Tough love works for fledglings

June 13, 2003

Striking a balance between starving and spoon-feeding postgraduates is a tricky business, says Gina Wisker

Doing a masters and, later, a PhD were two of the most important ventures I ever undertook. Gaining them not only boosted my confidence, but opened doors professionally. The two experiences, however, were very different.

Studying for my masters was a group experience. We were all part-timers and we met once a week. There were only a few of us, so we talked furiously. The tutor was one of the group. When the teaching stopped, we carried on talking, socialising, supporting each other. We passed on references, looked at work in progress and discussed critical issues touched on in seminars.

Then I started the PhD. This was a six-and-a-half-year long haul. At first I was lonely and isolated. I had a vague idea of an area I wanted to look at; the question emerged later. I was in a one-to-one relationship with my supervisor. He was happy to talk about my work - sent in advance - for as long as it took for the penny to drop. We once spoke for seven hours non-stop. Later, I would send chapters, drive 120 miles to reach him, talk for an hour about the work, and get on with it. There was no email and I rarely phoned. The meetings were special and immensely supportive. But it was only when my tutor suggested that I was part of an academic community that I really became enthused. I started to go to conferences and contacted experts, one of whom lent me books and introduced me to his research group.

I had friends to talk with about my subject. We ate at each others' houses, shared journal articles and, eventually, after job moves and life changes, I finished.

Now that I am a tutor and a supervisor, I see the other side. My MA students are mostly local and have developed a support group. My PhD students are a mixture: some local, one in Africa, several in Israel; some studying English, some women's studies, some learning and teaching-related areas. I know they need me. I also know I am very busy. Working with a student on areas of mutual interest is really rewarding, but it is also a job that expands like a concertina. Supervisors always feel guilty that they have not been in touch with their students enough. Conversely, they also worry that they are doing too much of the work. Students in research methods development sessions would laugh at this idea, but supervisors are like mothers weaning babies off dependence and into autonomy.

The supervisory relationship may differ depending on the subject and whether the student is part or full time, or studying at a distance, but all need support. Culture, gender, language and time difference come into play. A good supervisor-student relationship can thrive only if both parties share mutual expectations and have established ground rules about the regularity, type and focus of supervisions. Students studying nearby, for example, can still command focused moments of supervision as I did.

Those studying part time and/or at a distance also need regular contact times. I ask students to send email drafts of work and comment in a regular online office hour. I send back annotations and may follow this with phone calls when tricky conceptual moments or learning leaps arise. It is different for full-time science students, I expect. They might work alongside a research group that meets regularly, but find that they are not so sure what is their own work and what is more properly the work of the group and supervisor. My distance students tend to send me 47-page revised chapters and expect immediate responses. Sometimes their English is a real stumbling block to understanding. They phone at awkward moments with serious concerns, then disappear for months on end, unresponsive to promptings by mail and email.

Supervising at a distance is a difficult skill to learn. It is preferable to meet at the beginning to clarify working arrangements and directions of the research, in the middle to maintain momentum, and at the end of a large research piece such as a PhD. As they complete, students need support. They must ensure that the conceptual framework, underpinning theory, research evidence, arguments and writing are clear and pulled together in the abstract, the body of text and the conclusion. They need links between chapters and signposting throughout so that the completed piece emerges as a cohesive, well-focused contribution to debates in the field.

My PhD supervision work in particular has been some of the most culturally, intellectually and personally rewarding "teaching" I have ever done. With research students, the learning conversations never stop.

Gina Wisker is director of learning and teaching development at Anglia Polytechnic University. Her book, The Good Supervisor , will be published next year by Palgrave Macmillan.

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