Co-authoring with research students

For a long time I refused to consider publishing with my research students.  I worried that it was unethical.  That was for two main reasons.  First, I had seen some very bad practice indeed – such as supervisors insisting that all of their students’ work had to have the supervisor’s name on, and not only that, but always as first author.  Second, I was a pretty independent researcher myself while doing my PhD, and my supervisors encouraged me to publish my work in my sole name (I did of course give them fulsome acknowledgements).  I guess there is a third issue too, which is that many of the doctoral students I work with are part-time EdD-ers (a professional doctorate) who aren’t motivated to publish.  And by and large, in my area of the discipline of Education, few of my colleagues co-author with their students

However, I’ve come to see things rather differently of late.  One of the advantages of being involved in my institution’s REF Committee was that, reading other School’s submissions, I picked up how some other disciplines promote the quality of their postgrad research provision.  Their narratives vaunted the number of co-authored student-supervisor papers they had published, and how this was viewed as a really important aspect of career development for doctoral researchers.  I went for coffee with a couple of people who were obviously committed to this approach, and talked it through with them.  They were clear too that such publications were important for supervisors – to get some recognition for the considerable amount of work they put into to some students’ research projects, and to build up the corpus of work around their specialist research interests.  Clearly, there’s a middle road to be navigated somehow.

Since I’m Director of Graduate Education in my School, and it was evident that no co-authoring seemed to be going on between students and supervisors, I decided to launch a debate in our Research and Enterprise Committee around a draft protocol.  I did a bit of hunting around, and came across the ‘Vancouver Protocol‘ – originating in the field of medical research, but now viewed as a simple but excellent standard for deciding authorship.  The Vancouver Protocol states that, in order to be credited as an author, each and every author on a publication needs to have been involved in the:

1.  Conception and design, or analysis and interpretation of data AND

2.  Drafting the article or revising it critically for important intellectual content AND

3.  Final approval of the version to be published

The ‘ANDs’ are the key thing to note here – if a supervisor is not involved in all  three aspects of a publication, then they should not be listed as a co-author. (One additional point to be made is that the lead author must guarantee this right to 3 to all those who have been involved in 1 and 2!)

Then I got to thinking creatively myself.  What could I do about this, straight away?  Well, I had one brilliant student who had just passed her PhD with flying colours.  She did her doctorate full-time but wants to go back into an academic job, so making the PhD work for her by getting publications out of it is pretty important.  The first time I met her, part-way through her PhD, she came to see me to talk about her data on new lecturers in Further Education – a lot of stuff about time was cropping up in their narratives, and she didn’t know what to do with it.  Since, for my sins, the slippery notion of time and its theorisations have been quite a preoccupation these last few years, I was able to have a significant input in suggesting how she could analyse and interpret this data.

After her completion, I suggested we co-author a paper in which I would develop the literature review section on theories of time further, and help her with the difficult task of carving a one-paper slice out of the full-size thesis.  In this way, she could get the hang of doing this (it’s not easy!), and we’d sort of hold hands through the drafting, re-drafting and submission/review process.  So I feel I pulled my weight and met the Vancouver Protocol on that one.  And her name went on as first author, as she had written the larger part of the paper and the data was hers.  But I wouldn’t dream of putting my name on any of the other papers we’ve decided she should write from the thesis – the rest is all her own ideas, and I couldn’t contribute anything essential in the way I did with the paper on time.

Roundabout the same time period, a colleague asked me if I’d contribute a paper to the journal he edits.  It just so happened that I’d had a conference paper hanging around for a couple of years, and had not got round to polishing it up and sending it off.  This was mainly because it was a little out of my usual field (I’d been asked to contribute to a special symposium and had data from an evaluation project I’d done).  The main topic and argument of the paper were, I knew, still highly relevant – but I had no idea how I’d find the time or motivation to update the literature review.

Then a 2nd year part-time EdD student moved into the research phase with me, doing a project in the same area.  She had written an excellent literature review – in fact, it was exactly what my conference paper needed!  I asked her if she’d be interested in writing it in to the paper, and assured her that, if she did, her name would be on the paper as co-author.  Again, this meant we walked the path of preparing the paper for publication most of the way together.  We went through a couple of drafts back and forth before submission, and then got the referee’s comments back.  They gave particular praise to the literature review (!), but challenged us (in this case, me) to deepen the theorisation further – really exciting comments to get back!  I took this on myself – the student was by now in the throes of getting her own research proposal finalised – but shared the revised draft and the careful covering letter I’d written to the editor and referees.  And then we celebrated together when that version got accepted!

