Supervision: the balance between support and autonomy

This is a guest post by Chloe Casey, Postgraduate Researcher at Bournemouth University whose own PhD is investigating the role of supervision in PhD student mental health. She Tweets as @ChloeCaraCasey

A PhD Comic strip by The 4 panels depict a supervisor seizing control of a draft manuscript rather than teaching the student how to write.

We all know that supervision can shape doctoral students’ experiences, but are supervisors to blame for the increased prevalence of mental health problems in postgraduate researchers?

Research focuses on the supervisor as a key factor affecting postgraduate researchers’ wellbeing (Schmidt and Umans 2014, Devine and Hunter, 2017), attrition (Travaglianti et al 2018) and the development of mental health problems (Levecque et al 2017).

Specifically, Levecque et al (2017) found that supervisors’ leadership style significantly predicted the risk of psychological distress and the development of mental health problems. Caesens et al (2014) also identified an association between reduced levels of supervisor satisfaction with increased stress, exhaustion and worry. However, most postgraduate researchers in the UK have positive experiences with their supervisory teams as illustrated in 2018 Postgraduate Research Experience Survey (PRES) data: 86% were satisfied with their supervision.

This leads me to question; how can UK postgraduate students’ supervision be satisfactory but also contribute to the development of mental health problems?

My own survey findings have been as contradictory as existing literature. Overall, I have found that postgraduate researchers at my university were mostly satisfied with their supervisory relationships, in fact, they rated supervision as the least impactful factor affecting their wellbeing. Yet, a significant negative relationship was observed between supervisory support and resilience and wellbeing. This suggests that in cases where the postgraduate researchers experienced conflict or dissatisfaction with their supervisor, their wellbeing was significantly compromised.

My qualitative findings shed some light on this. As Nature speculated in their recent article, The mental health of PhD researchers demands urgent attention: problems arise when autonomy is reduced or removed. ‘Control’ was the overarching theme from my qualitative analysis. Postgraduate researchers enjoy the freedom and flexibility of managing their own project with autonomy from the influence of others. They enjoy the opportunity to freely explore, discover and investigate in a field they are passionate about. While most accept that annual monitoring and feedback is a necessary part of doctoral study, institutional milestones and guidance from supervisors can be seen as attempts to stifle their creativity or threaten their freedom.

A challenge of doctoral supervision is striking the balance between providing sufficient support and encouraging postgraduate researchers to develop into autonomous, independent researchers. Most recently there has been a move towards more collaborative partnerships in comparison to expert-discipline, dictatorship models of supervision. Doctoral students tend to become more independent as they progress in their research degree (Thompson et al 2005) often seeing themselves as having more power over their research than their supervisors as time goes on. Universities, particularly supervisors, need to recognise these changes in power balance, foster independence and allow the control to gradually shift to the student throughout the research journey. 

Overall et al’s (2011) survey data demonstrated that a combination of high levels of academic support combined with high levels of autonomy created high research self-efficacy in doctoral students. There appears to be a ‘sweet spot’ between support and autonomy; encouraging, guiding and advising supervisees whilst empowering them to make independent decisions.

More research is clearly needed to further explore the interplay between supervisor/supervisee power and mental wellbeing. However, I would encourage supervisors to reflect on their own experiences with their supervisees and consider how they can provide the best support to their students whilst respecting their need for autonomy.

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