Empowering researchers through ‘experienced uncertainty’

Ruth Albertyn and Kathy Bennett are both affiliated to Stellenbosch University in South Africa where they are involved in supervision and research development. Based on their research expertise in doctoral education and postgraduate supervision (Ruth) and experienced uncertainty and identity development (Kathy), they conducted a collaborative auto-ethnographic study to gain insight into the sources and signs of postgraduate research (PGR) uncertainty, and to suggest strategies for supervision. 

a pair of feet in black leather professional shoes, stand on a tarmac road next to two arrows painted on the road and pointing diagonally left and diagonally right.

Undertaking research may be overwhelming for PGR candidates, fostering uncertainty along the way, as highlighted in Dr Trish Jackman’s earlier post on this blog.  The uncertainties they experience can be negative, creating a stumbling block, or they can be positive, encouraging curiosity and self-directed learning. If these negative uncertainties are not handled well, they could adversely affect the process and quality of their research. But by increasing understanding of PGR candidates’ experienced uncertainty and ways for supervisors to support them, supervisors could contribute to harnessing uncertainty more effectively during the course of research. 

In our findings, we acknowledged the importance of understanding the triggers of PGR uncertainty. Firstly, we found two triggers occurred in the research process itself – needing to make choices in an unknown territory, and, encountering a more open-ended learning process, that many were unfamiliar with.  

Secondly, we identified two triggers within the candidates themselves, namely, their self-doubt about their ability to do research, and their pre-conceived notions about the complexity of research. Taken together, the external demands of the research process seem to stimulate candidates’ limiting beliefs about their inadequacies, thereby increasing their self-doubt or ‘identity’ uncertainty – reflected in not identifying with ‘being a researcher’ at this stage of their journey.   

Our research indicated that there are common symptoms of uncertainty along candidates’ research paths that supervisors need to look out for: 

Intensity of PGR uncertainty Symptoms of PGR uncertainty – with reasons for these
Very intense, adversely felt uncertainty Withdrawal, procrastination and poor quality work.

Candidates have difficulty in engaging with the research process, leading to more solitary type of responses – reflecting the negative aspect of uncertainty. 
Less intense uncertainty, but   uncomfortableDependency on supervisor, wanting quick-fix solutions and masking uncertainty (e.g. using grandiose writing).

Candidates adopt different approaches involving some engagement with their supervisors and research process, but in a superficial way – to ‘actively’ reduce their uncertainty.  
Less intense uncertainty, but a more positive energy Curiosity, self-directed learning, and constructive engagement with supervisor.

Candidates harness their uncertainty as a stimulus for their learning, reflecting the positive dimension of uncertainty.

Triggers of uncertainty seemed to be more prevalent at the start of the candidates’ journeys. Yet uncertainty levels also increased when choices had to be made, or problems resolved in the execution of their research. Overall, the growth observed was in candidates’ self-directed learning and ownership, coupled with a strengthening of their research identity, evident in their increased confidence and research competence.

We identified three supervision strategies for supporting research identity development as PGR candidates experience uncertainty. 

The first strategy is to normalise uncertainty. Apart from the unique inherent uncertain nature of research as distinct from other forms of learning, both supervisors and candidates may feel uncertain due to the original contribution required at a doctoral level.  

It is helpful to orient the candidate regarding the doctoral mindsets necessary. Intellectual humility is a helpful concept, and refers to the realistic appraisal of strengths and weaknesses that could stimulate candidates to strive for excellence as they develop their research identity. Candidates need to be open minded as they move from a transmissive way of learning towards transformation during knowledge creation. 

The second supervision strategy is facilitating learning processes. Candidates need to take ownership and account for research decisions they make during the design and execution of their research. This type of learning requires an incremental mindset for growth throughout the process: to be stimulated by curiosity rather than paralysed by uncertainty. 

Supervisors can facilitate learning through:

  • Providing enabling information about resources and skills for self-directed learning 
  • Customising scaffolded learning based on awareness of where candidates are struggling and providing tools for them to manage their own learning
  • Encouraging communication about research decisions and providing opportunities for candidates to show their expertise 
  • Promote emancipation by encouraging responsible freedom of choices as they forge their own research identity

The final strategy for countering and harnessing uncertainty is empowerment through interactions between candidate and supervisor that affirm the candidates research identity. We identified supervisor inter-relational skills that include:

  • Encouraging: showing interest and fascination with the candidate’s learning
  • Providing positive feedback: remembering to give credit where and when it’s due
  • Engaging: Build self-esteem by reinforcing their emerging researcher identity
  • Regular contact: Curiosity and excitement at what emerges during research 
  • Stimulation: Challenging the candidate
  • Listening carefully: Socratic questioning for candidates to take ownership 
  • Supporting: Providing a safe space

The supervisor’s key empowerment role is to counter the negative effects of uncertainty by normalising uncertainty as part of the research process and providing opportunities for learning.  Supervisor strategies to harness the positive effects of uncertainty can set the scene for candidates to meet the distinct challenges of the PGR journey, to take ownership of their original contribution to knowledge, and for development of their unique research identity.

Let us know how you manage uncertainty in practice, in the comments.

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