spoon-feeding PhD students – extending the metaphor for supervisory practice

A row of hand carved wooden spoons rests in a holding rack. The spoons are all differently shaped and sized.

Every so often someone opens their mouth in a meeting and out tumbles “but we mustn’t ‘spoon-feed’ our PhD students – they have to be independent.” Recently, I’ve been wondering in some detail what’s behind this reaction, and how, in my role, I can interpret what this means for researcher and supervisor development.

So if we say a student should ‘be independent’ – what do we mean? Some ways of interpreting independence are below and yes I go through the tedious task of copy and pasting the 4 options out of the Oxford English Dictionary because I wonder if the definition of what it is to be independent, might be the first point of expectation-clash over what constitutes PhD supervision…

When we say postgraduate researchers should be independent, we probably don’t mean:

  1. Free from outside control; not subject to another’s authority
  2. Not depending on another for livelihood or subsistence

We probably do mean:

  1. Capable of thinking or acting for oneself

But, it can easily, and scarily if you’re the student in this scenario, be confused with:

  1. Not connected with another or with each other; separate

Simply declaring every student ‘should be independent’ is clearly not a licence to be hands-off in their development to the point of neglect – though this is one style of supervision I do sometimes see knocking about the place.

So if it’s not an ‘all or nothing situation’ where we don’t want to it all for them, and we don’t want to do nothing for them, then what’s the role of the conscientious supervisor in allowing a student to become capable of thinking or acting for them self? The key is in the word become.

The PhD is a degree, so we can expect some learning to take place over the course of it, and I think it deserves explicit acknowledgment that even in modern structures where doctoral development is distributed across many teams and individuals, the key influencer/enabler of the development of learning, and the development of independence as a researcher, is the supervisor. It makes clear sense that new PhD students don’t all come in to the university already fully formed as confident academic researchers – we have to teach them to do this. Yet the ‘good student/bad student’ false dichotomy does persist, visible in the way that quieter, less communicative, less confident, less extroverted students, those who are more deferential in their approach to learning, and those who check and double check before proceeding, can be written off early in the process as ‘not independent’. Their need for information, support, validation, or clear instructions is labelled as ‘needing spoon-feeding’.

To be frank I should hope that everyone incoming to any role at the university would have the capacity to ‘think and act for themselves’, but we don’t think and act in isolation, we are shaped and influenced by the structures, relationships, cultures, and practices that surround us. To define independence as being ‘Capable of thinking or acting for oneself’ isn’t meaningful as a definition of PhD independence. So let me extend it:

Capable of thinking or acting for oneself to make appropriate decisions, according to the rules of academic disciplinary engagement, in accordance with both the career landscape and with institutional processes.

Current best models of how we understand doctoral and researcher academic development deal with a gradual and incremental development of a researcher identity over time, fuelled by dialogue with those more senior in the culture, and supported by a sense of security to experiment and try our ‘new ways of being’. And as I heard Prof. Gina Whisker say at the conference I’m at right now, “students develop knowledge construction when reassured about their position in the world as researchers.”

So if as supervisors, put role is to enable development through reassurance, lets go back to the ‘spoon-fed’ problem.

The assumption here would be that the knowledge of how to get on in academia, or even how to finish a PhD, can be broken down into tangible spoonfuls and one by one shovelled into the student until they have achieved doctorateness. Withholding the information and providing it piecemeal is not a good model for developing independence.

Think of the spoon as the mechanism by which the student comes to understand what they need to do in order to make progress in their PhD, interpret the nuances of the research culture, develop the gumption and patience to navigate HEI systems and processes, and hone that discerning eye that can identify and utilise good opportunities and reject bad ones.

So if you find you are using the spoon-feeding metaphor in your practice, here are some questions for you to reflect on:

How can you let the student take hold of the spoon and choose their own best way forward? Consider that you might have to actively let go of control of some things?

How can you support them to get their own spoon? What even is the spoon (the skills, attributes and behaviours of the independent, confident learner)?

A student’s ‘spoon’ isn’t going to materialise overnight, even if you insist and insist they should have brought one when they arrived to start the PhD. Their development comes by a process of enculturation into their research discipline, and you are their guide into that discipline. You also connect them to the entity that is ‘the university’ and they will look to you to know what processes they need to complete to get through the PhD.

You don’t need to spoon feed them, but it helps to spend time sharing what you do, and clueing them in to how and why things are done in certain ways. Do let them have a look at the menu of academic life, and make their own choices about what they spoon up.

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