I won’t pretend that these experiences have turned my students into fully fledged authors themselves yet.  But it’s given me an insight into how, even at a very early stage of a doctoral researcher’s journey, they can contribute crucially to published work without that being too onerous on them, and in a way that means their supervisor’s work might see the light of day and not remain buried in a pile of ‘work in progress’ that never actually progresses.  And I think it has given them a sense of belonging to a community of researchers, who publish as a central part of their activity.  In many ways, it reflects that model of apprenticeship we in lifelong learning call ‘legitimate peripheral participation in a community of practice’ (Lave and Wenger, 1991) – newcomers are involved in tasks which do not have crucial consequences if they don’t entirely succeed, alongside more experienced colleagues, to learn the ways of doing and being a member of that community.

So it’s been a bit of a journey for me – what are your thoughts about co-authoring between supervisors and doctoral students?  Whether you are a supervisor or a student, please share your thoughts.

Posted in Co-authoring with students, Effective supervision, Supervisor concerns, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

When life intervenes… the value of suspending studies

So… despite my good intentions to keep up a steady stream of weekly posts for this blog, life has intervened.  A close family member has been seriously ill, and suddenly I was pitched back into the intensively stressful and time-consuming role of carer.  The whole business has been quite traumatic for me, and it has made it difficult for me to concentrate on my work as well as meaning I had to take some time out.

For doctoral researchers, many of whom will be doing their research over 5, 6 or even 7 years (sometimes more!), it is almost inevitable that life will intervene.  In just the last few years, my PhD and EdD students have been through experiences such as:

  • being left homeless for several months when a house purchase fell through
  • suffering a serious illness themselves
  • dealing with a diagnosis of dyslexia for a child
  • having parents seriously ill and in need of family care
  • coping with a bereavement
  • and, of course, having babies.

Generally, the imminent arrival of new offspring is something I get to hear about well in advance.  But in my experience, all too often students keep quiet about what is going on in some of these other circumstances.  One notices that promised written work is not coming in – or is so ‘skimpy’ that, clearly, little work has been done.  When I ask if there is a problem, the reply often comes back that ‘x is going on, but it will be over soon’, or that ‘things are difficult but I want to soldier on’.  Also in my experience, this approach to such problems is generally unhelpful, especially for part-time students with big day-jobs taking up much of the rest of their lives.One of the pastoral responsibilities of the supervisor is to notice when work-rates drop, ask what is going on, and offer realistic solutions to the student.  Often this will be to take a suspension – even it is only for a month to get over a particular crisis or bottle-neck, perhaps sometimes for longer.  Students are often fearful of taking this break – but not only does it stop the ‘clock ticking’ in terms of their registration, it also gives them permission to give themselves a break from the feelings of guilt and failure that can quickly build up when ‘soldiering on’ isn’t actually realistic.I also think it’s important to keep in touch with students while they are on a break.  I occasionally send a short, friendly email to see how they are doing – and this is particularly important around the time that they have planned to come back.  Then there is the question of getting them back in the swing of things when they do return – it’s helpful to negotiate through with them what some of the early tasks will be on their return, so they can try to build their confidence up quickly rather than feeling they have now lost the plot.  So… life sometimes intervenes, as it has done for me recently.  What are your experiences, as a supervisor, of dealing with these situations?  Or as a research student, of encountering them?  How can supervisors be most helpful?

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Keeping track of developing doctoral writing

I don’t know about you, but I have a lot of research students, and all of them are part-time.  They have big day-jobs as teachers and lecturers, and so I only get to see them once every couple of months.  One of the big headaches I’ve had has been keeping track of different versions of their work.  And though some of them are very good about sending a covering note with their written work to explain what the writing is for, how they’ve tried to put into practice previous feedback, and what type of feedback they want this time, others don’t do this at all.  What to do?

Well, I had the great good fortune to attend a writing workshop by the wonderful Professor Rowena Murray recently, and picked up a great tip from her.  She is in a similar situation and suggests making students use a sort of mini-template at the start of their piece of writing.  So here is the one that I have devised according to her advice – it’s very short and simple:

Work submitted by [student name] on [date] for supervision on [date/time]


Version number (if there have been previous versions):

Nature and purpose of this piece of writing:

How have you incorporated previous feedback from supervision into this piece of work?

I’m hoping this will not only  be useful for me, but will also help the students get a sharper handle on what they are writing and why – as well as focusing clearly on implementing feedback.  It should also help them when they start publishing and will have to respond to referees’ comments in a covering letter that explains changes they have made to their paper.

