:
Supervisor’s own experience as a PhD student Current practice as a supervisor
My own PhD was a very lonely experience lab meetings
it became very evident, he (my supervisor) would show
enthusiasm about everyone else’s project and not mine
.. the second advantage of groups is that everyone knows
what is going on….when we have groups I make sure
that everyone is included
The door was always open. He would talk about anything
for hours. When I wrote nonsense he asked me to resolve it
rather than do it for me.
I ask ‘is this consistent with this’ and leave it as a
question for the student to resolve. I will point out
internal inconsistency
I was happy with my supervision but it was not
conventional ... my supervisor encouraged me to read
widely, to think critically and find examples in newspapers.
I did not have to produce a chapter a meeting ...everything
I wrote was scrutinised, there were 20 comments on every
paragraph or page
I am led by the example of my supervisor, but I would
worry if someone did not produce something (in writing)
for 2 ½ years. I have seen the advantage of structure
and giving deadlines. This supervisor also showed me
the extensive detailed written feedback he gives to his
I would give (my supervisor) drafts of my chapters,
sometimes I would just have a moan. I would like to ask my student ‘is there anything I can do
to make it easier for you’?
When I joined my supervisor gave me a book he had just
written I do the same for my students
I was enthused by my supervisor My students all know their academic grandfather
My supervisor was very dedicated to the subject. It was
hard to talk about anything but the subject. At the end of the day the student’s intellectual
development is the most important thing.
I still bear the scars, there was very little supervision or
interaction. No mentoring. I had a disengaged supervisor
who was unable to understand what my project was about.
I try to get my students to initiate, I tell them ‘if I don’t
see you I am going to fill my time up, I am going to
forget about you, so I want you to ask me one question
that will tie me back into the project once a week.
Table 3: Quotations illustrating a comparison of academics experiences as students and as
The impact of that formative experience was felt particularly strongly in one or two approaches, not
across the board. (This is shown by the shaded cells in Table 4 below). However, supervisors
reported expertise and practice in more approaches than this.
It would take a wider research approach to begin to untangle these layers in this situation, but when
interviewees were shown the list of approaches at the end of the interviews many of them identified
themselves quickly as falling into two of the categories (not necessarily the wider span of categories
which they had described earlier in the interviews). Most of the interviewees said that they
operated in the functional approach plus one other.
The distribution of experience across categories
How experience was distributed across the four main categories (as reported by interviewees) is
shown below. (Table 4) Where strong and easily identifiable statements were made about practices
relating to particular categories, the column is marked with an x. The shaded areas refer to
comments relating to their own experience as a student. O denotes a negative experience as a
How are doctoral students supervised? Concepts held by supervisors of doctoral research students.
An article prepared for the Journal of Studies in Higher Education. © Dr Anne Lee 2007
Current students also reported a feeling of being supervised predominantly through one or
two approaches. This suggests that there may be a theory in use and an espoused theory Argyris
and Schon (1974). Whilst supervisors may be able to demonstrate a range of approaches, they may
also have a dominant or default position which is most powerfully experienced by their students.
In these cases, memories of a bad relationship seem to overshadow any experience of
supervision in other categories. This small sample cannot be used to justify any disciplinary
differences or similarities.
Function Enculturation Critical thinking Emancipation Relationship
Engineering XX XX X X
Engineering X X X X
Science XXX X X X
Science XXX XXX O
Technology XX XX
Computing X X X XX
Sociology XX XX
Psychology XX XX X
Economics XX X
Philosophy X XX X O
Management studies X X XX X
Management studies X XX XX
x Statement of approach clearly attributable to this category
O Negative experience as a student
x Positive experience of category as a student
Table 4: Distribution of statements relating to concepts
The impact of these approaches on existing students is worth further research, for example, does an
enculturation approach encourage students to stay within the discipline and seek work within
Additional interviews and discussions with groups of PhD students suggested that the five
concepts have a face validity with students as well as with supervisors. Further research is needed
on this and the proposition that: whilst a supervisor might exemplify a range of conceptual
approaches, the student experiences one or two predominant approaches.
