In Defence of History – the changing context for supervision

This is a guest post from Professor Alistair McCulloch, Head of Research Education, University of South Australia.

A stack of old, leather bound books.
Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash

If Jane Austen had been writing about PhD supervision, she might well have begun her account: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that the PhD, and the expectations placed on both student and supervisor, have changed greatly over the many years during which I have been writing.’ She might have continued that it is also a truth universally acknowledged that ‘a single research student in possession of a good idea, must be in want of a good supervisor’. Whether Ms Austen would have been a good supervisor, we shall never know, but the words I have somewhat ungraciously put into her mouth probably summarise accepted wisdom.

The PhD is too often positioned as something existing only in the here and now with development of both the ‘good idea’ and of the novice researcher taking place in an effective vacuum, rather than as something having a shape characterized by an historical trajectory.

Reflecting on the changing nature of the PhD helps supervisors understand the importance of their role as the qualification has moved from being an apprenticeship into the academy being overseen by a disciplinary expert keen to replicate him or herself as a way of replenishing the academic workforce and keeping the discipline alive, to being a training in research which can contribute to the furtherance of states’ national economic and innovation policies, strategies and plans.

Back in the dark ages when I studied for my PhD (the early-80s – if you remember its politics, you’ll realise why I call it the dark ages!), a PhD student was part of a fairly limited doctoral ecosystem and the supervisor had a pivotal role mediating between the student and, respectively, the discipline, the department or faculty, a funding body, and a university administration largely concerned that registration took place more or less on time each year and that the student wouldn’t place too much demand on the photocopying budget.

Within two decades all that had changed. Those of us who were trained in one system as it declined and disappeared, and who are now the trainers in another, must transition our thinking and approach to take account of today’s realities.

The doctoral ecosystem has expanded significantly and the supervisor’s mediation role has expanded correspondingly. In addition to the disciplinary and departmental dimensions requiring mediation by the supervisor, universities (and funders) are paying much more attention to students’ progress, the quality of the student’s experiences, and the extent to which theses are completed in a timely fashion.

Like a black hole, the doctoral ecosystem has drawn other actors into its ambit. These actors included the other universities (regional, national and international) with which the student’s home university have increasingly been encouraged to compete. National governments began to lay ever-greater reporting requirements on universities about the doctoral candidates they educate. These requirements frequently reflected national policy decisions and effectively become the basis for targets which continue to be used inside institutions to measure and control aspects of their doctoral offerings. These requirements have continued to increase and impact on the role of the supervisor vis-à-vis the candidate.

Frequently other levels of government become involved. There may be very powerful regional economic development agencies, or state/regional governments with their own takes on economic development and pressuring universities to steer provision in a particular way. There are also economically-powerful supra-national bodies (the European Union is the standout example) with significant influence on the research and innovation policy sphere in which doctoral education now sits. Much of the influence exercised by governmental bodies stems from their control over resources and their ability to fund (or, just as importantly, choose not to fund) particular projects or research areas.

The doctoral ecosystem is also seeing increased engagement by non-HE employers in many aspects of individual doctorates, involving them, for example, in the development of individual PhD projects, in supervisory panels, and in the provision of secondments, placements and internships. These developments are themselves being monitored by governments (and, in the case of Australia, proposals rewarding such industry engagement through the allocation of significant additional public funding to the universities involved have just been legislated).

Finally, there have been interventions in doctoral education by international bodies such as the World Bank and the OECD. Major multinational consulting firms also offer regular advice on higher education (including doctoral education) and its future aimed at both the sector as a whole and also at national governments. As I sometime say in supervisor development workshops, when the World Bank is interested in what you’re doing when you supervise, you know it’s time to worry!

The changes that have taken place in the doctoral ecosystem over the last three decades or so have profound implications for research degree students and thereby for the mediation role played by the student’s main significant other in that ecosystem, the supervisor. It is important for supervisors to understand the extent of the changes that have taken (and continue to take) place and it is important that supervisor development activities should also involve reflection on these changes.

Once graduated, most of our newly-minted doctorates will have to navigate the developing doctoral ecosystem and having a supervisor who understands and can socialize them into its true nature is important. Those who move (or, in the case of candidates pursuing a PhD as part of their continuing professional development in an already existing career, continue to work) outwith the immediate doctoral ecosystem, are likely to remain in its hinterland and so they also need to be aware of what lies beyond their immediate horizons.

Reflecting the above, supervisor developers might like to consider using the following discussion prompts in their workshops to encourage supervisors to reflect on the ‘how we got to here’ and ‘where might we be going’ aspects of their supervision.

  • Do I know how my university positions ‘success’ for a doctorate and why that position has been arrived at?
  • How can I best introduce my research degree students to the extent of the wider research ecosystem without worrying them too much?
  • How well can I articulate to my research degree students the risks and benefits of holding a PhD in the current economy?
  • Do I know what my supervisees want to get out of their doctorate, where they aim to go after their doctorate, and do I know what they will need to have achieved by the time they graduate, in order for them to succeed?

Over the years, as the PhD itself has changed, there have been associated fundamental changes to the role of supervisor, and their significance underpins why supervisor development needs to integrate an historical perspective rather than focus simply on the ‘tips and strategies’ that are so often sought in the time-poor environment that is contemporary higher education.

2 Replies to “In Defence of History – the changing context for supervision”

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