So far, it seems to be working well for us, but it’s early days yet – I will write another post when I and my students have had more time to try it out and maybe tweaked it a bit.  Any comments or suggestions about similar efforts would be most welcome!

This post also links to an earlier one: learn to manage your supervisor

Posted in Effective supervision, Supervisor concerns | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Effective questions in supervision

I tweeted a while ago to ask supervisors and students what they had found were the most useful questions to ask/be asked in supervision. So here are some suggestions from them and from me.  Please do add comments with any others you have found useful (as a student or as a supervisor).

  • Tell me what you’ve been reading lately – and what have you learned from it?
  • What do you mean by… (e.g. ‘identity’, or ‘learning’, or ‘care’)?  How do you understand it?
  • What is your line of argument in this piece of writing?
  • Why have you done/are you going to do this?
  • What appeals to you about ‘X’ theorist’s work? Does it resonate in any ways with your data?
  • How does that idea fit with your theory?
  • Explain that idea in your own words.
  • Explain your analysis step-by-step.
  • Have you thought about other ways of analysing your data?
  • What is your interpretation of the literature/the data?
  • How did you come to this conclusion?
  • How might you be able to develop/expand these ideas/this line of argument further? [if work is too narrow-visioned]
  • How can you streamline your work? [if work is ‘flabby’]
  • Are you coping?  Are you happy with progress?
  • What are you going to do before the next supervision? [goal-setting]
  • How can I support you?
  • How is the supervision going for you?  Is there anything I can do that would be more helpful?

And yes, from one wag:  “Would you like a coffee?”

Thanks to: Melinda Miller, Hannah Perrin, Abbey Diaz, Olga Solugub, Sarah Fox, Alessia Williams for their responses

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The challenge of the research proposal: (2) Rationale

Well, the REF submission is in, and I can pick up my blogging again – apologies for the interruption…  In my last post, I wrote about the first section of the research proposal, the background context.  Here I’m moving onto the next section, the rationale for the research being proposed.

Lots of people refer to this as the ‘literature review’ section.  I don’t think this name is helpful.  It creates a mindset which leads to students producing a kind of annotated bibliography.  ‘Rationale’, on the other hand, promotes a mindset that the student needs to make the case for their research – that is to say, they need to argue what their research is building on, where they position themselves in relation to the existing literature, and what significant original contribution their research is going to add to advance knowledge about their topic.

In educational research (my field), most of our research is applied.  So the rationale usually needs to start by looking at the existing empirical knowledge we have about the topic, particularly where this is contested.  So, for example, in a study concerned with how graduates find jobs after completing their degree, one could draw on both policy documents and some research which argue that there isn’t really a problem with graduate employment except some deficit of employability in graduates themselves – and then contrast this with some statistics and other research which show that maybe there just is a problem with the demand side of the labour market rather than with graduates themselves.  How the proposal presents these ‘facts’ should help the reader understand what stance the researcher takes towards them – probably by presenting what the researcher sees as the weaker position first, and then making an argument which starts e.g. ‘However, alternative evidence suggests a different perspective…’, and ends by making clear where they think the problem lies.  Here they are identifying an empirical ‘gap in knowledge’

However, we don’t want them to devote too many words to this, as there is another even more important element to the rationale.  In social science, ‘facts’ are of course always shaped by particular conceptualisations of the issue to which they relate.  In this hypothetical proposal about graduates seeking employment, let’s say that we are focusing on the graduates’ perspective, how they make decisions about what opportunities to pursue, and how these decisions work out.  So the second, and probably longer, section of the rationale needs to look at the different ways in which career decision-making processes have been conceptualised.  The key strands of debate about this process need to be identified, with the most important authors cited, and again, the student needs to position themselves in relation to these debates, so the reader knows what perspective they are going to begin by pursuing in the research (this might of course change as the research progresses).

This should then enable the student to go beyond the purely empirical gap in knowledge to identify the social scientific problem or puzzle that they are going to try to answer.  The phrase ‘gap in knowledge’ doesn’t always help students think about their contribution to knowledge in this way, so we need to be careful with it.  It can lead to a rather narrow view of what the study is trying to do, and obscure the importance of the theoretical element of the thesis.  I now find it much more helpful to get students think about this notion of a sociological puzzle that needs to be solved – and to see this as the way in which they are going to advance knowledge.  For example, in a previous project, I was working in a field dominated by notions of workplace learning as situated, as participation in a community of practice.  A lot of this theory I can go with.  But it tends to assume that newcomers enter an occupation, become expert and remain expert practitioners within it. I knew that there was high turnover in the workplaces I was looking at.  So my social scientific puzzle and contribution to knowledge was to expand our understanding of the dynamics of participation in a community of practice – and to deepen our knowledge of how it could be an outward dynamic rather than purely an inward one.

