To affinity and beyond

May 13, 2005

Overseeing postgraduate research is like tending a garden, says Gina Wisker. You support, nurture, develop and empower students so they grow as researchers and contribute an original kernel of knowledge

When I first started teaching in higher education, supervising masters and PhD students was not even on my wish list, although I quickly began to supervise the projects and dissertations of undergraduates. Now, with the growth in postgraduate numbers and the greater emphasis on research as the key learning process for all students, lecturers are more likely to find themselves supervising students as soon as they start teaching.

The demands of the role are many, but so are the rewards. Supervising research is still one of the few opportunities to engage in a rich, developing learning conversation - a dialogue in which you can match cognitive processes and interests with enthusiastic students who have chosen a topic in which you both share an interest, and who need you to support, nurture, develop and empower them both to grow as researchers and to produce a dissertation or thesis that makes a contribution to knowledge.

This may sound a little idealistic given the criminal lack of resources for the role, which often takes place on top of everything else and is notoriously nebulous in terms of timetables or expected hours (from six a week to six a year and all stages in between). It is also perhaps a little naive because many students arrive without clear ideas of what they would like to research, what can be researched and how to go about it. Supervising is a daunting task and a highly responsible role but, I would argue, one we can continue to learn about, develop and improve alongside our work with increasingly diverse students.

The conscientious, brilliant 21-year-old middle-class scientist who works 20 hours a day needs little supervision and makes world-shattering discoveries, written up in excellent papers, still exists, but it has never been my experience to meet, let alone supervise one. My variously talented and hard-working social science and literature students are mainly part-time, mature, often international or studying at a distance.

Research students have changed and so, as supervisors, we are constantly evolving ourselves to work with these diverse researchers and their learning behaviours. In this way we move forwards together, making the very best of the research and the resulting dissertation or theses and publications. The supervisor-student relationship is the primary relationship for all stages of the research student’s journey, from ideas to successful completed thesis and beyond. However, supervision is still a relatively under-theorised and underresourced role that, in all but a few universities, receives short, often only voluntary, development and support in terms of workshops, supervisor programmes and mentoring.

It is not surprising that many supervisors feel the best course of action is to supervise as they have been supervised themselves. This could be a sound option if you were supervised flexibly and sensitively and can identify and replicate the kinds of skills your supervisor used to empower you in your research and writing. Were you empowered through the process to develop, maintain and complete a research project appropriately (even eloquently), logically, coherently expressed in a thesis or dissertation of merit that gained the qualification you sought? Along the way, were you aware of developing responsible autonomy and transferable research skills? Each student is an individual, and we need to work with each slightly differently to ensure that they make the best of their research abilities from ideas, through the research journey, to completing and finishing a sound dissertation or thesis.

There is a growing dialogue between supervisors and students, peers, the research community, the increasing internal regulations, external bodies and professional development publications about what is best practice for supervisors working with students, and about how to negotiate effective supervisor-student relationships. In this spirit of negotiation, it is useful to think of the overall relationships between supervisor and student as a learning conversation or dialogue, itself based on face-to-face, paper or email-based exchanges about the development of the research and the dissertation or thesis. To this end, supervisors find it useful to consider developing the research process in the context of academic communities of practice, university policies, rules and regulations, and the professionally based relationship between supervisor and student. These behaviours involve expectations, working relationships, structures, systems, practices, ground rules, research skills, development through various stages, empowering the student’s research through to completion and beyond into presentations, publications and the world of work.

Of course, it is also useful to consider ways of effectively handling some of the things that might go wrong in the relationship or in the research. In my email inbox, awaiting detailed response, is a 109-page chapter (29,500 words!) from an international student to which I keep returning to interpose comments, with track changes, ready for sending back. However, she has just told me via another email that she has now revised parts of it and wonders if I can comment on the differences. As an examiner I have seen theses without conclusions or abstracts or with abstracts running to several pages, summarising the content of the whole thesis. I have met students whose supervisors seem far too busy to focus on their work or who have disappeared entirely. I have also seen supervisors whose students seem to have disappeared, will not answer contacts and have not produced any writing for a couple of years. The advice, “don’t let your supervisor do all the work”, produces ironic laughter among groups of postgraduates in development sessions but nods of recognition among supervisors. These scenarios - and there are many, many more - suggest that there is a fundamental mismatch in many instances between what students expect of their supervisor and what supervisors can be expected to offer.

