Surviving supervision: walking the rackety bridge, together

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Why do we need to talk about supervision?

Supervision is an important part of the PhD

Doing a PhD is challenging even for the most prepared and confident individuals. The PhD journey is a personal intellectual quest during which the bar is constantly raised for you and by you. Beside personal motivation, social relationships also play an important part toward your success on this journey. Yet, whether you work by yourself or with other colleagues, there is always at least one relationship you should consider: the one with your supervisor.

A good working relationship between a student and his or her supervisor(s) can be beneficial in so many ways, not only throughout your candidature but also your future opportunities. Often, however, a good relationship is exactly what is missing.

…and it is tricky

“…supervision is far more than a simple contract of mutual
responsibilities between supervisor and student.” – Barbara Grant

Supervision is a tricky matter. That’s one of the reasons why this issue has attracted increasing scholarly attention in the last two decades*. Even there are resources for improving supervision, problems persist: there are supervisors who don’t do what they are supposed to do, and there are young doctoral students who often do not know what to expect.

Even though institutional policies on supervision exist—and are helpful—they do not determine how this relationship finally turns out to be. Conflicts and tensions often take place in diverse, subtler forms which can’t easily be captured by a set of guidelines.

Barbara Grant argues that supervisory relationship is constitutive of un-regulable dimensions that makes it “murky” and “opaque”. She likens this relationship to a “rackety bridge” in which both the supervisor and the student should proceed with consideration for the dynamics of “desire, power and identity”. As we know, dealing with each of them—desire, power, identity—is tricky in itself, let alone the combination of all.

Can we do better?

There is “no manual” for supervision, argued Gunnarsson and colleagues, because supervising is a learning process. Even so, it is still better to learn from the wisdom of people who have had experiences with supervision. Even how you failed, and what you could have done better, can be valuable information.

Therefore, it is always good to hear from both sides, supervisors and supervisees, about their experiences—whatever is worth sharing: the good, the bad, the ugly. By engaging both supervisors and supervisees into a conversation—which does not easily happen in real life—we can learn more about each other’s perspective in order to maintain a healthier supervisory relationship, and more broadly a healthier working relationship between seniors and juniors in academia.

It is for this reason that we have decided to launch an initiative in which we invite you to share your experience as a supervisee, a supervisor, or even as an observer.

How to share your experience?

There are three ways to share the experience. You can either (1) comment directly in our webpage, below the post, or (2) reply to our tweet using the hashtag #supervisdom (supervision wisdom). Alternatively, if you feel like pouring your heart out, don’t hesitate to (3) write a post for ECHER Blog.

To conclude the discussion, we’ll create a summary that can be used as a resource for everyone. In this way, the more people engage, the better resource we’ll have!

Let’s start the conversation for a happier supervision experience!

* Quick literature searches on Web of Science and Scopus on supervision returned 235 and 482 results, respectively. Results from both databases generally displayed an increase in the number of articles. The search was conducted on 21 Oct 2019, limited to English and peer-reviewed literature, using the string (“supervisor and student relationship” OR supervision) AND (“PhD” OR “doctoral” OR “postgraduate”) AND (“higher education” OR “university”).

Ai Tam Le (@aitamlp) is a PhD candidate at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, University of Melbourne. Her research interests revolve around the academic profession and higher education. Her current PhD aims to map doctoral students’ perspectives of what it means to be an academic.

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