How are doctoral students supervised? Concepts held by supervisors of doctoral research students.
An article prepared for the Journal of Studies in Higher Education. © Dr Anne Lee 2007
A range of methodological approaches is necessary to close the gap between the levels of
awareness and action which may be hidden by just interviewing supervisors. Both observation and
interviews will only give partial information and both are interpreted through the filter of the
researcher/observer. The interviews could not differentiate between the following:
1. What I say I do (espoused theory)
2. What I think I do
3. What I do in practice (theory in use)
I would like to propose that the concepts be further explored in terms of their advantages and
disadvantages for students and supervisors. An initial analysis suggests the issues raised in Table 5.
Functional Enculturation Critical
thinking Emancipation Relationship
Progress can
be monitored
inquiry, fallacy
Personal growth,
ability to cope
with change
Enhanced self
with the
creation of
Low tolerance of
internal difference,
sexist, ethnicised
regulation (Cousin
& Deepwell 2005)
Denial of
creativity, can
belittle or
Toxic mentoring
(Darling 1985)
where tutor
abuses power
Potential for
or rejection
Table 5: Advantages and disadvantages of different conceptual approaches to doctoral
The strong implication of this article is that supervisors who are aware of the strengths and
weaknesses of all of these approaches to supervision will be better placed to develop their skills and
enjoy the undoubted rewards brought by working with PhD students.
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How are doctoral students supervised? Concepts held by supervisors of doctoral research students.
An article prepared for the Journal of Studies in Higher Education. © Dr Anne Lee 2007
... The primary goal of this research was to explore how ChatGPT affects the dynamics of the research supervision process and the role of supervisors and supervisees. Based on the theoretical framework of research supervision proposed by Lee (2008), we examined five aspects of the supervision -functional, enculturation, critical thinking, emancipation and relationship development. We conducted in-depth interviews with postgraduate students majoring in a variety of disciplines to elicit their perspectives of and experiences with ChatGPT. ...
... In regard to the five aspects, supervisors and students are engaged in frequent communication to enact the supervisory process (Lee, 2008). However, research supervision is often full of tensions, as it demands a considerable amount of time and attention to effectively guide students through their academic pursuits (Halse & Malfroy, 2010). ...
... The interview comprised two major components: students' use of ChatGPT in their research projects and the impact of ChatGPT on the research supervisory process. Informed by Lee's (2008) framework, an initial list of interview questions was developed, but the framework was not strictly adhered to. Example questions included "On what research tasks do you use ChatGPT?", "Did your use of ChatGPT change your project progress, if yes, how does it happen?", ...
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As artificial intelligence (AI) continues to evolve, its impact on academic environments, especially in postgraduate research supervision, becomes increasingly significant. This study explored the impact of ChatGPT, an advanced AI conversational model, on five dimensions of research supervision: functional, enculturation, critical thinking, emancipation and relationship development. Using a qualitative approach, we examined the practices and perspectives of 20 postgraduate research students with at least 4 months' experience of using ChatGPT in research activities in Australia. The study revealed several areas of impact, including accelerated research progress, enhanced research quality, improved scholarly development and professional skills, enhanced critical thinking, increased student confidence and autonomy and a deeper supervisory relationship. The findings suggest a shift in the roles and responsibilities of supervisors and students: the former provides strategic direction and high-level guidance, while the latter transits from apprentices to autonomous researchers due to the independence fostered by ChatGPT. This shift suggests an evolving model of postgraduate research supervision, with educational technology acting as epistemic tools to enhance the supervisory process. The study also considers the ethical implications of AI-enabled support. Implications for practice or policy: • Postgraduate students can be facilitated by ChatGPT in self-directed research for enhanced independence and autonomy. • Supervisors can deploy supervisory meetings for high-level guidance and personalized feedback in an AI-enhanced supervision model. • Postgraduate programmes can leverage generative AI tools for an AI-enhanced research supervision model. • Universities need to develop AI literacy curricula and protocols to guide students towards responsible use of generative AI tools while addressing potential challenges.
