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?


Why, again, am I doing a PhD?

Sometimes doing a PhD can feel like a form of madness when you are working and mothering small needy people full time, not to mention trying to be happily married the the small people’s father.  Why on earth would you take on such a huge time and soul and brain consuming project when you already have quite a few demands on your time, soul and brain already?

Well, in my case two major reasons: the first is that I need one so that I can progress in my academic career and be taken seriously by colleagues, and not just seen as ‘that young woman who thinks she knows what she’s talking about’ (a colleague told me a while back that someone did actually say this about me, and not in any kind of nice way).  I need to prove myself to be capable and worthy, and while it grates me that I should have to get another degree to do that when the years of work and time I have put in already and experience I have gained could speak for me, I accept that this is the way it is in academia, and that this is the field I have chosen to work in. The second is personal. I want one. I want to prove to myself that I am capable of a project of this magnitude, and I want to push myself to grow as a researcher in my field. I have questions I want the answers to, and I want to know how to find them. I want to take myself more seriously.

So this is why I am doing this huge project now, when my job is getting bigger and more demanding every year, and when my children are still young enough to need me to be very present a lot of the time. They were 3 and 7 when I started, and they are 7 and 11 now so it is tough a lot of the time. Now, when I am nearing the end and have been writing almost every day and am very obsessed (there is no more accurate word) with my work, I feel I am not present enough mentally and emotionally for anyone. I am short on time and temper and sleep, and I don’t feel like I am being a very good mom or colleague. I am not really very present at work, because my mind is almost always on my PhD and what I have written and need to write and also on what comes next – papers and conferences and publication. But if I ignore my work and focus all of myself on being very present at home and at work, my PhD will slide, and I won’t get finished on time. And I need to finish now. The normal working mom juggling act is hard enough for me without all the added pressure of this PhD.

I have to say, though, that it is not all tough, and not all the time. Bits of it I like a lot – I like the way my mind is being stretched. I am becoming a better writer, a more critical thinker, a more capable reader. I am learning about the PhD process in ways that will help me, hopefully, to be a good supervisor myself one day. I have found new colleagues and made some wonderful new friends through the PhD programme I am part of. I am becoming more connected to other researchers in my field and I am really enjoying finding a place within this research community.  I am making a contribution to knowledge and that feels good, worthwhile, exciting. But when I am busy, and my kids are sick and work deadlines are looming and there are just not enough hours in the day I do wonder why I am doing this PhD, and whether there is a way for me to just pause it all so that I can catch up. I feel often that I have bitten off more than I can chew and have no choice but to swallow and finish this meal as politely and graciously as I can. I know I am not alone in feeling like this. But I also know that the struggles and the tough times are making me stronger in all sorts of ways. This journey, for all its ups and downs, is one I chose, for good reasons, and I just need to remind myself of these and keep going. As politely and graciously as I can.