One size fits all PhD supervision

PhD supervisionI managed to steal a time slot from Neil’s busy diary for 26th October 2011 so that he can observe one of my one-to-one PhD supervision sessions. The purpose of the session was to discuss the progress of work of one of my PhD students who is getting ready for her internal evaluation.

The session progressed well as planned. Neil played completely a passive role during the session. The structure of the session was (and has always been the case with all my PhD supervision sessions) that; the student did a brief presentation about the work that she has completed followed by an in depth discussion about strengths, weaknesses, threats and opportunities of the study.

I am indeed happy about the way that the session progressed on the day. After the session, we (Neil and I) had a discussion about the way I conducted the meeting, positives, negatives and the rooms for improvements. I received overall positive comments from Neil about the way that I conducted the session. He particularly commented about my ability to put the student at ease at the beginning of the meeting, clarity of questions and instruction and level of confidence / knowledge when answering the questions.

In addition to the details of the session that day, we focused on the supervisor – student relationship during our post-session discussion. Giving references to the overall motivation levels of two students that I am supervising, we discussed how different relationship models (between the supervisor and the student) would help different students to achieve their objectives. One of the students is highly self-motivated and prefers to be independent and to keep the autonomy when being supervised, while the other student requires tight and strict action plans and to be closely monitored by the supervisor. Having discussed about these two students, we (Neil and I) explored the idea of deploying a softer, more supportive, mentoring  role (Shannon 1995) would help a highly self-motivated, highly focused student, more authoritative, managerial role (Vilkinas 2002) would be more appropriate when supervising a student with a limited enthusiasm, less self-directed and less self-motivated student. Easier said than done, this write-up explores in more detail, different supervisor – student relationship models which are effective within PhD supervisory arrangements.

It goes without saying that the supervisor – student relationship is important for the success of a PhD project (Kam 1997; Marsh et al. 2002; McAlpine and Norton 2006).  Further there won’t be “one size fits all” approach for supervising PhD students. Indeed, Different students in different disciplines with different capabilities and requirements would demand different approaches for effective supervision.

In my own experience, the most prominent problem in supervisor-student relationship is the apparent tension between the supportive, mentoring role of the supervisor and the overall expectation (from all the parties) to produce a thesis of acceptable quality for a PhD at the end of the process. The friction often originates when the supporting role of the supervisor allows a certain degree of autonomy to the student to carry out the research independently, but the self-motivation and / or the capability of the student is not sufficient to utilise the given autonomy effectively to produce outputs at acceptable levels. Mainhard, van der Rijst et al. (2009) clearly recognise this very same problem as one of the common issues in PhD supervision. While on paper the solution for this issue may relied upon maintaining the ideal balance between “supporting” and “managing” the student from the supervisor’s point of view, the practicality of the same may well depend upon the supervisor’s style of supervision.

As per Sinclair (2004)’s classification, I believe I am a more “hands off” supervisor than a “hands on” supervisor. I prefer to (and believe in) give the autonomy to the student to shape-up their own research rather than put my intervention to shape it up the way I want it. This (in my view) produces a better trained and able researcher. This works with most of my students, as most of them have the self-motivation, capability and discipline to work independently. However, as Mainhard, van der Rijst et al. (2009) argue, there may be instances where the student’s preferred way of being supervised does not match the supervisor’s preferred way of supervising the student. This is definitely the case with my second student as I mentioned above.

Having reflected upon our discussion on the day and subsequent exploration about the matter in detail, I believe, supervisor-student relationship is something that goes beyond individual preferences. As a supervisor, now I am more open to study and observe the student up front to understand his / her preferred way of being supervised. However, I still believe in giving autonomy and independence to the student to shape-up their own research, but may come to that state gradually as the research progress, without forcing the student to be independent from the very beginning. I believe it is all in understanding the individual correctly. Indeed, this complies with the UKPSF framework on “Respect individual learners and diverse learning communities (V1).

After all there is no “one size fits all” PhD supervision style. Thanks Neil once again for opening up my mind.


[cartoon from:]

Kam, B. H. (1997). Style and quality in research supervision: The supervisor dependency factor. Higher Education, 34(1), 81–103.

Marsh, H. W., Rowe, K. J., & Martin, A. (2002). PhD students’ evaluations of research supervision. The Journal of Higher Education, 73(3), 313–348.

Mainhard, T., R. van der Rijst, et al. (2009). “A model for the supervisor–doctoral student relationship.” Higher Education 58(3): 359-373.

McAlpine, L., & Norton, J. (2006). Reframing out approach to doctoral programs: An integrative framework for action and research. Higher Education Research & Development, 25(1), 3–17

Sinclair, M. (2004). The pedagogy of ‘good’ PhD supervision: A national cross-disciplinary investigation of PhD supervision. Canberra: Australian Government, Department of Education, Science and Training

Shannon, A. (1995). “Research degree supervision:more mentor than master’.” Australian Universities Review 38: 12-15.

Vilkinas, T. (2002). “The PhD process: the supervisor as manager.” Education and Training 44(3): 129-137.

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