In my experience, it is essential to get doctoral students to grasp the need for this conceptual level of thinking as soon as possible at the proposal stage.  Our supervision does not serve them well if we don’t issue this challenge – and support them to meet it – very early on.  If a student is researching how nurses learn to care, for example, they need to show they understand debates about what care is – and these debates reflect very diverse concepts of care indeed.  I don’t allow my students to say they are going to research ‘identities’ (of teachers or of learners) without challenging them to tell me what they mean by ‘identity’, and how they conceive of it, including in relation to debates about agency and structure.  Unless they have a good background in sociology (which very few do), this comes as quite a surprise to them!  So they need to read around these quite a bit in the early stages to get beyond any ‘taken-for-granted’ notions.

The most frequent questions I then get asked by students are: how do I know how much to write about all this literature?  How many people should I cite?  How can I avoid getting into writing the ‘literature review’ chapter itself?  I answer these questions by reminding students that the proposal is a very special piece of writing.  It is, in many respects, a sales pitch.  In that sense, the job is very much one of summing up the key positions ‘in a nutshell’.  To go back to our graduates making career decisions, we could put it to our student like this: if you had a ride in a lift with someone, and had to explain one of the key theories of career decision making between the ground floor and the 6th floor, what would you say?  It is this ‘nutshell’ style – being very succinct but also very accurate – that students need to aim for.

So this leads us to think about how long the rationale should actually be.  A former boss of mine had a very good rule of thumb when reading proposals.  The rationale section should lead straight into the research questions/objectives – and he said if he hadn’t reached the research questions by the bottom of page 3 (we’re talking A4 single spaced here), he would switch off.  So the context section plus the rationale together should be about 1250 words – or two and two-thirds pages long.  That helps convey to students just how much of a tight, punchy summary they need to give.

The next post will be about the research questions – for me, the trickiest part of writing the proposal.

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The challenge of the research proposal: (1) Context

You’ve only just met.  You hardly know each other.  And your new doctoral student has to produce a really challenging piece of work – their research proposal – which will be the springboard for their entire project.  They may well have little idea what a good doctoral research proposal looks like – how would they? They have never had to figure out research questions that show potential to make a significant original contribution to knowledge in the field. They may wildly overestimate the scope of the project they can undertake, or have a very narrow idea just for evaluating their own practice in their own institution. And they have quite a short time to get this proposal written.  If you are anything like me, you’re nervous (though probably not half as nervous as the student is).  How can supervisors guide students through this unknown territory?

One of the most useful resources I’ve found to help with this is in one of my favourite general research methods handbooks – A Critical Introduction to Social Research by Henn, Weinstein and Foard – especially Chapter 10, which is about how to write a research proposal.  The authors take a section-by-section approach to the typical format of a proposal, using an example of one of their own grant applications to illustrate their points.  I’d highly recommend it as a guide to the task.  As well as that, I share examples of my own funded research proposals.

Once they have an idea of their research topic, there are a number of key issues that I find I often have to emphasise with students as they draft their proposals. First, of course, students need to read around their topic to get a sense of the landscape and the ‘gaps in knowledge’. Most importantly, this reading needs to focus on more than empirical findings.  Students need to pay attention to the different conceptual ways in which their topic is framed by different authors, how these relate to the methodological approaches adopted, and how both of these aspects shape each author’s findings.  This helps the student to identify the particular way in which they are going to contribute something new and significant to these debates, and to generate an over-arching research aim or question. But then the proposal needs constructing section by section, and my next few posts are going to focus on these in turn, beginning here with the context of the research.

The first section of the proposal is where the background context needs to be briefly sketched.  In my experience, many students often begin by drafting a paragraph or two which run like this: “I work in X doing Y with Z.  Over the years I have become very interested in how A and B function.  My interest in this has been sparked by incident C, which has made me wonder about D.”  They are setting out their personal context, the motivations that brought them to be interested in the topic.  Although this may well be good material for the introductory chapter of the thesis, it isn’t at all appropriate for the introductory section of the proposal. It does not spell out the situation that poses the problem to be researched, so it is more than likely to leave the proposal’s reader baffled.