Ground rules are as essential as flexibility in relation to differences in learning style, context and discipline. An exercise for supervisors and students adapted by Linda Conrad (Griffith University) from Ingrid Moses involves a dialogue around a continuum identifying responsibilities on everything from designing the research through to editing the final thesis or dissertation. Such activities - perhaps establishing formal/informal learning contracts - enable the foundation of working relationships with clearer goals, expectations and working practices. Colleagues at the many supervisory development workshops I have organised in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the UK, East Asia, Ireland and the Caribbean tend to agree that getting working practices, ground rules and communication processes right at the start of the relationship is crucial for successful supervisor-student relationships, and is only equalled with working tirelessly and creatively to enable students to turn fascinations into research questions; defend the boundaries of research area, methodology and methods; identify and develop conceptual frameworks; and undertake literature surveys leading to a theoretical perspectives chapter that becomes a genuine dialogue between different stances taken by experts and their own work.

Equally important is feedback encouraging critical thinking and empowering students to maintain momentum, refocus if the research (seen as a learning journey) goes awry, modelling, editing, helping to refine writing, as well as ensuring appropriate expression. If this is done, the final piece should display intellectual integrity and rigour, coherence, clear - even publishable - expression and make an original (enough) contribution to knowledge.

In my own research, supervision and development work, which straddles the social sciences and literature, I use analogies and literary examples as creative ways of engaging supervisors and students to open up thinking processes.

Gina Wisker is director of learning and teaching development at Anglia Polytechnic University, where she co-ordinates and teaches on the women’s studies MA, teaches on the English and learning and teaching MAs and supervises a number of PhD and EdD students. She co-edits the Staff and Educational Development Association journal Innovations in Education and Teaching International . Her The Postgraduate Research Handbook (2001) is followed by The Good Supervisor (2005), both published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Further reading for postgraduates and supervisors 

  • Good Practice in Research Supervision edited by G. Wisker and N. Sutcliffe (1999). Staff and Educational Development Association. 
  • Handling Common Dilemmas in Supervision by P. Cryer (1997). Society for Research into Higher Education and The Times Higher .
  • How to Get a PhD: A Handbook for Students and Their Supervisors by E. Phillips and D. S. Pugh (1994). Open University Press.
  • How to Survive Your Viva: Defending Your Thesis in an Oral Examination by R. Murray (2003). Open University Press.
  • How to Write a Thesis by R. Murray (2002). Open University Press.
  • The Postgraduate Research Handbook by G. Wisker (2001). Palgrave Macmillan
  • Supervising the PhD: A Guide to Success by S. Delamont, P. Atkinson and O. Parry (1997). Open University Press.
  • Supervising Postgraduates by I. Moses (1985). HERDSA Green Guide No. 3. Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australia.

Cautionary Tale

Edward Casaubon from George Eliot’s Middlemarch emerges as a cautionary figure. He is a highly intellectual but rather stale academic whom Dorothea marries, and he makes three major mistakes in his research that supervisors and students are advised to avoid.

First, he is engaged in writing “the key to all mythologies” - this is more than a lifelong project, it’s just too huge. Supervisors need to help students define a manageable research project that will make an original contribution to knowledge.

Second, Casaubon refuses to read any other research in case it upsets or disagrees with his own. Researchers need involvement in the debates, the dialogues and the academic community that nurtures and challenges them. They must read, research, argue and write conceptually, responsively, reflectively and critically.

Finally, Casaubon gets his wife to write up his work. But when she points out a few errors of argument and expression, he is livid. He says something of the order of: “I married you so you could be a secretary, not a critic.” This last comment raises hackles and a few laughs, but it also illustrates how we need to ensure research students are open to dialogue, can learn from judicious criticism and can revise where necessary.

Few are born supervisors; but even if the role is thrust upon us, let’s ensure that we share good practice and develop in a dynamic relationship alongside our diverse students
as they become empowered to complete good-quality research, making a real contribution to the field and to academia. 

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