Fostering freedom in PhD students: how supervisors can shape accessible paths for doctoral research

Clive Palmer looks at alternative approaches to PhDs that open postgraduate research to more candidates – for professional development, career change or just love of learning

Clive Palmer's avatar
University of Central Lancashire
16 Nov 2021
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paper boats illustrating different pathways to PhD

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It may come as a surprise to a neophyte PhD supervisor, an expert in their field, to understand that research supervision is not about supervising research directly. It is about teaching their student to become a researcher. There is a difference. The students are usually doing their own projects, which they alone have to defend. Therefore, it is the student’s activities, decisions, actions and writing towards that end that are being supervised and for which the traditional subject expert may be neither well attuned nor equipped. Research supervision is a function of teaching and learning at PhD level; this shifts the focus of the supervisor’s energies toward engagement and student experience and not necessarily towards groundbreaking discoveries in their field.

Issues that affect engagement of postgraduate research (PGR) students as active learners and the quality of student experience, which is fundamental to learning, especially at PhD level, include the supervisory relationship, learning style, and ownership of methodology and the pathway to PhD.

Get to know the learner, get to know the supervisor

Most failures at PhD and dropouts from PGR study are because of poor supervisory relationships, not because the candidate’s project concept is weak. A PhD can take six years or longer, so all parties need to get along in a productive way. While setting expectations is important at the outset with regard to duties, availability, managing formalities and so on, PhD supervisors should also become curious about how their new supervisee likes to learn. And so they channel “learning energy” to their best advantage.

Learning preferences are usually apparent at proposal or project design stage. For example, the supervisor might ask: is there enough freedom and ownership of this project for the student to explore methodologies, data collection and data handling in their own way?

Unfortunately, it is often the student, more quickly than the supervisor, who realises when they are stifled and losing impetus in their research. The signs and symptoms of a lack of ownership in research might be the student feeling they are collecting data to bolster the supervisor’s interests, or they are writing to please someone else, not themselves. Communications may become “dry”, lacking enthusiasm and businesslike, which may be too formal for the fragile early learner. But all is not lost if the supervisor picks up on these unproductive vibes early enough into a programme and changes their teaching tactics to accommodate the PhD researcher.

Get creative – mining a rich seam of talent on the doorstep

I supervise many colleagues on PhDs at my university (all in sociocultural research projects). I try to lure their talents into their projects, if they are willing, either directly to collect and represent data, or indirectly to draw on their confidence and transfer that into their learning as a PhD researcher. For example, discovering that a colleague who is a mental health nurse also plays the drums and likes oil painting pointed us towards an arts-based PhD around mental health. Another, a physical education lecturer who is in two bands as a singer and guitarist redesigned a school PE curriculum as part of his research, integrating performance ideas for pupils towards being “physically educated” – that is, being good at PE is more than just being good at sport.

For these and many others I supervise, I try to follow the telltale signs of how they like to write or collect data in the field, or how they like to shape and represent that data to the world, which directs us to options in methodology and thesis structure, creating fresh writing opportunities such as narrative storytelling or data analysed through scripted plays, which are then performed. As their teacher, who happens to be supervising their research project, I try to transform the process of their research, which usually has positive effects on the product, in the thesis presented for examination. The more bespoke and individualised these PhD projects become, the higher the levels of ownership and originality. As an educator, this seems like a win-win, and my role as “subject expert” has rather diminished.

New pathways to PhD – widening participation with PhD by Portfolio

Calls across the sector for widening participation at PhD level have produced the concept of “PhD by Portfolio”. This is a new way of collating and presenting bodies of work that are “linked and distinct”, which are synthesised in a synoptic report that shows unity and focus towards a research title. As a result, there is a high degree of originality and impact in thesis content towards the problem or issues addressed. This pathway navigates a route between traditional PhD, practice-based PhD and PhD by publication in terms of how it is evidenced, supervised and examined.

Significantly, the PhD by Portfolio option is appealing to professionals who see their vocational story fitting into the framework, compared with a traditional PhD, with its associations with dense theory and complex philosophy and which may not afford the same sense of accessibility. Some new applicants from journalism, clinical environments and engineering have reported that they felt a lifeline had been thrown to embark on a PhD that was not there before. It is hoped that this new pathway will allow as much creativity and thinking space for the students to learn as it will for the supervisors to collaborate and share, with the aim of all learning from each other.

Clive Palmer is senior lecturer in PE/sports studies, coaching and research at the University of Central Lancashire.

He has been shortlisted for Outstanding Research Supervisor of the Year at the THE Awards 2021. A full list of shortlisted candidates can be found here, with the winners due to be announced at a ceremony on 25 November.

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