General Articles on PhD Supervision

Promoting creativity in PhD supervision: Tensions and dilemmas

Denise Whitelock∗, Dorothy Faulkner, Dorothy Miell

The Open University, Walton Hall, Milton Keynes MK7 6AA, United Kingdom

Contents lists available at ScienceDirect

Thinking Skills and Creativity journal homepage:

a r t i c l e i n f o

Article history:

Available online 10 April 2008

Keywords: Academic creativity, Doctoral students, Doctoral supervisors

a b s t r a c t

In this paper we argue that the processes of collaborative creativity are just as important within the sociocultural context of PhD supervisory practice, as they are in other organizational and educational settings. In order to test this claim a series of interviews with supervisors and students were undertaken to uncover the pedagogic processes used to encourage and support creativity within supervision sessions. The findings from this small scale study suggest that whilst the more formal instruction and monitoring processes that lead to the acquisition of transferrable research skills are both usefully and necessary aspects of doctoral training, the more open-ended and creative developments required at this level of study should be given equal weight. There needs to be space, time and encouragement for the types of interactions identified here (e.g. informal reflection, relationship building with peers and supervisor, playful exploration and risk taking) as well as mandatory skills development.

© 2008 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.


Report on the review of research degree programmes: England and Northern Ireland

Executive summary

The purpose of this report is to provide an overview of the findings arising from the
review of research degree programmes (RDPs) in 2005-06. The findings provide a
picture of overall confidence in the management of RDP programmes by higher
education institutions (HEIs) in England and Northern Ireland. The findings also show
examples of good practice and identify areas for improvement in the institutional
management of the quality and standards of RDPs.

Rhizomatic Education: Community as Curriculum

Innovate – Journal of Online Education

Knowledge as negotiation is not an entirely new concept in educational circles; social contructivist and connectivist pedagogies, for instance, are centered on the process of negotiation as a learning process. Neither of these theories, however, is sufficient to represent the nature of learning in the online world. There is an assumption in both theories that the learning process should happen organically but that knowledge, or what is to be learned, is still something independently verifiable with a definitive beginning and end goal determined by curriculum.

A botanical metaphor, first posited by Deleuze and Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus (1987), may offer a more flexible conception of knowledge for the information age: the rhizome. A rhizomatic plant has no center and no defined boundary; rather, it is made up of a number of semi-independent nodes, each of which is capable of growing and spreading on its own, bounded only by the limits of its habitat (Cormier 2008). In the rhizomatic view, knowledge can only be negotiated, and the contextual, collaborative learning experience shared by constructivist and connectivist pedagogies is a social as well as a personal knowledge-creation process with mutable goals and constantly negotiated premises. The rhizome metaphor, which represents a critical leap in coping with the loss of a canon against which to compare, judge, and value knowledge, may be particularly apt as a model for disciplines on the bleeding edge where the canon is fluid and knowledge is a moving target.

Promoting creativity in PhD supervision: Tensions and dilemmas

Whitelock, Denise M.; Faulkner, Dorothy and Miell, Dorothy E. (2008). Promoting creativity in PhD supervision: Tensions and dilemmas. Thinking Skills and Creativity, 3(2), pp. 143–153.


In this paper we argue that the processes of collaborative creativity are just as important within the sociocultural context of PhD supervisory practice, as they are in other organizational and educational settings. In order to test this claim a series of interviews with supervisors and students were undertaken to uncover the pedagogic processes used to encourage and support creativity within supervision sessions. The findings from this small-scale study suggest that whilst the more formal instruction and monitoring processes that lead to the acquisition of transferrable research skills are both usefully and necessary aspects of doctoral training, the more open-ended and creative developments required at this level of study should be given equal weight. There needs to be space, time and encouragement for the types of interactions identified here (e.g. informal reflection, relationship building with peers and supervisor, playful exploration and risk taking) as well as mandatory skills development.

Keywords: Academic creativity; Doctoral students; Doctoral supervisors

Resource Guide to Dissertation Supervision on Taught Undergraduate and Postgraduate Programmes
Dr. Sarah Cullen
Thames Valley University

BIBLIOGRAPHY for research students and their supervisors

John Wakeford 2009

The Good Supervision Video

Thinking of research supervision as a form of teaching

Dr Stan Taylor, Durham University

Supervisor development through creative approaches to writing

Authors: Catherine Manathungaa; Tai Pesetab; Coralie McCormackc

Affiliations: a Teaching Educational Development Institute, Graduate School, University of Queensland, Brisbane, QLD 4072, Australia
b Teaching and Learning Unit, Faculty of Economics and Commerce, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, VIC, Australia
c Teaching and Learning Centre, University of Canberra, Canberra, ACT, Australia

DOI: 10.1080/13601440903529893

Publication Frequency: 3 issues per year

Published in: International Journal for Academic Development, Volume 15, Issue 1 March 2010 , pages 33 – 46

Subject: Continuing Professional Development;

Download PDF (~132 KB) View Article Online (HTML)

Abstract The development of research higher degree supervisors is a relatively recent phenomenon. In most cases, supervisor development continues within the traditional workshop mode and remains firmly located within what Bob Smith calls the “administrative framing” of supervision. This framing ensures that a liberal and policy-orientated discourse retains dominance as the mode of solving problems in supervision. This article explores three creative approaches to supervisor development that take writing as their starting point for critical inquiry. Each approach enables the exploration and troubling of supervisors’ identities, which contains some risks. Careful balancing of benefits and risks opens up possibilities for developing supervision pedagogy that makes central a level of complexity that the administrative framing of supervision often erases.
Keywords: doctoral supervision; writing; supervisor development

Some implications of European initiatives for doctoral supervision

Anne Lee, University of Surrey

Document Type: Book Chapter

This document has been peer-reviewed.