... Supervising students sceptically requires that we acknowledge humanity within the Other (in this case our students) and our own responsibility to the Other in our role as supervisors, being willing to care about their ideas with an openness to critique these ideas in the spirit of academic scepticism. Indeed, Waghid's Southern African view of humanising supervision also links to Ann Lee's (2008) framework, especially when supervision is seen beyond being functional by incorporating elements of enculturation, critical thinking, and especially emancipation and relationship development. We would suggest that thinking about supervision dangerously-so we can advance struggles to overturn aspects of the status quo that are not as they ought to be-necessarily embraces this humanising and emancipating quality, a counter to tendencies where students are reduced to producers of products to be counted, and where attempts to secure equitable practices have become forces of standardisation and control. ...
... One agitating claim might be that trends in the regulation of supervision, supervisors, students, theses, and knowledge have dehumanised supervision. Lee (2008) writes about the inherent tension in supervision between the supervisor's professional role as academic and the personal self, which Rouse's nuanced entanglement of supervisory practices also highlights. Firth and Martens (2008) argue that successful supervision requires a supervisor's recovery of a fully integrated self, reversing the dehumanising that results from fragmentation of human beings' essential unity (see also Manathunga, 2009). ...
... Rouse notes the apparent completeness of the grid, but a lack of clarity how to move from the four-part taxonomy to the realities of doctoral advising as experienced in practice. This is an important point, given that such tools are far from isolated (for more such examples, see Bitzer & Albertyn, 2011;Crossouard, 2008;Deuchar, 2008;Halse & Malfroy, 2010;Lee, 2008Lee, , 2010Parker-Jenkins, 2018). ...
Viewing research supervision as praxis offers alternative perspectives on this crucial aspect of academic work. In this paper, we consider the contributions in this Special Issue as counterpoints to dominant discourses on research supervision by drawing on the idea of praxis as morally committed and history-making action. This brings insights from Swedish research into dialogue with literature from across the world, particularly the Global South. We thematize these contributions by highlighting issues of complexity; considering how history, future and positionality shape supervision praxis; challenging narrow production-oriented discourses in favour of creativity as a foundation for supervision as praxis; and reflecting on how a shift from precarity to nuance may enable us to view supervision as praxis as enablement towards a better future. Our consideration of research supervision as praxis necessitates a stance that does not conform to the status quo, thus provoking further debate and action to think, and supervise, in non-routine, future-changing ways. As supervisors, we do not need to be resigned to futures where neoliberal regimes of surveillance, measurement and accountability shape our practices as strongly as they do today. We argue that there is a need to speak back to supervision as praxis in dangerous ways.
... The culture of supervision has developed from individual to joint supervision, highlighting the benefits of additional supervisors with respect to serving a PhD candidate's academic needs (Lahenius & Ikävalko, 2012). PhD supervision now entails a focus on academic support, enculturation into academia, as well as ensuring a trustworthy interpersonal relationship between supervisor and PhD candidate (Lee, 2008). These interactions between mentor and mentee are supposed to develop skills needed for research. ...
... In an open-and closed-ended online questionnaire, PhD course participants of a series of eight PhD courses in sport and exercise psychology in Copenhagen and Leipzig retrospectively evaluated their participation as a valuable educational possibility to develop during their PhD that is also in line with current approaches to PhD candidate education (e. g., Lathenius & Ikävalko, 2012;Lee, 2008;Mowbray & Halse, 2010). The participation in such a PhD course can support disciplinary, intellectual, methodological, personal, and social skill development during an average of 4.5 years as a PhD candidate. ...
