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The Society for Research into Higher Education

Boundaries, Buddies, and Benevolent Dictators within the Ecology of Doctoral Study

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by Kay Guccione and Søren Bengtsen

In March we co-delivered a seminar at SRHE based on our complementary research studies into doctoral support, supervision, and relationships. In recognition that very many and varied players contribute to supporting doctoral researchers along the way, we spoke to the idea of the ‘Ecology’ of doctoral study. Through both of our research and practice areas, we raise issues of:

Boundaries, for example: Who is responsible for which aspects of doctoral development? Who is responsible for doctoral wellbeing? What are the rights, the roles and the responsibilities of supervisors and supervisory teams at different times in the doctoral journey? What are the physical and structural barriers to doctoral learning?

Buddies, for example: Does a supervisor have to be a friend to a student to supervise them well? How do we enable supervisors to cultivate trusting partnerships? How do peers and post-docs support and develop doctoral researchers? What is the nature of support outside ‘academic advising’?

And Benevolent Dictators: How do good supervision relationships contribute to researcher independence? How is feedback given and received? Who has the power, and who takes control of doctoral learning?

We combined our thinking around these topics to offer a session that helped participants (doctoral researchers, doctoral supervisors, and researcher education professionals) to think about and discuss both the expanded sites of supervision (the ecology of support) and the relational aspect of supervision; how people react, behave and talk to each other within supervision relationships. In essence, how the ecology interacts and functions. We ran the workshop in four sections:

Part 1 (Kay) summarised the findings of the Trust Me! research project, funded by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, which looked at trust building and breaking in doctoral supervision relationships. The findings of this project characterise and illustrate the vulnerabilities and tensions students and supervisors experience, positioning these vulnerabilities as ‘opportunities’ for trust to develop. Both supervisors and students enter into new supervision partnerships with an implicit or assumed trust in each other based on prior educational attainment, or institutional affiliation. Trust on both sides is built over time, both in response to each prior encounter and to observations of behaviour or attitudes towards others. Trust erosion also occurs gradually over time and was linked to unfulfilled expectations for the supervision relationship, or mismatched ideas about the purpose and process of a doctorate.

We finished with a reflection and discussion on trust building at work, and offer it here too, for your reflection. The full report is forthcoming on the LFHE web pages, and an open access online resource on Trust Building for Supervisors can be found heretrust me

trust 2

Part 2 (Søren) focused on the challenges doctoral students face not only in their primary relationships with their supervisors, but also in their membership and participation in research environments, departmental work and activities, and even in their private lives. Such ‘dark spaces’ point to the fact that doctoral students’ learning trajectories are indeed influenced by a variety of informal and extra-curricular relationships and sometimes lack of support and understanding. Should such domains be aligned, and is it the responsibility of the supervisor, the programme leader, or the doctoral students themselves to do so?

Part 3 (Kay) covered how to do ‘feedback with’ doctoral researchers, reframing the idea of giving ‘feedback to’ them. Feedback that acknowledges areas for improvement, and that doesn’t cause someone to feel ashamed, close down, clam up, be upset, cause defensiveness or lead to an argument is difficult. This is because it’s dependent on more than the structure or mechanism of the giving of the feedback — the health of the supervisory relationship matters, and is also itself influenced by the giving and receiving of feedback. For a summary of the discussions and ideas we tried out, and to find feedback resources, please see this related blog post, hosted on Kay’s supervision blog.

Part 4 (Søren) showed how feedback extends beyond the primary relationship with the supervisors into a ‘penumbra’ of extra-curricular support systems such as guardian supervisors, translators, editors, peers, professional networks, friends, and family. These support systems in informal arenas and in third spaces in the wider societal context are central for doctoral students in regaining and maintaining motivation and momentum in their studies, and in understanding research to be an ecological and relational endeavor. Within the penumbra were detected a variety of educational concepts, some implicit and some explicit, such as supervision, mentoring, sponsoring, and coaching, which make up what we call an expanded doctoral pedagogy. You can read more here in this blog post, and below is Søren’s template for expanded doctoral pedagogy.

trust 3.png

A follow up to this workshop will be delivered on 29th June 2018 at the Society for Research into Higher Education in London and will be a facilitated workshop where participants can take the opportunity to reimagine doctoral support, using the framework of Feasible Utopias. This session is intended to inspire participants to make small changes to their thinking, or practice, and to collect reflections on whether the imagined utopias were feasible in practice as well as in theory! We think it will make for a very exciting seminar with some practical outcomes. You don’t need to have attended the first session to come along, so we hope to see you there!  For more information and to register, click here.

Kay Guccione is a Mentoring and Coaching Consultant at the University of Sheffield and Søren Smedegaard Bengtsen is an Associate Professor at Aarhus University.

Author: SRHE News Blog

An international learned society, concerned with supporting research and researchers into Higher Education

One thought on “Boundaries, Buddies, and Benevolent Dictators within the Ecology of Doctoral Study

  1. Reblogged this on Digital learning PD Dr Ann Lawless and commented:
    ecology relationships – great metaphor

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