Community Acuity (21): working through transitions to support confidence and clarity

’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 by Professor Peter Hartley, Independent Educational Consultant, Visiting Professor at Edge Hill University and National Teaching Fellow.

Michelle Morgan delivered an inspiring keynote at the November 2019 SEDA Conference. Her main theme was how we conceptualise transitions that students go through during their time at university, both undergraduate and postgraduate. Her model – Student Experience Transitions (SET) – provides a useful framework for staff and institutions to review how they manage this.

One of her key points was that staff should beware of making unfounded assumptions about student experience and expertise. For example, we all hear about ‘digital natives’ but students’ expertise with technology may be limited to social and entertainment applications – this is not the same as using technology to the full for learning. 

Similarly, we as tutors or supervisors, may assume that students ‘know the rules of the game’ and will be able to slot into the researcher role without much adjustment to their style of working or to their sense of self-esteem or confidence. Following Michelle’s recommendation that we should pay more attention to all the transitions which students have to experience, my own experience confirms that many research supervisors take too much for granted – and I include myself in this, especially when I reflect upon some of my early experience. 

Several recent online comments and discussions brought this home – in which postgraduate students revealed symptoms of ‘imposter syndrome’, questioning their own capabilities and progress. I have encountered research supervisors who unwittingly or deliberately ignore any such expressions as ‘weakness’ – they adopt the position that the ‘good student’ will ‘work through any such insecurities in their own good time’ (paraphrasing several conversations from former colleagues here). I cannot accept this – all supervisors should develop a strategy to help their students work through whatever uncertainties they bring with them as they transition. And this strategy must be tailored to the individual student as they are all different (see this recent post on person-centered supervision).

One of my most memorable experiences was the mature student from Malaysia who arrived with detailed plan of action and the most prodigious work rate. I spent three years trying to keep up with him, offering pretty minor comments on structure and presentation. The first words from his external examiner at the viva were “Congratulations. We want to award you the doctorate and would like to discuss a few of your conclusions”. It would be great if all vivas went like this. And as supervisors, we can increase the chances of a successful outcome. 

One of the most important contributions we can make to students’ early development is to ensure that they develop two intertwined characteristics as soon as possible – confidence, and clarity.

As most of my supervisory experience was back in a largely pre-digital context, I envy the range of technologies and facilities which are now available to students and tutors, including the ease of access to research publications and the potential to network online. But these technologies can be a double-edged sword – it is very easy to be overwhelmed by the volume and speed of incoming information. I mention this because there is a supervisory role here – acting as a ‘buffer’ in the early stages. Help your students sift and sort through the literature and opportunities coming their way. Help them see that they don’t have to do it all, or certainly that they don’t have to do it all in the first year. Help them feel confident to prioritise their schedules.

Students’ confidence also increases dramatically if they feel that they have something useful to say, and they have the opportunity to say it. I discussed this with all my students from day one. Nowadays there are many more avenues for students to establish their personal niche. But the principle remains the same – a coherent plan or strategy which enables students to define their personal contribution and establish an initial reputation. As supervisors we should work with students to produce such a plan which takes advantage of the relevant channels. As well as an increasing number of conferences, there are all the opportunities offered through social media, such as blogs, wikis, Twitter and Tweetchats etc. My most successful strategy was to develop a joint conference paper with each student, on their project area, and to be delivered at some time in their first year of study. This gave extra focus to our regular meetings and dialogue, started the search for external colleagues and networks. It also helped to refine the research question – achieving clarity, builds confidence.  

The success of the PhD plan depends on the quality (the clarity) of the investigation and many students do not have a very clear conception of their research at the outset. I have found two techniques especially useful here: the 500-Word Thesis, and the Concept Map.

500-Word Thesis

This idea comes from Rowena Murray’s ‘How to write a thesis’ (p17): and suggests writing a thesis structure as a series of statements, such as: ‘The research question is …’ Giving students a very strict word limit to finish these sentences means they have to be very concise, and very clear. Of course, you will also have to emphasise that these early statements are not set in stone as the research will inevitably develop and shift, but as a starting point they can support new researchers to make sense of the process of research, and clarify the way forward.

Concept Map

This can be especially effective if students are feeling ‘stuck’. Using free software (e.g. Cmap), starting from a research question, and using the mapping process  advocated by Joseph Novak, you can support your students to build a map which identifies the main concepts in their work, and importantly, shows the relationships between them. Again, this can further develop over time.

Of course, you can use either or both of these methods, depending on your student and their topic. They both offer the advantage of focusing on key points and setting out an overall structure to your thoughts. They both provide an effective stimulus to dialogue, and they can both fit onto the proverbial one side of A4. 

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