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PhD courses aim to improve PhD candidates’ research skills and, by that, to support their development process during their PhD studies. To investigate this objective, former PhD candidates ( N = 88, 51 % female, response rate 49 %), who participated in international PhD-courses in Sport and Exercise Psychology, were asked to complete an online survey to evaluate course elements of international PhD-courses hosted at Copenhagen and Leipzig University between 2009 and 2018. Networking opportunities, intercultural skill development, communicating in English, and acquisition of knowledge about Sport and Exercise Psychology-specific topics are reported as the most valuable aspects of international PhD-courses. Additionally, participants evaluated PhD-project presentations, workshops focusing on academic skills (e. g., publishing) and opportunities for social interaction as most profitable. Independent of participants’ PhD-phase, the majority of students reported sustainable benefits from their participation (e. g., co-publications). Academic funding (e. g., scholarships) seems to be an important factor for course participation. Recommendations for the implementation of international PhD-courses in Sport and Exercise Psychology include creating networking opportunities, offering workshops on academic skills, allowing time for informal interactions, and focusing on inclusion of PhD candidates from across the globe.
... This increase in returning student numbers has brought with it raised expectations from learners about the kind of student experience they might have upon reconnecting with Higher Education in doctoral studies. This has generated ongoing research into student satisfaction [12], differentiated learning [13] and learning contracts [14] and especially in managing expectations around doctoral learning [15][16][17][18]. This educational research has informed doctoral training for academic colleagues becoming involved in supervision [19][20][21], as well as for students at the start of their programmes at induction [22,23]. ...
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The management of expectations in doctoral education relates to the negotiation and agreement of a learning contract denoting actions and initiatives between a student and a supervisor. A learning contract is a set of understandings of what things, actions and initiatives might reasonably be expected from whom, in the course of learning, where there is a natural power imbalance. This is important so that both scholarly and material progress can be made along all points of the doctoral learning experience, i.e., that learning is personalised, professional and productive towards an original contribution of knowledge. It is the evidencing of this continual learning process through research that is deemed to be doctoral at the final examination stage. A doctoral student is a learner on the highest degree pathway that is available at all UK universities. This typically results in a thesis, marking the end point of being supervised whereupon an assessment or examination takes place, which, in UK universities, is called a viva voce (Latin: the living voice). This is a verbal account or defence of the thesis document by the student, made to two or three examiners who comprise the examination team. In the UK, the viva examination is a private event, while elsewhere, for example, across Europe and North America, the examination can be a public event. A student on a doctoral programme usually has a period of registration that is 3 years full-time or 6 years part-time. Other terms that can be used interchangeably around doctoral supervision are candidate (for the student) and candidature, which is their period of registration. Supervisors also have roles denoted as the Director of Studies (DoS) or Principal Investigator (PI). The supervision team is led by a Director of Studies (or PI) who is often the most experienced scholar who teaches, guides and mentors their student’s learning through the research they conduct. There are usually at least two supervisors in a supervision team in the UK, but there can be more as required depending upon the specialisms and topics being researched. Expectations formed by either the student or the supervisor(s) can be about physical resources to embark upon a passage of learning through a doctoral programme, or more typically, the discussion of expectations relates to managing the behaviours of students and supervisors in their respective roles. Managed expectations help to achieve a balance between the intellectual sharing of expertise by the supervisor with the self-directed initiatives for learning, which are taken by the student. The aim of managing expectations is to help a student move from dependence in their learning at the start of their programme to becoming an independent doctoral-level scholar who, once graduated as doctor, can act autonomously to conduct their own research, or even embark upon supervising others’ research in the future.