Published in Froment, E., Kohler, J., Purser, L., & Wilson, L. (Eds.). EUA Bologna Handbook. Making Bologna Work.


There has been a significant and welcome emphasis on doctoral education in the last five years and there is wide agreement that ‘original research’ is the key definition of what doctoral education is about. However this term ‘original research’ requires further explanation and there is a need for clearer statements about what defines doctoral level work. This article reviews some of the recent European initiatives on the doctoral process and begins a discussion about what that might mean for supervisor development. It looks firstly at one way of framing good practice in a one to one supervisor relationship, and then identifies who might be involved in creating a supervisory team. It reviews the impact of the growth of graduate schools and the pressures to create collaborative cen-tres of excellence for research, and looks at the implications for supervisor development.

Recommended Citation

Lee, Anne, “Some implications of European initiatives for doctoral supervision” (2009). Information Services. Paper 13.

Feature: New approaches to postgraduate supervision and supervisor development

Date Published: Thursday 19 Feb 2009

At the Vitae conference in September, Dr Anne Lee, Academic Development Adviser University of Surrey, presented a workshop based on her research looking at concepts of doctoral research supervision.

Published in ‘overview’ Winter 08/09

At the Vitae conference in September, Dr Anne Lee, Academic Development Adviser University of Surrey, presented a workshop based on her research looking at concepts of doctoral research supervision.  She has published two papers on this in the South African Journal of Higher Education1, and subsequently in Studies in Higher Education2. There is also a Guide to using this approach in managing supervision teams published by SRHE3.

Below is a brief summary of her research. She says there are often no right or wrong answers, but there are a range of approaches to this area from which we can choose, and that this is only the beginning of a dialogue – she would be very interested in your views. Contact her at

Literature about doctoral supervision has concentrated on describing the ever lengthening lists of functions that must be carried out. This functional approach is necessary but there has been little exploration of a different paradigm, a conceptual approach towards research supervision. Lee’s research attempts to fill this gap.

Lee first conducted a literature review on ways of supervising doctoral candidates, then interviewed a number of supervisors in the University of Surrey and at Harvard University (see box for details).

From these interviews, Lee proposes that there are two key influences on supervisors’ approach to supervision: firstly their concept of research supervision and secondly their own experience as a doctoral student. Understanding the implications of these conceptions could enable supervisors to develop a wider range of approaches, maximise the advantages and minimise the disadvantages of each category.

Having explored what influences a supervisor’s approach to their work with doctoral students, Lee proposes a framework of supervision which can be used both for the development of individual supervisors and to create a language which those involved in co-supervisory roles can use to negotiate and understand their respective roles. (The framework has been created through examining the literature on supervision through the filter of the interviews with supervisors).

The main concepts identified are:

  • functional: where the issue is one of project management;
    ‘I have a weekly timetabled formal slot for them and follow-up if they do not turn up’
  • enculturation: where the postgraduate researcher is encouraged to become a member of the disciplinary community;
    ‘My students all know their academic grandfather’
  • critical thinking: where the postgraduate researcher is encouraged to question and analyse their work;
    ‘I use ‘magic’ words to help them identify the thread in their argument eg: arguably, conversely, unanimously, essentially, early on, inevitably etc’
  • emancipation: where the postgraduate researcher is encouraged to question and develop themselves;
    ‘Your job as a supervisor is to get them knowing more than you’
  • developing a quality relationship: where the postgraduate researcher is enthused, inspired and cared for;
    ‘(I) need to inspire and encourage them to be brave in what they are thinking.’

Supervisors of doctoral candidates are also trying to reconcile the tensions between their professional role as an academic and their personal self as well as encouraging the postgraduate researchers to move along a path towards increasing independence.

Figures 1-2 look at the framework and the advantages and disadvantages of it whilst Figure 3 summarises the tension between dependence and independence in each of the areas of the framework.

The impact of these approaches on existing postgraduate researchers is worth further research: for example, does an enculturation approach encourage postgraduate researchers to stay within the discipline and seek work within academia?

Additional interviews and discussions with groups of PhD researchers suggested that the five concepts have face validity with them as well as with supervisors. Further research is needed on this and on the proposition that whilst a supervisor might exemplify a range of conceptual approaches, the postgraduate researcher experiences one or two predominant approaches.


1 Lee, A. (2007). Developing Effective Supervisors’ Concepts of Research Supervision. South African Journal of Higher Education, 21(4)

2 Lee, A (2008) How are doctoral students supervised? Concepts of research supervision. Studies in Higher Education 33(4)

3 Lee, A (2008) Supervision Teams: Making them Work. London. Society for Research into Higher Education

Fig 1: A framework for concepts of research supervision

When interviewees were shown the list of approaches at the end of the interviews many of them identified themselves

quickly as falling into two of the categories (not necessarily the wider span of categories which they had described earlier in the interviews). Most of the interviewees said that they operated in the functional approach plus one other.

