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!