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Being shortlisted for the Outstanding Research Supervisor of the Year award has made me look back at both a role I have undertaken for more than 20 years and my own experience as a PhD student. Most importantly, it has made me look at what it means to be a research supervisor.
One of the things I remember reading as a student is that a PhD is a journey. However, while you know where you want to end up, you might not fully appreciate what the journey will involve. There will be detours, delays, blind alleys and hills (or perhaps mountains) to climb. However, there will also be learning, new relationships, times when the journey is smooth and new paths to explore or perhaps even create.
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Over and above this there is “life”, which continues despite the fact that you are doing a PhD, and this means that the whole range of events can (and often do) happen. What does this mean for the PhD supervisor who is a companion on this journey?
Preparing for and navigating the PhD journey
Looking at definitions of “supervisor”, most seem to include elements of overseeing the work of others and making sure that it is done in line with the required policies and procedures. While these are certainly part of the research supervisor’s role, they only tell part of the story. Going back to the journey metaphor, perhaps “tour guide” offers a broader understanding.
Tour guides often have experience of undertaking similar journeys themselves and can provide useful advice about both preparing for what is coming and how to deal with things that might be encountered en route. In terms of preparation, then, the key decisions are: what will the journey focus on? And where do you want to travel?
As a research supervisor, I often find myself spending a lot of time with the student in the early stages of supporting a PhD journey working out exactly what the research question(s) are. Sometimes they will say they want to do a survey, but without a clear research question there is no way of knowing whether a survey is the right method. It’s like saying you want to travel by train to a destination where there are no trains. You might catch a train, but it will not get you where you want to be.
When to intervene and when to let students explore on their own
Tour guides understand the direction of travel and can make sure that the journey keeps on track. However, as a good tour guide understands, all travellers are different and all have their own needs. The guide needs to know when to intervene and when to step back, when to provide directions and when to leave the traveller to explore independently. They might also need to tell the traveller to slow down, speed up or even stop for a while. Research supervision requires all these actions, too.
Most importantly, good tour guides are good communicators and can develop effective relationships with those they are travelling with. Imagine undertaking a journey alongside someone who didn’t communicate with you, who didn’t explain things or who didn’t challenge you to look at things in a different way. A good guide will not only suggest the next stage of the journey but will also tell you why this stage is important and how it will help you to reach your destination.
One thing I have found important when supervising is to make sure I explain why I am suggesting a certain course of action and, when doing so, to say how this helps the candidate to arrive at their desired destination (the PhD). For example, when supporting students to write their methods chapter, I will try to show how providing a clear, well-reasoned argument for methodological choices will assist the reader (examiner) to understand why a particular approach was chosen. Later in the journey (the examination), this will assist them in defending why they did what they did.
Why PhD students should journal about their journey
Some travellers find that keeping a journal of their journey is helpful because it helps them to recall what they did and why they did it. I always recommend that students I am supporting keep a reflexive journal in which they can document key decisions, feelings, emerging insights and their personal progress. I always find looking back at the reflexive journal I kept as a student interesting, particularly where I have needed to rethink my approach. Without keeping track of this, I would not have remembered why such changes were necessary.
So, if the PhD is a journey, then perhaps “supervisor” doesn’t cover everything that is needed when taking on this responsibility. I am not suggesting that we be renamed tour guides, but I do advocate thinking about this metaphor when reflecting on our role and how we develop it. As a research supervisor, it has been a privilege to be a travel companion for several students and I have learned so much in this process.
At the beginning of my supervisory journey, I don’t think I fully appreciated all it would entail. However, looking back, it has certainly been an enjoyable journey. Whether you are an experienced supervisor or just starting out, I hope that the journey metaphor helps you as it has helped me.
Ruth Northway is professor emerita of learning disability nursing in the Faculty of Life Sciences and Education at the University of South Wales.
Ruth has been shortlisted in the Outstanding Research Supervisor of the Year category in the Times Higher Education Awards 2023 #THEAwards. A full list of nominees can be found here. The awards will be presented at a ceremony in Liverpool on 7 December.
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