Fig 1 Functional Enculturation Critical Thinking Emancipation Relationship Development
Supervisors Activity Rational progression through tasks Gate keepingMaster to apprentice EvaluationChallenge MentoringSupporting


Supervising by experienceDeveloping a relationship
Supervisor’s knowledge & skills DirectingProject management Diagnosis of deficienciesCoaching ArgumentAnalysis FacilitationReflection Managing conflictEmotional intelligence
Possible student reaction OrganisedObedience Role modellingApprenticeship Constant inquiryFight or flight Personal growthReframing A good team memberEmotional intelligence

Fig 2: Advantages and disadvantages of each approach within the framework Fig 3: Elements of dependence and independence within each approach

Fig 2 Functional Enculturation Critical Thinking Emancipation Relationship Development
Advantages ClarityConsistency

Progress can be monitored

Records are available

Encourages standardsParticipation




Rational inquiryFallacy exposed • Personal growth
• Ability to cope with change
• Lifelong working partnerships
• Enhanced self esteem
Disadvantages • Rigidity when confronted with the creation of original knowledge Low tolerance of internal differenceSexist

Ethnicised regulation (Cousin & Deepwell 2005)

• Denial of creativity
• Can belittle or depersonalise student
• Toxic mentoring (Darling 1985) where tutor abuses power • Potential for harassment, abandonment or rejection

Fig 3: Elements of dependence and independence within each approach

Fig 3 Functional Enculturation Critical Thinking Emancipation Relationship Development
Dependence Student needs explanation of stages to be followed and direction through them Student needs to be shown what to do Student learns the questions to ask, the framework’s to apply Student seeks affirmation of self-worth Student depends on supervisor’s approval
Independence Student can programme own work, follow own timetables competently Student can follow discipline’s epistemological demands independently Student can critique own work Student autonomous. Can decide how to be, where to go, what to do, where to find information Student demonstrates appropriate reciprocity and has power to withdraw

Critical Thinking Emancipation Relationship Development

Functional Enculturation Critical Thinking Emancipation Relationship Development


Detailed interviews with twelve supervisors from the University of Surrey and three supervisors at Harvard University,  from a range of disciplines were carried out. (This data was later compared with interviews and focus groups with twenty PhD researchers for further illumination and to check for face validity). The original twelve supervisors ranged from those with over 20 years experience of working with doctoral candidates to those who were still supervising their first postgraduate researchers. There were three female and nine male supervisors. The supervisors from the USA (they are known as ‘advisors’) were all experienced and male. Between them, the participants had experience of supervising over 150 PhD researchers both full and part-time. The postgraduate researchers were studying a mixture of traditional PhDs and professional doctorates.

Questions asked of supervisors

  • what has been your experience of supervising PhD students? How many? How many different types of doctoral students?
  • what have your students gone on to do?
  • how would you define an excellent PhD student or thesis?
  • what effective ways are there of working with your students? Where do you begin? Where do you go then? How often do you see them? What do you do? What do they do?
  • what problems have arisen and how have you coped with them?
  • how were you supervised when you did your PhD?
  • what do you think of the conceptual models?

Questions asked of PhD researchers in interviews/focus groups

  • tell me about your PhD research
  • what do you want from your supervisor?
  • what do you most value getting from your supervisor?
  • what has happened when you have felt most energised?
  • examples of problems and how you have coped?

Observations on developing supervisors

  • supervisors have learned most from how they were supervised themselves
  • understanding a range of approaches is important
  • co-supervision can be helpful if the roles are clearly allocated
  • there are a range programmes that can be created for developing supervisors, from workshops to accredited courses and policy discussion groups.

Forthcoming book by Anne Lee:

Helping New Postgraduates: A guide for academics

(Publication 2009 OUP/McGraw Hill ISBN 978-0-335-23558-2)

See also:

Quality Matters in Doctoral Supervision

– a critique of current issues in the UK within a worldwide context

Stuart D Powell1 and Howard Green2

1 Senior Partner, Postgraduate Directions and Research Professor at the University of Hertfordshire

2 Senior Partner, Postgraduate Directions

Quality Matters in Doctoral Supervision – a critique of current issues in the UK

within a worldwide context


This paper takes as its basis information gathered by the authors as part of their survey of

a sample of countries from across the globe with regard to national approaches to the

purposes of the doctorate award and to the principles and practices of doctoral education.

From this information, that pertaining to research degree supervision is extracted and

used to discuss a range of issues within this topic of supervision such as: supervision by

teams, qualifications to supervise, appointing supervisors, training supervisors and

evaluating their performance. These topics are set in the context of the ‘Report on the

review of research degree programmes’ (QAA, 2007).

The authors pose a series of challenges for those involved in the organisation of doctoral

supervision and make some position statements of their own based on the information

from the seventeen countries sampled.

Author Biographies

Stuart Powell (First Author) is Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of

Hertfordshire and was until recently Honorary Secretary of the UK Council for Graduate

Education (UKCGE). He and Howard Green have co-authored a book on Doctoral Study

in Contemporary Higher Education and co-edited a book on the Doctorate Worldwide in

(both published by Open University Press/SRHE).