I find it helps to get the student to think about their reader: who is going to be looking at this proposal and making judgements about it?  It will be a colleague from our broad field (in my case, Education) – but one who may not be familiar at all with this specific topic.  What this reader needs is an introduction to the context of the research topic itself – one which orients them to the situation being addressed and the problem which is being posed.  So it needs to read something more like this: “In X area of education, Y and Z happen.  A and B are being done about this, but there is a difficulty with C.  This is important because of D.  There is therefore a need for research to consider E and F.”  Now the reader has a good idea of what is going on in that specific area, and why some research needs doing.

I also try to get the student to think about the job the proposal has to do.  It’s not an essay or a chapter about the context, but more like a short and punchy ‘sales pitch’ which ends by delivering the key message about the over-arching research aim.  This means it is a special kind of writing, which needs to be especially succinct but also especially precise in the language it uses.  My rule of thumb is that the ‘Context’ section should not be more than half a page of A4.

The next post will focus on the section which argues the rationale for the research.  In the meantime, whether you are a supervisor or a student, please add your comments about how supervisors can best help students get to grips with writing the research proposal, in particular presenting the background context for it.  Any good references you find especially useful?  Any pedagogical approaches that have proved effective? I’d love to hear from you.  In my next post, I’m going to be looking at the next section of the proposal, the rationale for the research.

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Some thoughts on supervisor angst

My very first post from this blog seems to have sparked quite a response, and I am excited about the potential of SupervisorStuff to get supervisor stuff that bit more out in the open.  Before some further posts on strategies I’ve learned and continue to learn about supervising doctoral students, I thought I’d share some more thoughts about the angst of being a supervisor and the challenges I face in this most challenging part of my work.

One of the questions I’ve been asking myself is: what makes supervision more challenging for me than other high-level tasks, such as writing research proposals to a research council, or writing an article for a high-ranking journal? The first thing that occurs to me is that, in those other situations, I have the experience to know pretty much what is expected of me in order to do it well. I may not get the grant money very frequently in these economically straitened times, but I have worthwhile ideas and I know how to write a really good proposal.  Likewise, with journal articles, I’ve got rich data and a strong theoretical approach, I know my ‘discourse communities’ (as Thomson and Kamler put it really well), and I know what is expected of a good article.  I still get asked to make revisions by referees, but I’m confident about how to respond to them and they invariably lead to a better ‘end product’.

Supervision, however, still always feels like an unknown quantity… Even if there were clear formulas for doing it, I’m not sure how they would help when every student seems so different: different motivations for doctoral study, different life contexts in which they are embarking on the doctoral journey, prior education at different levels and in different disciplines – often far removed from education and the sociology of education in which I specialise.  From the get-go, the blueprint seems an unlikely way forward.  So in this much less certain context, what do I feel when I’m supervising?

As I said in my first post for SupervisorStuff, and in my guest post for Pat Thomson’s Patter blog, I often feel weighed down by the huge responsibility of supervising at doctoral level.  I know what an enormous investment students put in to their studies – financial, personal, emotional – and the sacrifices they (and their loved ones) make, often over many years: the vast majority of doctoral candidates in education are part-time students with massive day-jobs as teachers, lecturers, training managers, headteachers, college principals etc., and I am in awe of anyone who completes a doctorate in that situation!

  • I worry about getting students started – about clarifying our respective roles and responsibilities, and the type of relationship we will establish.
  • I worry about conveying the nature, scale and scope of the tasks ahead, because a Masters does not necessarily equip students to grasp the conceptual depth and practical rigour demanded by a doctorate – not to mention the writing marathon involved in producing a thesis of 50,000 or 80,000 words
  • At the same time, I worry about getting students to understand how small and focused a doctoral project needs to be.
  • I worry about whether I’m helping students structure their work appropriately at each stage, about whether I’m asking the right questions in supervision, about whether I’m talking too much in supervision, about whether I’ve listened well enough in supervision.
  • I worry about whether I’m managing the tight-rope walk between not offering enough guidance on the one hand, and on the other, imposing my own perspective.

OK, I am a bit of a worrier!  But here is a bit of wisdom from a colleague about these worries: we all have worries about supervision, but it is really really important that we don’t inflict these worries on our students.  We have to work really hard to face our own worries down so that we can do a good professional job. That is, of course, easier said than done, and it depends on having a flexible tool-box of strategies to try out and reflect on.  That’s what future posts are going to be about.

Whether you are a supervisor or a student, what are your thoughts about the angst of the supervisor?  And how to manage it?  All comments welcome!

Posted in Getting started, Supervisor concerns | Tagged , , | 2 Comments