Formal and informal ‘supervision’

I have put supervision in the title of this post in scare-quotes with deliberate caution. I am not implying that supervision during a PhD is not something to be taken seriously, or a questionable part of the process; rather I am signalling that we receive different kinds of help from a range of people during our PhD that I think could count as a kind of supervision – the informal part of the title, and the focus of this post.

Perhaps a good place to start would be to define my own understanding as well as other understandings of research supervision in order to create a reasonable working definition. David Delany, in a very interesting literature review on research supervision, cites many different understandings of how supervision can be understood or defined. Two key themes emerge, though: one is that the field of research supervision is a contested and much-debated discourse; the other is that supervision is definitely about pedagogy, with some writers defining it as a very sophisticated form of teaching, and an excellent space in which to bring teaching or pedagogy and research together. To be sure, research supervision is about building a new generation of young researchers who will push boundaries in their fields and do hopefully excellent research during but most especially beyond their PhDs. But how does a PhD student learn how to be an excellent researcher? And who should/could they be learning from?

Supervision can happen in a range of ways: through written and verbal feedback; through supervisors writing papers with their students; through providing students with illustrative examples of exemplary researchers’ work; through supervisors assisting students to develop conference or seminar presentations at various points of the PhD, showing their students ways in which to talk about their work; through supervisors being tacit examples of ethical and critical research behaviour…. Without going into all the ways in which supervision can work well or not, let’s focus on this working definition, then: research supervision brings together research, teaching and learning through a pedagogic relationship between a student and one or more experienced researchers/teachers who can learn from one another, and where opportunities are created for conversation, guidance,  and growth in especially the student’s capacity for research, writing, thinking and being in their field. I think this probably needs some tweaking, but if we accept that this is a decent-enough way of characterising what supervision could and should be during a PhD, we can see that there are others, apart from our formal and assigned university supervisors, who can offer us forms of informal supervision. My point here is that as PhD students we can draw on a range of these kinds of people and resources, and should, in order to help us progress more successfully and less alone-ly through our studies.

I, for example, was fortunate enough to be part of a research group, and spoke about my research to colleagues abroad and in my PhD programme locally. They were asking similar kinds of questions and using similar conceptual tools, so they were able to be critical friends, and offered me some very helpful advice, pointers and suggestions for ways in which I could think or write differently about parts of my thesis. I spent a lot of time to and from work in the car (about 40 minutes each way) talking to my husband, also an academic, about what I was thinking and writing about, and although he is in a different field entirely, he was able to listen, distill, summarise and feed back to me what I was saying in ways that helped me clarify or further develop and question my thinking. I also chatted a lot to a close friend on Skype during my PhD (also a PhD scholar) who offered both intellectual and emotional support (and eventually proofread my thesis). I read blogs like Patter and The Thesis Whisperer and got a lot of very helpful advice and support from these, especially from Pat Thomson’s posts on Patter. In addition to all of this – which I most definitely characterise as supervision, albeit informal and often ad-hoc – I had a very accessible, helpful formal supervisor, with whom I am hoping to continue working into my post-doc research.

I think I have been both fortunate in the availability and clever in my use of the supervision opportunities I have had. Where you may not have luck on your side in being assigned a good supervisor who understands supervision as a form of pedagogy, you may have to be more clever and resourceful in using other opportunities to get the help, support, guidance that you need. There are so many resources – kinds of informal and ad-hoc ‘supervision’ out there now: blogs by students and supervisors; friends; colleagues; partners; books and journal articles… In the end what I am arguing for you not to confine your definition of supervision to just the relationship, even if very functional and happy, with your formal supervisor/s. Drawing on other valuable, informal kinds of supervision which act as pedagogy and from which you can learn does not undermine that formal relationship; rather, it enhances your whole PhD experience and can make the process less lonely, less fraught and much more about learning, growth and your own scholarly and personal development.

What kinds of informal supervision do you make use of?

