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Co-creation: how to find the ‘super’ in supervision

Co-creation can bring together research supervisors and doctoral students to unpick the tensions and challenges in the supervisory relationship and seek solutions, researchers from the University of Warwick explain



3 Aug 2022
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PhD research supervisory relationships are central to the experience, well-being, satisfaction and success of doctoral students. Yet, all too often, the supervisory relationship is fraught. Co-creation – a form of collaborative innovation – offers a way of bringing students and supervisors together to unpack and address difficulties in the supervisory relationship. Such interactions are useful in challenging existing supervisory paradigms and offering fresh ways forward.

Common problems in the supervisory relationship

  • Outmoded supervisory models that fail to meet the needs of individual doctoral students.
  • Lack of clarity around the roles and responsibilities of students and supervisors.
  • Insufficient (or no) training for supervisors.
  • Misaligned expectations of supervision between students and supervisors.
  • Power imbalances and struggles within the supervisory relationship.
  • Personality clashes between supervisors and students.
  • Lack of time given to undertake supervision, or having to take on the supervision of too many students.

Although useful, practical changes to improve supervisory relationships have come from previous studies, these generally focus on mitigating difficulties within existing models of supervision. Co-creation offers a novel participatory approach with the potential to help students and academics find new ways forward and redesign the supervisory relationship.

What is co-creation and how could it be used to develop supervisory practice?

Co-creation brings all parties together in a collaborative and innovative exchange. It encourages open sharing of knowledge and experience, allowing participants to encounter the perspectives of others. It enables the development of more empathic and informed understandings of the “other” and supports the development of more integrated solutions.

Steps in designing an effective co-creative space to unpack the supervisory relationship

  1. Involve students and supervisors at all stages of unpacking the issues and designing solutions.
  2. Consider using preliminary focus groups, interviews or surveys as a first step to understanding issues, if they are not clear. This also gives voice to a larger and more diverse range of stakeholders.
  3. Identify key issues, struggles or pain points for further exploration.
  4. Arrange and invite participants to one or more co-creative workshops, depending on the number and complexity of issues to be explored.
  5. Encourage depth in the perspectives shared, by organising participants into groups of five to six, mixing up academics, students and administrative staff and across different faculties or departments.
  6. Support open discussion, by ensuring that “real” pairings of supervisors and supervisees are not in the same group.
  7. Begin by sharing the results of preliminary findings, from either initial research or existing understandings of issues within your particular setting, and allow participants to discuss these in their groups.
  8. Collect feedback from each group on the key issues, difficulties and pain points to develop a shared understanding.
  9. Encourage participants to explore solutions or ways forward to overcome the difficulties identified, again collecting feedback from each group.

It is important that participants have control of their discussions, so allow each group to decide how to approach the identified challenges and coordinate their group discussion.   

What are the benefits?

Changing practice

Co-creative workshops engage students and supervisors collaboratively, supporting more empathic and informed understanding of issues on both sides and development of relevant recommendations or solutions. Many recommendations arising from our co-creation workshops were implemented at an institutional level by the Doctoral College. Given its effectiveness, the college is also supporting the implementation of co-creation as a means of tackling department-specific issues related to the PhD experience. 

Tackling loneliness, isolation and lack of community

Beyond the immediate benefit of unpacking common issues and designing solutions to them, the participatory nature of the workshops and exercises can help address stressors of research students such as loneliness, isolation and a lack of community.

Rebalancing power

The supervisory relationship is typically characterised by an inherent power imbalance, recognised as a barrier to a successful supervisory relationship and student satisfaction. Co-creation engages supervisors and students in authentic dialogues, sharing of experiences and open discussions, enabling them to work towards a common goal. By supporting cohesion between the parties, co-creation moves the supervisory relationship towards more symmetrical power relations, characterised by desirable co-dependence and collaboration.

Finding a shared voice

Misalignments between students’ and supervisors’ expectations and a lack of understanding of the other’s role causes tensions that can fester within the relationship throughout the PhD. Co-creation supports an environment that helps to address misalignments. By sharing lived experiences, a more informed understanding of others can be created. A better grasp of the experiences of others enables the development of recommendations that balance the needs of all stakeholders in a mature and holistic manner. 

Working towards more equitable and positive postgraduate research experiences of supervision can be complex. Co-creation offers a key to unlock new opportunities for PhD students, supervisors and institutions to reshape this crucial yet often stressful and difficult academic practice.

This advice is based on the research paper “Exploring Co-Creation as a Facilitator of PhD Supervisory Relationships”, co-authored by Elena Riva, Louise Gracia and Rebecca Limb in the Journal of Further and Higher Education, 2022.

Elena Riva, associate professor and director of education at the Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning (IATL); Louise Gracia is a professor in Warwick Business School; and Rebecca Limb is a teaching fellow in the School of Law, all at the University of Warwick.

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Research management

Sponsored by

Elsevier logo
Elsevier helps researchers and healthcare professionals advance science and improve health outcomes for the benefit of society.

Research management

Sponsored by

Elsevier logo
Elsevier helps researchers and healthcare professionals advance science and improve health outcomes for the benefit of society.

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