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!

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2 Responses to Some thoughts on supervisor angst

  1. Liz Dixon says:

    Helen’s blog entries provides some observations and recommendations about the supervision process in doctoral study. Notwithstanding those practical suggestions it was significant that there was also a strong emotional and reflexive component within the first posting. As a late-career PGR student who has spent some time hovering on the periphery of research ‘communities’ it was refreshing to find someone who is prepared to make explicit the significance of the relationship between supervisors and their PGRs and the emotions and concerns which may be associated with the role of supervisor and PGR alike.
    It seems to me that many of the issues raised are predicated on the assumption that teaching and learning is primarily about knowledge acquisition. That knowledge is poured into the head of the student by the teacher who is the custodian of the subject knowledge. In other areas of teaching, outside of doctoral supervision, that model of teaching and learning has been called into question and the ‘empty heads’ metaphor has been superseded by other pedagogical approaches.
    I began my teaching career in a Further Education college at a time when teaching qualifications were not required and I was appointed because of my subject knowledge and vocational expertise. I remember being shocked that I had been let loose in a classroom to teach students without any guidance, training or support as to how to go about it. For the first few months I taught myself to teach largely by trial and error. At that time I recall experiencing similar emotions and concerns that Helen has described with regards to her supervisor role and feeling huge responsibility for my students, being unsure that I was doing what was best for them. Incidentally, as teachers I think we have that degree of responsibility for all our students, irrespective of their level of study. I guess that working one to one with a PGR student simply brings all that responsibility and angst into a sharper focus because the supervisor and the teacher/student relationship is possibly more exposed? On a similar theme, there is currently debate surrounding untrained teachers being appointed to work in Free Schools in the UK, hired for their subject knowledge but unqualified in teaching.
    I am now working in HE and my primary role is as a teacher educator. For me a good teacher / supervisor is someone who can combine both subject and pedagogical knowledge and the two are of equal importance. I suspect most PGR students will naturally make assumptions and have expectations about their supervisor, not least that they will be experts in their field and the role. No pressure there then! But those expectations might be unrealistic, especially for novice supervisors and it might be helpful to look at that with the student early in the relationship. Obviously I have never been a supervisor but I would see the role as being very complex, as is any form of teaching and there will be much more to it than just the higher level subject knowledge. Open discussion about the pedagogy of supervision and the different ways in which it can be approached can only benefit both supervisors and their students. In my experience, good teachers talk about their practice, share ideas and work collaboratively; I can’t see why doctoral supervision should be any different! There must be a wealth of untapped knowledge, ideas and expertise in the community of supervisors that should be opended up for the benefit of new and experienced staff who are undertaking this role. Rather than lots of talented individuals operating in splendid isolation how
    much better if they could find a way to work more closely together?

    • Helen Colley says:

      Thanks very much for taking the time and effort to post your comments, Liz. They do make me think even more about the notion of pedagogy, and for me that means thinking how one might apply a Freirean pedagogy (the ‘real’ Freire, not a de-radicalised version!) in supervision. That’s about really respecting the supervisory relationship as one in which colleagues co-construct knowledge, and in which the ‘teacher’ facilitates that process through encouraging a genuinely dialogic conversation, and assisting the student to develop their own ‘generative questions’ to pursue. I’m just getting to grips with thinking this through more clearly, and perhaps we might go on blogging about our experiments with your Lego techniques in the future!

      I do need to get more into the literature on pedagogies of supervision, especially from Australia where doctoral education even has its own SIG in their research association, and where much of the interesting research on this topic seems to stem from (thanks to Pat Thomson and the ThesisWhisperer amongst others). All useful references from any other commenters would be much appreciated, as well as any other comments.

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