Professor Howard Green (Second Author) has held the positions of PVC at

Staffordshire University, Dean of the Staffordshire Graduate School and Head of

Research Development at Leeds Metropolitan University. In addition, he set up and

chaired until 2003 the Modern Universities Research Group and between 2000 and 2006

was Chair of the UK Council for Graduate Education (UKCGE). He is currently a Senior

Partner of ‘Postgraduate Directions’ (

Research into doctoral education


Oxford information

“…the more research is actually going into how this [doctoral education] works and how it doesn’t work, the better, because it’s always seemed to me that PhDs are so hit or miss as to whether they come together and work. But I’ve found this [i.e. doctoral supervision]…not necessarily in work hours or in actual intellectual…requirements or anything, but just in terms of emotional stress levels, definitely up there amongst the things that one does as a lecturer, just because you feel like someone’s potential career is riding on what you do for them “ (Oxford supervisor)

The above is a quote from an interview with an Oxford supervisor musing on the tensions and pleasures involved in doctoral supervision which included feeling a sense of responsibility for the student’s future, discovering that their student can write well, and pondering the principles involved in taking on supervision in an unknown area. Such thoughts and feelings as these among Oxford academics are currently being researched by the Oxford Learning Institute and further quotes on aspects of doctoral supervision are to be found throughout this website. We hope that their Oxford colleagues will feel free to draw on these supervisory experiences, ideas and strategies as well as other research both nationally and internationally, to help the development of their own supervision.

Oxford’s Centre for Excellence in Preparing for Academic Practice (CETL), located in the Oxford Learning Institute, hosts regular conferences on preparation for academic practice as part of doctoral and post-doctoral training. The next one will take place in Oxford in December 2009.

The third CETL Conference: Beyond teaching and research: inclusive understandings of academic practice, 13 – 15 December 2009, St Anne’s College, Oxford.

Earlier CETL Conferences

First CETL Conference on Preparing for Academic Practice (2006)

Second CETL Conference: Preparing for Academic Practice – Disciplinary Perspectives (2008)

As well as supporting better provision for doctoral students and research staff at Oxford, the CETL Preparing for Academic Practice also conducts research – both into the experiences of doctoral students and those of new supervisors, principally in the Social Sciences Division.

In terms of what DPhil students report about their activities and interactions, the implications for supervisors include the following:

  • The need to stress to students how important it is to create for themselves networks of support (family, friends, peers, other members of staff), not just the supervisor as main point of contact; and to help them do this.
  • That one of the most helpful things supervisors can help foster in their students is time management skills; students often report struggling to develop clear timeframes for work.
  • That supervisors be sensitive to different stress windows which students experience; they may be loath to raise these due to lack of confidence or fear of not measuring up.

If you would like any further information on any of the research mentioned above contact Professor Lynn McAlpine, CETL Director.

Ideas and tools

One of the data collection tools used by CETL researchers is a weekly log (Word document). Individual students report that it is useful for them in thinking about their progress, their investment of time, and occasionally their self-sabotaging strategies. A further Tool to Aid Reflection on progress with doctoral work, derived from the weekly logs, is also available.

Visit the Quality in Postgraduate Research (QPR) web site, which houses all of the papers from the series of international conferences, mentioned in the Australia section below: it is a rich source of information on research education issues. It is also possible to join the QPR Discussion.

Use the links above (in the Oxford information section) to access the research papers and presentations from the Oxford CETL Conferences.

Insights from research and literature

Research and policy

Until about 10-15 years ago, doctoral education did not attract the attention of higher education researchers; there was more focus on the undergraduate experience. However, in the recent past, this lack has begun to be addressed and over time one sees shifts in what is examined. Australia was probably the first English-speaking country to see this growth in interest, followed by the US and more recently the UK. In Australia and the UK where there are national higher education policies, links between research interests and policies are apparent. In continental Europe, change has been initiated by the Bologna Declaration leading to a model of doctoral education closer to that of North America than of the UK. An ongoing concern is the issue of the discourse we use in describing doctoral education; there is an accountability discourse around training and skills that contrasts with a learning discourse around education and knowledge.

Research in Australia

In Australia, there has been a biennial conference on research education since 1994 (Quality in Postgraduate Research). Initially, many papers addressed supervisory relationships, later student support and teaching of skills, e.g. library research skills. Still later, there was a shift to examining supervision as teaching, as pedagogy. Concurrently, increasing public policy oversight led to discussion of the selection, retention and timely completion of students and quality assurance and enhancement issues. Most recently one sees, as in the UK, concern with transferable skills development and students as knowledge workers in a knowledge economy.

Research in the US

Here, the focus has been somewhat different. As noted above there are no national policies, although the Council for Graduate Studies provides a hub of communication to enable comparisons and sharing of ‘good policy’. In general, research has been driven by trust funds directed at action-based research, in which funding is used to support and evaluate changes in institutional policies and practices. The Carnegie Foundation funded an Initiative on the Doctorate with a departmental-disciplinary focus on preparing students to be ‘stewards of the discipline’. And, the Preparing Future Faculty project, funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, the National Science Foundation, and the Atlantic Philanthropies, was directed at preparing doctoral students to be better teachers, particularly addressing the value of providing opportunities for them to experience life at institutions other than their own. At the same time, the Centre for Institutional Research on Graduate Education has undertaken studies in the natural sciences examining post-graduation employment, for instance. Much more recently than in Australia, a group of researchers examining doctoral education has established itself and meets annually at the American Educational Research Association.