... In addition, there are many guides for students (amongst a plethora of related topics) about how to go about research, what it means to undertake a research project the size of a doctorate; coping, resilience and well-being techniques; and practical project management strategies (e.g., Denholm & Evans, 2006;Denicolo et al., 2018;Thomson & Walker, 2010). For supervisors, there is a similar range of topics and advice, the majority focusing on the interrelationships among supervision, research, projects, students and institutions and about connections between the supervision research context and the broader context of academia, and practice (e.g., Åkerlind & McAlpine, 2017;Bitchener et al., 2011;Denicolo et al., 2019;Hutchings, 2017;Kiley & Mullins, 2005;Lee, 2008;Salinas-Perez et al., 2019). ...
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This paper presents an early exploration of the utility of a theoretical model of internal and external factors that influence and determine relationships between doctoral researchers and information and communication technologies (ICTs). We discuss feedback gathered from three iterations of a voluntary, online, open programme called 23 Things International to illustrate how the components of the model emerge through participants’ reported experiences of the programme; a key is understanding how context-dependent uptake of specific ICTs can be closely connected to whether participants can relate materials directly to their own situation. Although further investigation of the model is warranted, there are indications that it will be useful for guiding not only improvements to future iterations of 23 Things International, but also for designing, developing and implementing learning environments that meet the needs of participants from a variety of (doctoral research) settings. It will also help those responsible for providing such support to understand the varied responses doctoral researchers may have to professional development programmes and support. Implications for practice or policy The model provides insights into factors that influence and determine learner response to incorporating ICTs within doctoral research processes. Examples and discussion of learner responses to doctoral research ICT-focused professional development programmes are useful to course designers. Course design should enable learners to translate ideas into meaningful thinking and practice within their own research contexts. Improvement to the model's applicability requires systematic analysis of its components using a relevant test base (i.e., 23 Things International).
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The demand for more doctoral education puts pressure on universities to increase the number of academics with doctoral degrees who can supervise the next generation of researchers. The Higher Education Qualifications Sub-Framework (HEQSF, 2013) indicates that being able to supervise is one of the outcomes of attaining a doctorate. Still, this study found this to be rarely the case. The study participants often took on the supervision role before they felt that their capacity had been sufficiently developed. Although emerging supervisors have been supervised during their doctoral journey, their new role may still be daunting. This study aims to provide evidence for institutions and academic developers to develop and support emerging supervisors. The qualitative study employs critical realism as an underlabourer and uses Margaret Archer's (1995) social realist framework to account for the interplay between structure, culture, and agency. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 54 participants from 20 South African institutions. The key finding is that supervisors were thrown into the deep end and relied on trial and error. They also had to supervise from experience while faced with high teaching workloads.
Doctoral creativity remains an oft-hidden component of doctoral work and the supervision thereof. Yet, it is a key underlying process for making an original contribution that is generally expected of doctoral work across disciplines and national systems. Supervisors play a key role in unlocking and stimulating their doctoral students’ creativity, and need to employ creative measures in their pedagogical strategies in order to do so. However, creative supervising and supervising for creativity remain part of the Hidden Curriculum in the development of doctoral researcher independence. This mini-chapter will set out to conceptualise what creativity means in the context of doctoral supervision and highlight the difference between creative supervising and supervising for creativity as different pedagogical strategies. In doing so, the contribution lies in uncovering creativity as a hidden element of the doctoral curriculum and helping supervisors harness the potential of unlocking their own and their students’ creativity.
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This article presents findings from a national study on doctoral education undertaken at a time of new government policies on funding of higher education and doctoral research in particular. The article discusses the overall policy developments in Australia and then examines the impact of policy on practice in doctoral education. Particular focus is given to changes in the nature of the research topic, supervision practices and student selection. The findings presented highlight the swift and very powerful effect that government policy can have on core processes of academic work and the student research experience, as well as the differential impact of government policy across disciplines and institutional contexts. The article argues that the introduction of a performance-based funding model for research students is altering supervision practices, as well as the scale and management of research topics. The article also argues that the reduction of academic staff numbers in research-intensive universities in the humanities is weakening existing research concentrations, and that in the sciences and engineering a strong risk minimisation approach to research topic and student selection is emerging.
