Focusing on the supervisor-student relationship through the practice of gratitude

This is a guest post by Dr Kerry Howells, Senior Lecturer in Curriculum and Pedagogy, a the University of Tasmania. Here is her professional website, with links to her book, blog and resources. The post below is based on her recently published paper on gratitude within supervision relationships.

Photo by Lucas Lenzi on Unsplash

A respectful and trusting relationship between doctoral students and their supervisors is crucial to the success of the research process, and often to the wellbeing and flourishment of both parties. However, this is one of the most fraught areas of the supervision process, and a breakdown in communication between supervisors and students has been cited as one of the main reasons for a student to drop out or report high levels of stress. 

Supervisors are often just expected to ‘know’ how to navigate complexities such as disappointment from the student about unmet expectations, mismatch in terms of personality or communication style, or cross-cultural differences. Rarely do they receive actual training in what are often deemed as the soft or ‘fluffy’ skills of research supervision. 

Having researched the role of gratitude in a range of different educational contexts over the past two decades, I have come to recognise the central place it has in the teaching and learning process, particularly its capacity to both build and maintain relationships. Briefly, gratitude can be defined as giving back out of acknowledgement for what we receive from another, in ways that are not necessarily reciprocal. As such it can awaken greater consciousness as supervisors to ensure that we are not only focusing on what we give to our students but also what we receive from them. Similarly, students are encouraged to not only look for what they can get from their supervisors or their fellow students and the institution, but what they can give. For both parties, a focus on gratitude can means a move from an exchange paradigm to a gift paradigm, where PhD studies are not seen as a commodity that is paid for or for that matter, that which has currency in the dollars invested by our government, but a privilege. 

I was given the opportunity and privilege to investigate the role gratitude might have for eight PhD students and their two supervisors in the Faculties of Science and Medicine. This case study explored the impact of gratitude as an intervention over a six-week period. Findings revealed a positive impact in the areas of communication, social and emotional wellbeing, as well as the research process itself. These findings were both a delight and a relief for the supervisors, especially because of the research-intensive environment of this context, where projects are designed around funded co-research with the student and supervisor (as opposed to the student taking up an individual project). Millions of dollars were poured into equipment that needed to be handled with the upmost care. Good relationships and communication were crucial from a number of angles. 

Here I will outline the gratitude practices taken up by the supervisors as part of this intervention, with the hope that you may also wish to adopt or adapt some of these in your own work with doctoral students. Note that I have called gratitude a ‘practice’ – a focused, purposeful action that is taken up consistently over a period of time. This is distinct from advocating that we try to always feel grateful or that we express this gratitude to everyone in our lives – goals that are out of reach, not sustainable, and unrealistic. It’s important to note, that we take up a practice despite how we might be feeling or despite being around seemingly ungrateful people.  We don’t need to be feeling positive in order to practise gratitude. Nor are we waiting for someone to reciprocate our gratitude.

Additionally, we also don’t measure the impact or success of our gratitude by how another changes. This is not about changing another, it is about reflecting on ourselves and focusing on what we receive from our students, and how we might acknowledge this in some way with them. The aim is to take up one or two practices, with one or two students. The idea is that this focused effort, and noticing how this changes how we feel about our connection with our student, it will permeate our other interactions.  

It’s best to choose situations that are a little out of our comfort zone but not too challenging. Let me give a few examples here from the case study. One supervisor chose to focus on what I call ‘A State of Preparedness’ before she went into the research meetings. This meant that she prepared her inner attitude by contemplating all she was grateful for about the project and about her student. She gave some considered thought to this when driving to work. The supervisor reported that this feeling of gratitude gave her greater attentiveness to the student and an improved ability to connect with them as people, rather than just a focus on the project. 

Another supervisor recognised that he was not very good at listening to his students and seemed to do all of the talking. His gratitude practice – his way of giving back to them out of acknowledgment for what he received – was to make a greater effort to listen to his students. This had the effect of them feeling more able to talk to him about their concerns about their project, and diminished their fears of doing so and then them not feeling acknowledged or heard. 

It’s amazing that such small changes can reap such significant results. When there is so much pressure to perform and get results or get published, we tend to forget that we are dealing with people – people who need to connect with their supervisor and their project with their hearts. If we bring a heart of gratitude to our doctoral students, we inherently bring focus and intention to the relationship, and thus give clear messages to the students that they matter, and that we care about and acknowledge what they give to us. 

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