Research in the UK

There has been an ongoing somewhat critical dialogue beginning in the mid 90s. At the same time, ESRC and HEA calls for research into doctoral education, for instance, have led to more concrete studies examining the research literature (Leonard et al, 2006) and post-graduation employment patterns (Mills et al, 2006). In addition, given policy concerns about employability and skills training, Vitae and the UK funding council studies have generated surveys of post-graduation employment possibilities. So, one sees similar trends to Australia: national policies that are influencing researcher and research council agendas. Interestingly, there has not been until quite recently a group of researchers that meets regularly to explore these issues. Now the CETL Preparing for Academic Practice, at Oxford, has begun holding international conferences (December 2006 and April 2008). The next conference will be held in December 2009.

The above text was based on:

Boud, D., & Costley, C. (2007). From project supervision to advising: New conceptions of the practice. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 44(2), 119-130.

Johnson, L., Lee, A., & Green, B. (2000). The PhD and the autonomous self: gender, rationality and postgraduate pedagogy. Studies in Higher Education, Volume: 25(2), 135-147.

Kiley, M. (2006) Overview, Quality in Postgraduate Research (QPR) web site.

Leonard, D., Metcalfe, J., Becker, R. and Evans, J. (2006) Review of literature on the impact of working context and support on the postgraduate research student learning experience, Higher Education Academy and UK GRAD Programme.

Mills, D., Jepson, A., Coxon, T., Easterby-Smith, M., Hawkins, P., and Spencer, J. (2006) Demographic review of the UK social sciences. Swindon: ESRC.

Additional resources:

Carnegie Foundation web site.

Preparing Future Faculty web site.

Vitae web site.


David Delany PhD, CAPSL


In knowledge-based economies, governments see universities as engines for change and expansion of prosperity. The work of postgraduate students constitutes a vital component of a university’s research effort and contributes significantly to the institution’s research profile. Since the quality of supervisory practice has a demonstrable effect on postgraduate outcomes (Cullen et al., 1994) it is in the interest of university’s to reliably improve the efficacy of postgraduate supervision. High quality supervision facilitates students in fulfilling their potential which, in turn, enhances the institution’s research reputation. In a beneficent cycle, high calibre students are attracted by a reputation for excellent supervision and a strong research profile.

Effective supervision of research degree candidates is a complex multi-factorial process that encompasses issues at all levels from that of individual students and supervisors, to available infrastructural support, to institutional and governmental policies, structures and procedures. Numerous factors have been identified in the literature as significant predictors of candidate completion. These include attendance status (part- or full-time), availability of research funding, age, prior completion of an honours degree, discipline (sciences or humanities), gender, research topic suitability, the intellectual environment of the department, and access to appropriate equipment and computers (Rodwell and Neumann, 2007;
Bourke et al., 2004;
Seagram et al., 1998; Wright and Cochrane, 2000; Gasson and Reyes, 2004; Acker et al., 1994; Latona and Browne, 2001; Pearson and Brew, 2002).


In order to maintain a tractable scope and provide a useful starting point for more ambitious investigations this literature review focuses primarily on research that evaluates and models the factors that influence the quality of relationship between the student and the supervisor. Papers that deal primarily with distance, part-time, or professional postgraduate study have been excluded. This review also assumes a rather pragmatic working definition of an effective supervisor as one who achieves high completion rates, has candidates submit within the normally expected time frame, engages in multiple supervisions, and receives excellent supervisory reports (Gatfield, 2002). Obviously there will be viable exceptions to this rule.


The PhD, as a research degree award, was first conferred in Germany by the Friedrich Wilhelm University, Berlin during the early nineteenth century. From the 1860s onward the United States began to import the ideas of research universities and doctoral degrees starting with Yale in 1861 (Park, 2005). During the twentieth century the research degree spread to Canada (1910), Britain (1917), and onwards to most English-speaking countries including Australia in 1948 (Park, 2005). Interestingly, the introduction of the PhD in Britain was driven less by academic considerations than by the political and economic desire to divert American and colonial students away from German universities (Simpson, 1983). In Ireland the first PhD was awarded by TCD in 1935 (Ref).

Based on the British single supervisor model, the Irish PhD has traditionally been pursued using an apprenticeship model of training. Within this framework a student registers to study on an independent piece of original research under the supervision and guidance of an experienced academic researcher who advises them on the conduct and publication of their research. Unlike the US, where most of the first year of the degree may be occupied by advanced coursework, Irish PhD students rarely take formal classes during their studies. However, many countries, most notably the U.K. and Australia, are moving towards an intermediate PhD model, where students take some coursework and training in key generic skills alongside their research, and it is proposed that Ireland move in this direction too (IUQB, 2003). Partially in response to these trends, within the natural sciences, TCD has recently introduced structured interdisciplinary four year degrees with a taught component and lab rotations in the first two years.

Historically, despite the importance and almost exalted role of graduate education, formal research on the psychological, social, and educational aspects of this form of advanced training only began during the 1970s. In 1975 Ernest Rudd published The Highest Education: A Study of Graduate Education in Britain, an investigation of student experiences of graduate education. Rudd discovered wide variation in the quality of student supervision. In particular, he noted that lazy or unmotivated supervisors had a demoralising effect on their students and recommended the creation of Graduate Schools as an institutional mechanism for raising the overall quality of postgraduate supervision.

