Changing the shape of Doctoral Supervision Training at Coventry University

This is a guest post by Nikki Harkin, Assistant Lecturer – Research Capability & Development at Coventry University. Nikki delivers the Doctoral Supervision Programme at Coventry University.

A crop field with a wind turbine close up, and many other wind turbines far away in the background.
The ‘winds of change’ as we adapt supervisor training for the contemporary context

Coventry University are host to around 800 PGRs across 13 Research Centres. In September 2020, Coventry University had one of the largest PGR intakes we have seen with 139 PGRs starting their research degree with us. In response to the ever-increasing numbers of PGRs, Coventry University’s approach to doctoral supervision development has changed over the years.

Preceding the current Doctoral Supervision Programme at Coventry University, we ran a single, 7-week long course with compulsory weekly face-to-face meetings and online activities. Difficulties with attendance at all of the meetings and completing all online work meant that only a third of the registered participants were able to complete the course. Academics were only eligible to supervise upon completion of the course and, therefore, the actual increase in supervisory capacity at Coventry University was lower than intended.

It is widely recognised that peer learning, self-reflection and the use of case studies are all individually merited methods to learning (Atkins & Murphy, 1993Brew & Peseta, 2004Knowles et al., 2015). Jara (2020) used these methods to inform the design of a flexible doctoral supervision programme that aimed to increase the number of doctoral supervisors at Coventry University. Jara dismantled the previously existing long course into nine self-contained short modules that focussed on specific aspects of supervision practice. The courses contained an element of online work, encompassing relevant literature and self-reflection, and a face-to-face session that included case study discussion and peer learning from other participants and experienced supervisors. 

Initially, 197 participants signed up to one or more of the modules with an average completion rate of 63% compared to a completion rate of 33% on the long course. Overall, feedback of the new design was positive with an 80% satisfaction rate. 

Since the initial pilot in 2018/19, the courses were further condensed and the Coventry University Supervisor Development Framework (SDF) has been implemented. The new modules encompass the same taught elements and reflective work as the original pilot, however the content has been condensed into six modules to further increase participation and completion. The SDF (below) is a matrix that determines which programme modules are mandatory or recommended for a Doctoral Supervisor at Coventry University. It is informed by the current level of experience of the supervisor and the intended role within the supervisory team. 

 New DOSNew Co-supervisorExperienced CU SupervisorExperienced Supervisor, new to CUExternal Supervisor
Supervising Doctorates at Coventry UniversityMandatory – prior to PGR enrolmentMandatory – within 12 months of PGR enrolmentOptionalMandatory – within 12 months of PGR enrolmentRecommended
Roles and Responsibilities of Supervisory TeamsMandatory – prior to PGR enrolmentMandatory – within 12 months of PGR enrolmentOptionalOptionalOptional
Building Supportive and Trusting RelationshipsMandatory – within 12 months of PGR enrolmentRecommendedOptionalOptionalOptional
Understanding and Supporting DiversityMandatory – within 12 months of PGR enrolmentRecommendedOptionalOptionalOptional
Supporting Writing and Critical ThinkingMandatory – within 12 months of PGR enrolmentRecommendedOptionalOptionalOptional
Monitoring Progress for SuccessMandatory – within 12 months of PGR enrolmentRecommendedOptionalOptionalOptional

There has been an increase in completion of programme modules since the implementation of the Framework. A greater number of participants have completed one or more of the modules per cohort and each module is now available several times throughout the year to help increase supervisory capacity in line with the ever-increasing numbers of PGRs. 

The coronavirus pandemic posed a significant challenge to the programme as well as a valuable learning experience. As with every other programme that offers a face-to-face element, this aspect of the programme needed to transfer online. This brought into question whether participants would get the same quality of reflection and learning from the online sessions, as well as the added challenge of working from home. 

The structure of the sessions then needed to be amended to reflect the new delivery method. Small group work now had to be adapted to ‘break-out rooms’, the use of online tools had to be learned rather than using flip charts, individual reflection was more complicated and, arguably most importantly, tea and coffee breaks were no more. 

As trivial as the tea and coffee breaks may appear on the surface, this element of the face-to-face sessions provides an opportunity for colleagues to connect and establish interdisciplinary working relationships across the University. The lack of face-to-face teaching means that this casual networking was no longer happening, although the programme does contain elements of group work within some of the online tasks. 

On the other hand, being able to transfer to an entirely online course could have been the cause for the increase in uptake and completions over the period from November 2019 – May 2021. 

Looking to the future, we are considering keeping the programme fully online. The difficulty with having participants on campus with the cohort sizes we have seen will mean that we will need to run several face-to-face sessions for each cohort, due to room size restrictions. This would mean a need for increased time commitment from experienced supervisors and facilitators which can already be difficult to manage. Further work will need to be conducted to determine whether fully online participants feel they are receiving the same quality from the courses that was originally reported in the 2018/19 pilot and whether the cohort size has an impact on this assessment. We are also looking at improving the research culture and building the community at Coventry University – and this may  replace some of the informal time together, missing due to lost tea and coffee breaks.

What advice can I offer to others working in supervisor development? 

Firstly, flexibility. Being able to run the supervision programme multiple times throughout the year, in addition to the now online face-to-face sessions, has meant that we have been able to offer participants an element of flexibility in choosing which session to attend or whether to delay to the next cohort. This has built on the working relationship we have with our Research Centres and academics and allows staff to complete the module who would otherwise be unable to do so.

And secondly, don’t be afraid to say you don’t know. Although we have devised the Supervisor Development Framework and the modules, we don’t know everything and we can’t script a response for every possible supervisor query. The idea of both the framework and the programme is to equip supervisors with the knowledge and skills to be able to confidently handle situations on their own. I try to emphasise the point that each research journey is unique to each PGR and each supervisor; it is for supervisors to determine how best to handle each situation and ask for support where needed.

2 Replies to “Changing the shape of Doctoral Supervision Training at Coventry University”

  1. Nikki I really like the framework approach and the time for refelection which is so important to developing practice. Very happy to see how this translates to other contexts. I’ll be in touch!


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