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Abstract This article introduces a paper symposium describing research using the approach called phenomenography. It traces the origins of the approach in the earlier research into approaches to learning and the outcome space seen in students’ different levels of understanding. Phenomenography is designed to explore the outcome spaces created by students’ different conceptions of academic concepts or broader aspects of students’ experiences at university. It uses a specific technique of individual interviewing that encourages students to explore their understanding to whatever depth they can manage, while the analysis seeks out the main similarities and differences across the whole range of responses from students to identify the categories of description that enable the main differences to be described. Typically between four and seven categories are found and the final stage of the analysis seeks to identify the relationships between the categories, often finding them to be a nested hierarchy in which each higher category contains, but goes beyond, the lower ones. The approach has been widely used in research into student learning (Marton,1981; Marton & Booth, 1997) References Marton, F. (1981). Phenomenography – describing conceptions of the world around us. Instructional Science, 10, 177-200. Marton, F., & Booth, S. (1997). Learning and awareness. Mahwah, N. J.: Lawrence Erlbaum.
A defining concept for higher education has been that of critical thinking but it is (a) being lost from view, (b) characteristically impoverished even where it is to be glimpsed, and (c) in any case inadequate for the challenges of the twenty-first century. 'Higher Education: A Critical Business' interrogates the idea of critical thinking and offers a new way of conceptualising it, broadening it out to incorporate 'critical action' and 'critical being' in advancing a new idea of 'criticality'. (It is believed that this was the first book in which the term - 'criticality' - first appeared as a concept central to higher education - and this book has come to be one of the most significant texts in the philosophy of higher education, influencing professional fields as well as higher education itself.)
Critical thinking comes in many forms, but all possess a single core feature. They presume that human arguments require evaluation if they are to be worthy of widespread respect. Hence, critical thinking focuses on a set of skills and attitudes that enable a listener or reader to apply rational criteria to the reasoning of speakers and writer. Those classrooms that encourage critical thinking possess distinguishing features that assist programme evaluators and teachers themselves to assess whether critical thinking is a regular occurrence in a particular classroom. This article suggests that a critical thinking classroom commonly reects the following attributes: frequent questions, developmental tension, fascination with the contingency of conclusions and active learning. These attributes reinforce one another to provide developmental stimuli for enhanced critical thinking.
This article reports on an investigation into the variation in how research is experienced by established senior researchers. It provides a new, discipline-neutral, non-technical framework for interpreting how academics are responding to the challenges of the changing context of higher education. The study identié ed four qualitatively different ways in which research is understood. These are differentiated according to whether they have an external product orientation or an internal process orientation; and whether the researchers themselves are in the forefront of their awareness or whether they appear to be incidental to their awareness. In the context of concern about the nature and role of research in the economy and about how it should be funded, and at a time when knowledge is said to be in crisis, the article suggests that the framework can contribute to rational analysis and decision-making.
This paper describes the development of an instrument—The Reflective Supervisor Questionnaire (RSQ). The RSQ maps the domain of research supervisory practice as a facilitative process involving educational tasks and activities. It is designed to assist research supervisors explore, by means of self‐reflection and reflection on feedback from others, how they practise supervision. In developing the RSQ 58 items were generated describing 5 hypothesised constructs derived from prior research. The resulting instrument was tested on postgraduate research students in 2 institutions. The questionnaire correlated highly with an established questionnaire supervision scale and with an overall satisfaction measure. Four factors identified in an exploratory analysis closely approximated the hypothesised constructs and extended the theoretical framework being developed. These 4 factors identified 4 subsets of facilitative supervisory practice: Progressing the Candidature, Mentoring, Coaching the Research Project, and Sponsoring Student Participation in Academic/Professional Practice. Issues in the interpretation of the findings and the possible usage in academic development programs of an instrument based on them are discussed.