This ad hoc model of supervision appears to be falling out of favour and early optional training modules in research supervision have progressively been replaced, particularly in the UK, continental Europe, and Australasia, by comprehensive and, in some cases, compulsory programs (Manathunga, 2005). Within Europe this trend is part of a broader EU drive to harmonise academic degree standards and quality assurance standards across Europe, as codified in the 1999 Bologna Accords (European Commission, 2008).

Interestingly, it has been argued that, rather than encourage research on pedagogical issues involved in supervising, current pressure to make universities more productive and accountable has driven research that focuses on “policy issues and questions, and on the organisation and administration of the postgraduate research degree” (Green and Lee, 1995).


As Dinham and Scott (1999) observe; “the student-supervisor relationship has the potential to be wonderfully enriching and productive, but it can also be extremely difficult and personally devastating”. Edwards (2002) four major problems in the postgraduate experience: being at cross purposes with supervisors, finding few supporting structures, isolation and confusion over resources. Powles (1989) reported that 25% of postgraduate research students surveyed were either “dissatisfied” or “very dissatisfied” with their experience. Problems with the supervisory relationship were cited by 31% (i.e. 8% of the total) of this group. Other research suggests that, within a discipline, the quality of supervision is the key factor determining the successful and timely completion of a PhD (Seagram et al., 1998; Dinham & Scott, 1998; Knowles, 1999). At a basic level Woodward (1993) has noted that more frequent supervision is strongly correlated with successful completion.

Significant differences in PhD time to completion (TTC) and successful completion arise between academic disciplines. Specifically, students in scientific areas tend to be more likely to successfully finish their PhD than those in arts and humanities disciplines (Rodwell and Neumann, 2007; Seagram et al, 1998; Wright and Cochrane, 2000). Seagram et al (1998), in a very large (n=3579) study of students at York university in Ontario, found no difference in the time to completion of male and female PhD students. She also found that males and females appear to be affected by different negative aspects of the postgraduate experience. Female postgraduates nominated interpersonal factors as most significant whilst males reported academic factors.

In the UK Wright and Cochrane (2000) examined the submission rates of 3579 postgraduate students in a single large university between 1984 and 1993 in order to identify characteristics of the student ‘most likely to succeed’. They found that the only reliable predictor of successful submission was whether a student was researching a science-based or an arts and humanities-based subject. Neither gender, age nor nationality were found to have any effect on the likelihood of submitting successfully. Similar discipline-specific trends have been found in Australia, (Martin et al., 2001), the US (Bowen and Rudenstine, 1992), and Canada (Seagram et al., 1998). The faster times to completion and higher completion rates associated with the sciences appear to arise from the fact that science students appear to meet more frequently with their supervisors, make an early start on their dissertation research compared to humanities, and have generally higher levels of financial support (Seagram et al., 1998)

Scevak et al. (2007) used self-report instruments to investigate the metacognitive profile of a cohort of Australian doctoral students. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the students generally displayed a positive metacognitive profile, with above average scores on measures of coping, efficacy, volition and knowledge and below average scores on procrastinatory behaviours measures. However, when the authors performed a latent variable analysis three metacognitive groupings emerged: a potentially non-problematic grouping, a potentially anxious and dependent grouping, and a third grouping that was associated with potentially weaker and at-risk candidates.

Parsloe (1993) found that students’ moods (excitement, despair, boredom and confidence) had predictable stages as they moved through the degree.

Interestingly, in a small (n=30) study at Exeter university, UK, Abdelhafez (2007) found a significant positive correlation between student knowledge of the university’s code of supervisory practice and their attitudes towards their supervisor. Supervisor attitudes were not found to be predicted by gender or year of study.

The Swedish National Agency for Higher Education (2006) published a comparative review of postgraduate student’s attitudes in four geographically peripheral European countries: Sweden, Finland, and Ireland (the International Postgraduate Mirror report). The report compares student responses to a battery of questions on seven areas of postgraduate life, two of which focused on supervision: ‘dialogue with supervisors’ and ‘supervision in action’.

In ‘dialogue with supervisors’ student views were elicited on perceived levels of supervisor interest in their studies, levels of constructive criticism, degree to which their supervisor engaged the student in discussions of methodological, theoretical, general subject area issues, and the student’s future career plans. Overall Irish students appear to fare slightly better than the sampled European average. For example, about one third of Irish students reported that they received inadequate constructive criticism from their supervisor compared to approximately 35% for Catalonian students and just over 50% for Finnish postgraduates. Furthermore, of this sample, Irish students were the most satisfied that their supervisor displayed sufficient interest in their studies (Swedish Coordinating Centre, 2006).

Although much of the literature on graduate education and supervision has focused on the impact of student variables (e.g. age, gender, and national and linguistic backgrounds) on the PhD experience for students, Cullen et al. (1994) found that the demographics of the supervisor population (e.g. age, gender, graduate education background and teaching responsibilities) also had a significant effect on how they conduct supervision.’


Pearson and Kayrooz (2005) argue that the development of academic supervisors has been constrained by a “lack of robust conceptual understanding of what supervision involves”. In attempting to answer this challenge and capture the multi-faceted nature of effective supervision researchers have used a number of different approaches which vary in sophistication from uni-dimensional metaphors, to unstructured lists of desirable traits, to complex multi-dimensional empirically-driven frameworks. Grant (1999) suggests that the majority of these approaches to understanding and practicing supervision emerge from a liberal humanist view of social relations in which supervision is understood to be an essentially rational and transparent engagement between autonomous individuals. She argues that additional useful insights into the subtleties and complexities of supervision can be gained from considering supervision within a broader psychoanalytic context.

