Supervision: Enjoy the Process and
Achieve your Goals
Dr. Rolene Lamm, Centre For Learning and Teaching
Support, Monash University .
The importance of the supervisory relationship LUPA Article
A review of the literature on tertiary supervision and my
own work in the area have highlighted some critical
features of supervision. I felt that sharing some insights generated by these findings may provide useful markers for higher degree students. This brief compilation aims to help students to help themselves, and thereby prevent supervisory difficulties. Moreover, it attempts to encourage students to approach supervision with forethought, and an awareness of certain pertinent issues, and to motivate students to take personal responsibility for ensuring quality supervision and to be proactive within the supervisory process.
Higher degree candidature is generally a long and arduous process towards the goal of a substantial and original contribution to knowledge. During this time the supervisor is the student’s principle source of intellectual guidance and support and
this relationship has been found to be of extreme importance to higher degree candidature. When positive, this interaction has the capacity to increase the likelihood of timely degree completion as well as facilitate personal intellectual growth and professional development. A poor supervisory relationship on the other hand increases student discontent and frustration and often results in non completion.
For many students, the experience comprises elements of both good and poor supervision, fluctuating between the two. It is a relationship with which students frequently encounter difficulties. The optimal goal is to maximise the positive features of supervision to enhance the process and ensure the most favourable degree outcomes.
How to establish a good supervisory relationship
Firstly, select your supervisor carefully! Supervisor and supervisee must be able to work together amicably. You will need to meet with this academic repeatedly over a long period of time, through a range of circumstances. Only if you respect the ability and expertise of this individual will you be willing to listen to advice and act upon it. A cautious, informed choice of supervisor, to the best of your ability and within the constraints of reality is well worth the time and effort. It can save much heartache later on. Remember, supervision has been compared to a marriage and change of supervisor though possible may also be painful and distract from your primary objective.
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The compatible supervisor should be:
- ideally someone who is interested in and preferably a specialist in your
- someone whose personality and personal manner is one with which you
feel a sense of comfort
- someone who shares or has a good understanding of your work and study
- someone whose academic competence you value and respect
Good communication as the foundation of the supervisory relationship is fundamental. It is paramount that the student feel unthreatened and at ease to communicate with the supervisor. Students have reported difficulty asking for help, or fear at even asking for explanation of something a supervisor has suggested. Often it is daunting for an older professional student to admit ignorance to a supervisor. But without a relatively easy dialogue between the supervisory dyad, the student’s general intellectual development and progress with the thesis may well be hampered. At the outset, establish a contractual arrangement where mutual expectations, rights and responsibilities are clarified. Agree in advance on the nature and frequency of formal supervisory meetings, expectations for written work, modes and timelines for feedback.
Honesty, a construct one may believe bears little debate, seems to need some redefining in supervisory practice. For both members of the dyad to be truthful and honest in their interactions, though at times difficult, is clearly preferable. Good communication can facilitate honest behaviour. For example, a supervisor who reported being unable to tell a student she would not make the grade, admitted to stringing her along year after year. Most students indicate a desire for honest appraisal of their work, even when it is unfavourable.
Ethical concerns should also be clarified in advance. Who owns the research data and the publications that may emerge for the study? In some faculties these issues are more clearly defined and understood than in others. Some supervisors feel that higher degree research is the students’ work entirely. In certain situations however,
supervisors have felt that they have devoted enormous personal time, effort and expertise to their supervisee’s study and have substantial ownership over the material and should therefore be given some recognition in publications. At times this has been to the point of expecting to be the first author, or even publishing the data alone.
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Mutual benefit in supervision
It should be noted that the most positive supervisory relationships do take into account the supervisors needs too. Supervisors can benefit significantly from their interactions with students, who can provide them with cognitive and cultural development. As the degree progresses greater collegiality develops within the dyad such that a greater symmetry of opportunity is possible.
What students need from a supervisor
Notwithstanding the hierarchical nature of the supervisory relationship, students must be proactive in relation to their unique supervisory needs. Each student embarks on higher degree study with his/her own series of rationale, goals and objectives. You have to assist your supervisor in order to appreciate your requirements from the degree process. These may range from career goals to confronting difficult features of the research, to the nature of feedback required from written work. Some students have expressed a need for more nurturing and mothering while others want more rigorous critiques and challenge of their work by a supervisor. Certain student requirements may be perceived to be unreasonable within the parameters of the discipline, a staff member’s available time, inclination or capacity. However, with clear communication, a mutual understanding of reasonable expectations and limitations can be reached.
Stages of the degree process
Higher degree candidature is not a static, singular mode of functioning. On the contrary, the research takes the student through a broad range of phases from a dependent student to an independent researcher. It is, however, not simply a linear progression from learner to expert. Individual variance is evident in the degree of dependence or independence experienced and desired by each student. It is helpful if the student’s style of study in terms of dependence/independence matches the supervisor’s expectations of them. For example, some students hate the spoon-feeding the supervisor believes is a necessary part of the task while others wish their supervisor would provide more guidance and structure. Though this mode of studying and working may be a feature of the individual’s cognitive style and work style, it is also open to fluctuations over the differing stages where a student may feel more or less in control of the material.
Many students experience a fair amount of insecurity in the early stages of the project, often in relation to the undertaking and their competence in successfully fulfilling the academic expectations. During such times the needs from the supervisor are greater as the learner requires substantial validation of each small portion of work produced in order to build work. Generally the middle stages of thesis production see a relatively independent mode of work which continues sporadically till the end where often students again need a reasonable amount of guidance and support from the supervisor in order to write up and complete the thesis.
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At all times throughout the candidature, the student should inform the supervisor as to the level of guidance needed at each point. Even where clarification has taken place initially, the student has to ensure repeated renegotiation with the supervisor to take into account the ever-changing needs within the process.
Be aware though, not all the requirements of higher degree candidature can be met by one or even two excellent supervisors. Isolation has been well documented as a phenomenon of the PhD process in the Humanities and the Social Sciences. Collegial associations have been found to somewhat combat the problem. Students are well advised to seek out contact with other higher degree students and staff members. Look for informal avenues of peer support to keep motivated and to widen your intellectual horizons. In conclusion, approach supervision with forethought, take personal responsibility for ensuring quality supervision and be proactive in the supervisory process.
Last Updated: 6/30/2011
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