Community Acuity (20): what of person-centred PhD supervision?

‘Community Acuity’ blog posts are from supervisors, to supervisors. They share the thoughts, experiences and reflection of the highs and the challenges of supervising doctoral students. This is a guest post from Dr Russell Delderfield, Psychologist at the University of Bradford and Visiting Lecturer at King’s College London.

A white woman stands alone at the centre of a yellow cross painted onto  an open road. She looks apprehensive and clasps her hands.
Photo by Joshua Ness on Unsplash

I would not have guessed it at the beginning but it turns out that I seem to ‘specialise’ in supervising researchers who do not conform to our traditional ideas about the shape of a PhD. 

I’d argue, however, that these researchers form the future of doctoral education in many universities. Someone working full-time whilst studying for a degree by research part-time is no longer a quirky exception, many people are doing it to achieve their dreams of a PhD. If we want to keep the next generation of scholars progressing, then embracing different ways of doing a degree by research are not only desirable – they are imperative.

In some respects, PhD researchers have always fitted a less standardised profile of learner. This is certainly my experience. Only one of my current postgraduate researchers is doing a regular full-time mode of study, everyone else is making research fit with their lives in different ways that work for them. I’m proud to say Bradford is particularly strong at this, having recently won an award for its social inclusion. We welcome people from a wide range of backgrounds who need to be somewhat creative in how they manage complex commitments, as they juggle their passion for research with the practical realities of family, job, subsistence and investing in their careers. 

Rather than dwelling on the potential pitfalls of studying non-traditionally, I’d like to share some reflections on why offering PhD supervision to candidates with a variety of working patterns and needs can be fruitful for all concerned.

There are certain elements that I try to bring to supervision that facilitate these projects. I’ve realised these aren’t accidental. I am a reflective practitioner, so, whilst nobody’s perfect, I really try to think about my supervision from the supervisees perspective as much as I can. 

Firstly, I freely share that my own PhD was done part-time whilst working full-time – I developed my own strategies to cope with this and I think sharing practical tips that can’t be found elsewhere really helps. It also ensures that I can ‘tune-in’ to my students – their experience is not alien to me, as I made similar choices, having returned to study late after another couple of careers elsewhere.

Using a person-centred approach helps. This resolutely does not mean turning into the researcher’s counsellor. It means actually ‘attending to’ the person in front of you. This can be genuinely difficult after a long day or when you’re sandwiching in meetings between multiple commitments (on both sides). I’m supposed to ‘guide’, ‘advise’, and ‘feed-back’ but a little active listening or careful use of silence can go a long way too. 

Putting the person at the heart of their supervision experience also, of course, means that I encourage pastoral aspects to supervisory relationship. I realise that other supervisors may disagree but I worry that this aspect of supervision has been vanishing of recent times, with the advancement of the range and excellent quality of support services and networks available to PhD researchers. 

Yes, we need to ensure that a project stays on track and is of benefit to the world but supervision can also provide a secure place to process personal obstacles that could impede a researcher’s progression. Inclusive supervision is about appreciating that sometimes, it’s not about the research. Not about the data. It can be about replenishing a person’s passion when they are at a low ebb or listening to frustrations regrading mounting minor issues that have come to feel monolithic, helping the researcher to actively challenge or reframe these in a more useful light.

If you’re reading this, you’re already likely to be someone who believes in the power and freedom that a strong supervisory relationship can provide… so now for the contentious bit. I am in no way advocating a loss of a supervisor’s work-life balance or right to reasonable working conditions but it’s amazing what some flexibility can do for someone’s scholarly stamina.

Often with non-traditional candidates, they cannot always make supervision or engage in supervisory contact at a regular time. These students are not always available on campus as a matter of course, some people truly want to do their degree but also admit their prioritisation sometimes must err away from the project by necessity. Being able to arrange things around the researcher can often show that we are on their side, that we believe them when they tell us how much they’re juggling, and that you are as committed as they are to getting their research degree. It can foster a supervisory bond that can weather the troughs of studying over a longer period – up to six years, say.

In addition to offering as much flexibility as I can reasonably provide, transparency is key with non-traditional candidates. There’s a difference between adding feedback to someone’s draft and saying ‘What does this mean?’ versus ‘This doesn’t work yet but I want you to see if you can unpick this for yourself, hence I’m not suggesting how to edit it for improvement.’ 

If I think they are not sticking to their schedule due to a lack of planning and organisation, we deal with that openly within the relationship. Someone just last week admitted to me that it wasn’t the kids, the job or A.N. Other reason – their project’s progress had stalled because they had ‘gotten fed-up’. There’s nothing in an administrative system or a PGR process that accounts for this. What do you do when someone runs out of steam or falls out of love with their research? Is it down to their mode of study? Down to cramming so many things into a busy life? The thing is, I don’t know. So, I try not to make assumptions (often very difficult, let’s face it, when you’re there because you are the more experienced researcher who’s already been through the qualification).

I ask questions. A lot.  

This may seem obvious (indeed, I truly hope it is) but in the pressured world of academia, where we take on more and more to meet the needs of our institutions or progress our careers, where we are expected to be ‘goal-oriented’ and ‘solution-focused’, we sometimes get by using a sort of communication short-hand with those around us. This isn’t conducive to a good learning relationship.  

There are many of ways to make PhD supervision more inclusive. Being on auto-pilot during our interactions with our students is one not one of them. Nor is imagining that we can mind-read. We’d never do that with our own research – why do it with someone else’s?

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