Although there is still a tendency to equate research supervision with research training and the research responsibilities of the academic role (Johnston, 1999), a particularly prevalent view of supervision is that it constitutes a sophisticated form of teaching (Ferman, 2000; Taylor, 2006). In keeping with this view, Knowles (1999) describes postgraduate supervision as “critical conversations”, while Taylor (1995) proposes that supervision is ‘mentorship [more than] instruction’. Whilst Green and Lee (1995) believe that ‘the role of supervision remains profoundly ambiguous’ they do advise replacing the notion of teaching with the broader concept of pedagogy. Connell (1985) takes a more superlative approach and describes PhD supervision as “the most advanced level of teaching…a genuinely complex teaching task”. Although Green and Lee (1999) contend that this view encounters “deep-seated prejudice in the modern university which systematically privileges research over teaching”. A somewhat more nuanced dualistic view is proffered by Zuber-Skerrit and Ryan (1994) who suggest that “research postgraduate training is unique among academic responsibilities in providing a direct linkage between teaching and learning activities and research”.

Grant (1999), noting that supervision is a complex process that requires both situational awareness and a flexible posture, neatly captures this teetering complexity through the vivid metaphor of supervision as a process of “walking on a rackety bridge”.

Cullen et al. (1994), as part of a major study carried out at the Australian National University, Canberra, produced a list of the characteristics of a ‘good supervisor’ (which they noted is very similar to lists of what undergraduates hold as desirable features of a good lecturer):

• approachable and friendly;

• supportive, positive attitude;

• open minded, prepared to acknowledge error;

• organised and thorough; and

• stimulating and conveys enthusiasm for research.

A more structured list of supervisory roles and attitudes is provided by Brown and Atkins (1989):

• Director (determining topic and method, providing ideas);

• Facilitator (providing access to resources or expertise, arranging field-work);

• Adviser (helping to resolve technical problems, suggesting alternatives);

• Teacher (of research techniques);

• Guide (suggesting timetable for writing up, giving feedback on progress, identifying critical path for data collection);

• Critic (of design of enquiry, of draft chapters, of interpretations or data);

• Freedom giver (authorises student to make decisions, supports student’s decisions);

• Supporter (gives encouragement, shows interest, discusses student’s ideas);

• Friend (extends interest and concern to non-academic aspects of student’s life);

Manager (checks progress regularly, monitors study, gives systematic feedback, plans work)

Although enumerating lists of missing skills is a common approach to addressing the problem of creating employable and well-rounded PhD graduates (Taylor and Beasley, 2005; Wisker, 2001; Phillips and Pugh, 2000; Cryer, 1997) a potential pitfall with such lists, identified by Pearson (2004), is the lack of an integrating conceptual framework of what constitutes research training. According to Pearson, this means that it is difficult to identify priorities, to identify appropriate training strategies, and to determine the distribution of responsibility for different aspects of a training programme. Furthermore, it implicitly facilitates a modular, fragmented approach to designing postgraduate training programs with such desirable generic skills, such as time or project management, treated as ‘add-ons’. Pearson and Krayooz (2004) argue that what is “needed is a complex outcome; a skilful performer rather than someone who can list their skills”. An advance on the list approach is the framework. Several researchers have formulated empirically-driven theoretical frameworks within which to place and assess the manifold characteristics of supervisory practice.

Gurr (2001) elaborated Grant’s (1999) ‘rackety bridge’ metaphor and devised a dynamic model for aligning supervisory style with the development of research students possessing ‘competent autonomy’. Gurr’s model is define by two key dimensions: a ‘direct’/’indirect’ and an ‘active’/’passive’ dimension which form a graph with four categories of behaviour:

• direct active, characterised by initiating, criticising, telling and directing the student

• indirect active, characterised by asking for opinions and suggestions, accepting and expanding students ideas, or asking for explanations and justifications of supervisee’s statements

• indirect passive, characterised by listening and waiting for the student to process ideas and problem solve; and,

• passive, characterised by having no input and not responding to student’s input

A central point is that the effective supervisor moves flexibly between the various modes. Most notably as the candidate progresses away from dependence and towards competent autonomy. This adaptive mode-switching can occur even within the space of a single meeting.

Gurr (2001) tested the efficacy of this Supervisor/Student Alignment Model as a supervisory tool by separately interviewing four pairs of students and supervisors in the University of Sydney. In interviews students were asked to mark on a graph where they felt their supervisor’s approach fell. The supervisors were similarly asked to classify their own supervisory behaviour and the results were then compared in a joint meeting. The author found that, especially in cases where there was a marked discrepancy between the student and supervisor perceptions of supervision, the neutral graphical approach facilitated open dialogue on the state and appropriateness of the prevailing supervisory practices. The tool continues to be used to fine tune the supervisory relationships.

An alternative framework is advanced by Fraser and Mathews (1999) who performed an empirical analysis of the desirable characteristics of a supervisor from the point of view of the student. They argue that a traditional emphasis on expertise as the salient dimension of supervisorship is too limited and augment it with support and creative/critical dimensions. When Fraser and Mathews surveyed students on the desirability of an array of specific supervisor characteristics encompassed by these three dimensions they found that non-expertise-related characteristics which provide support, and which balance creativity with criticism, emerged as more important overall than expertise-related characteristics.