 

Choosing the right supervisor for you

Jorge Cham: www. phdcomics.com

Jorge Cham: www. phdcomics.com

This post is mostly about advice to prospective or starting-out PhD students, and it’s about choosing a supervisor and setting up a mutually respectful and constructive relationship. A PhD supervisor is the most important person in a PhD student’s academic life for the duration of the process:  good supervision can make the experience one of growth, stimulation and mentorship (and even some fun); bad supervision can lead to delays, frustration, blocks to progress and lowered self-esteem. So it’s important to choose the right supervisor and set up a mutually agreeable working relationship.

The first piece of advice was given to me by a few people when I was starting out: choose the supervisor and not the university. At PhD level you need to make a real contribution to knowledge-building in your field, and to do this you need someone who knows your field well, and can guide, advise, challenge and push you to do better research, writing and thinking than you may have done thus far in your career. A university with a great reputation may look like a good option, but who will you work with? Obviously there are compromises to be made here, and you’d need to weigh up your particular case looking at things like how far away your supervisor is, and how you would make the logistics work if they are not in the same city as you (mine is not, for example). But there are great online tools now, like Adobe Connect, Skype and Google Drive that make staying in touch across distances easier. Choosing the supervisor rather than the university tends to pay off if you can set up a good working relationship with them. I made this choice and it has worked out well for me, even though I don’t get to see my supervisor face-to-face more than 2 or 3 times a year. I chose her because she is a key person in the field I am researching and working in and I wanted to draw on her expertise and also connect with her networks of other scholars. This is also something to consider when choosing a supervisor – the world and people beyond your present research and work that they can introduce you to.

The second thing I have learnt a few lessons about is how to set up the relationship so that it works for both of us. I’ve been lucky – and sometimes finding the right supervisor is luck – because my supervisor is kind, open to new ideas and willing to talk about how things are working out along the way. We are similar people, so we tend to get along quite well. I don’t need a lot of contact, but I do need her to be there for me when I have questions or get stuck or write something I need feedback on, and so far it has worked well in that she has been there for me when I need her advice or feedback, and when I have needed to be left alone and not feel pressured she has given me space. I have learned to ask for what I need very clearly, so that there is no confusion or frustration later. I make a list of the questions and send them to her before we meet on Skype if I can, or at least tell her what I’d like to talk about. When I send writing it is with a covering email telling her what I have sent,  at what stage it is and what I need her help with (and also what to ignore or not comment on just yet). This works quite well, because she knows where I am in my process and can give me the feedback and advice I most need at that point and also point me in the right direction with the next steps. I think I really am lucky, though, because I work with other PhD and MA students who have had awful experiences of supervisors who are distant and disengaged and then suddenly appear demanding writing without any warning and then drag their heels with feedback and give unhelpful ‘advice’ that leads to the students getting delayed or even stuck. Supervisors have a lot of power in this relationship, and not all of them use their power for good.

Many supervisors don’t see that supervising is teaching and mentoring, one on one, and miss opportunities to really help their students grow intellectually. Students are the ones who have to deal with the fallout of being poorly supervised and it is really tough, so taking time to do your research and find the most right person you can to work with is important. Do some thinking about where you want to study, as this is a good starting point. Do you need a supervisory relationship that is face-to-face most of the time or can you cope with being remote? Think about your proposed research. Whose names keep coming up in your reading? Where do they work? Could you get into the university they work at, and request to be assigned to them as a student? Go online and search prospective university sites – look at their postgraduate pages and also look for your prospective supervisor candidates. Send a polite, well-thought out email to the person or people you’d really like to work with. Write a short proposal of a couple of pages about the project you want to do and ask them nicely if they’ll read it and think about working with you. Often when you apply to a PhD programme you need to name a prospective supervisor, and it’s essential that you make contact with them before you fill in these forms and name them. If they have a sense of what work you want to do, and have agreed to be named as a prospective supervisor you could have a better chance of getting into the programme and also launching your relationship with said supervisor on the right foot.

I’m sure there are lots of other hints and tips people have, and you could all probably tell a range of both encouraging and scary supervisor stories. These are the top lessons I have learned, and I hope if you are starting out that they are helpful, and that you end up being one of the fortunate students with encouraging and happy-ending stories to tell :-).