Trailblazers: Enabling ECRs to lead doctoral supervisory teams

This is a guest post by Dr Kieran Fenby-Hulse, Assistant Professor in Research Capability & Development at Coventry University.

Experience of doing Research Supervision is essential to a researcher’s career development. Progression and interview panels, for academic roles, often expect some level of research supervision experience, with an increasing focus on acting as Lead/First Supervisor or Director of Studies. Acting as a supervisor provides researchers with the opportunity to develop and hone a range of personal and professional development skills and practices, including intellectual leadership, teaching and learning, support and development, coaching and mentoring, team building, emotional intelligence and pastoral care, as well as negotiation and conflict resolution. The act of supervision can also familiarise supervisors with the institutional, national, and international contexts for doctoral study and the changing funding landscapes for postgraduates. In this sense, supervision provides a particularly powerful form of work-based learning.

Supervision of others also offers the opportunity for researchers to develop their research portfolio, programme, and/or body of work. It helps them to further their expertise, learning with and from postgraduate researchers. It supports capacity building in their area of research and can also enable innovative and interdisciplinary approaches to research. In addition, it offers the opportunity to expand their research community and network.

The benefits to both the researcher and the research in undertaking supervision are significant. Nevertheless, early career researchers (ECRs) rarely have the opportunity to partake in supervisory practices. 

For some, this is a result of stringent eligibility policies and processes within universities that require certain levels of experience before supervision can be undertaken. These institutional processes are not misplaced. The emerging field of doctoral education shows that doctoral pedagogy is nuanced and fraught with difficulties, with issues arising often from the intimate and unseen nature of supervisory process (Boud and Lee, 2008Walker and Thomson, 2010Bengsten 2016;). In addition, recent student satisfaction surveys have provided us with an insight into postgraduate researcher perspectives that have also highlighted issues in the supervisory relationship (HEA Postgraduate Research Experience Survey, 2009-2018; Vitae, 2013Vitae, 2018). Institutions, therefore, are quite right in thinking through their approach to research supervision and with ensuring their supervisors have access to training and development and a good understanding of the nuances of the policy context and doctoral education.

This, though, has the unintended effect of leaving ECRs out of the process, as they have not yet met the quality assurance standards set by a university. This is compounded by the precarious nature of work for ECRs, where short-term contracts work against the longer-term nature required for doctoral supervision. 

To try to address some, but not all, of these challenges, the Centre for Research Capability and Development at Coventry University recently piloted a new internal funding scheme. The Trailblazers: The Early-Career Researcher and Doctoral Studentship Partnering Schemeprovides ECRs with the opportunity to lead a supervisory team and develop a doctoral project. The centrally-funded scheme focuses on trailblazing, transformative research with exceptional doctoral candidates. Important to the scheme is ensuring that the doctoral project is devised and developed by the early-career researcher and connected to the ECR’s wider programme of research and development as an independent researcher. By having the ECR intellectually lead the doctoral project, we can ensure that the scheme offers both the doctoral researcher and the ECR a developmental opportunity. 

Given ECRs are often less experienced in supervision, it is important that the doctoral experience is not impacted in any way. As such, the scheme requires that an experienced mentor with significant experience of research supervision sits on the supervisory team. We also asked that, as part of the application, for a developmental plan for both the doctoral researcher and the ECR, that takes into account both the research and researcher development.

It is possible that ECRs, particularly at early stages of their career, will move on, either because of fixed term contracts or because of career and research development opportunities. Our approach at Coventry is to keep the number of fixed-term contracts to an absolute minimum and have in the last two years halved the number of researchers on fixed term contracts. Instead we try to backfill (where possible) research assistant and research fellow posts on funded projects, rather than recruit new fixed-term positions. In addition, through our investment schemes and our developmental provision that supports doctoral, early, middle and senior career researchers, we hope to provide an attractive research environment that encourages our ECRs to stay. It is still possible that supervisors will leave and so the team-based model is central to our supervisory provision, each doctoral researcher on this scheme supported by at least two other supervisors, so that should this happens there is continuity for the doctoral researcher.

Studentships will be announced in March. We hope that this alternative approach to supervision, not only provides a significant developmental opportunity for the ECR that recognises their talent and expertise, but that also provides an innovative and dynamic intellectual space for the doctoral researcher, who has an opportunity to partner with an ECR to deliver trailblazing research and academic impact. 

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