A perceived need to devise a “new theoretical approach drawn from a wider literature then traditional higher education pedagogy” (Pearson, 2004) has motivated several researchers to explore the potential for applying business models to the supervision process.

Vilikas (2002), for example, suggests that the role of a supervisor is strongly analogous to that of a business manager and consequently models supervision using an integrated version of Quinn’s Competing Values Framework (CVF) of managerial roles. The CVF model identifies operational supervisory roles within a two-dimensional surface formed by an internal-external focus dimension and a flexibility-stability dimension. The original CVF model identified eight operational roles (innovator, broker, producer, director, coordinator, monitor, facilitator, and mentor) within four quadrants: ‘expansion, adaptation’; ‘maximisation of output’; ‘consolidation, continuity’; and ‘human commitment’. The modified version adds a ninth ‘process’ role of ‘integrator’ (Vilikas and Cartan, 2001). The integrator role has two components those of critical observer and reflective learner.

A recently updated and simplified version of the model reworks the primary dimensions as internal-external focus and people-task focus. The number of operational roles is reduced to five: innovator, broker, monitor, deliverer, and developer with the integrator as the central role (Vilikas and Cartan, 2006).

Vilkinas and Cartan (2001) argue that these roles are paradoxical in nature. In other words, supervisors need to be able to act in ways that are inherently contradictory e.g. caring for the student and dealing with their personal issues (developer role) while simultaneously demanding that the student is productive (deliverer role). A central assumption of this approach is that an accomplished supervisor/manager must be able to adaptively switch between the various roles as the situation demands. Vilikas and Cartan (200) claim, somewhat opaquely, that effective supervisors handle these paradoxes by creating “generative paradoxes as opposed to exhausting conflicts”. Indeed, Gurr (2001) has observed that supervisors need to be able and willing to alter their approach to supervision appropriately as the student develops.

In order to assess the ‘fit’ of supervisor beliefs and practices within the ICVF framework Vilikas (2008) performed an exploratory study of the attitudes of 25 senior faculty members from seven Australian institutions. She found that the majority of supervisors were primarily task-focused coupled with some concern with the humane aspects of supervision, there was little evidence of innovation and reflection. Vilikas argued that the lack of evidence of a reflective role potentially limits the ability of supervisors to respond effectively to the dynamic demands of their position.

Another business-inspired framework is that proposed by Gatfield (2005). He extracted eighty key variables from the supervision literature to construct a four-quadrant supervisory styles model adapted from the Blake and Moulton Managerial Grid model. The eighty factors were clustered into three groups: ‘structural’, ‘support’ and ‘exogenous’. The structural component is defined as those elements supplied primarily by the supervisor in negotiation with the candidate. These factors can be further grouped into ‘organisational process’, ‘accountability and stages’, and ‘skills provision’. Examples include identifying roles, negotiating meetings and training seminars. The support factor constitutes those non-directive, discretionary elements supplied by the institution and supervisor and is further broken down into ‘pastoral care’, ‘material’, ‘financial’ and ‘technical’ sectors e.g. mentoring, office space, research funds, and network support. The final category is comprised of those relatively fixed factors not encompassed by the support and structure categories. These include ‘candidate variables’ such as research skills, and a ‘various’ category that includes factors such as second supervisor contribution.

By assuming that the candidate variables are relatively fixed, Gatfield identified four ‘preferred’ (as opposed to invariant) supervisory styles that emerged as quadrants in a support-structure graph; contractual (high support, high structure), directorial (low support, high structure), laissez-faire (low support, low structure), and pastoral (high support, low structure).

In order to examine the reliability and applicability of the model Gatfield performed a verification study. This entailed interviewing 12 supervisors independently classified as excellent and mapping their responses onto the grid. Gatfield (2005) confirmed that the vast majority of supervisors classified as excellent mapped onto the high support, high structure contractual quadrant. However, he stressed that as all of the supervisors were rated as excellent, and not all fell into the contractual quadrant, that a range of viable effective supervisory styles exist. In an extension of this idea, Gatfield (2005) suggests that the prevailing management style for a given supervisor will also vary as a function of the stage at which their students are at within their PhDs as a result of a change in the supervisory requirements attendant upon each stage.

A framework similar to that employed by Vilikas (2002) emerged from work carried out by Murphy (2004) who attempted to characterise beliefs held by students and supervisors about supervision. Murphy (2004) conducted a small-scale (n=34) survey of supervisors and doctoral candidates in the engineering school of Griffith University, Queensland, Australia. She describes research degree supervision as a “plexus of closely related educational beliefs about research, teaching, learning and supervision” and argues that four global orientations to supervision emerge from this perspective: controlling/task-focused, controlling/person-focused, guiding/task-focused and guiding/person-focused. Paradoxically, Murphy found that whilst supervisor’s beliefs regarding supervision tended to cluster within the guiding/person-focused category, student’s beliefs regarding supervision were more commonly characterised as controlling/task-focused. Murphy suggests that the supervisor’s role in shaping the candidates beliefs are undermined by the student’s preconceptions of what supervision entails.

The use of frameworks and lists to identify supervisory roles has not gone unchallenged. Walford (1981) cautions against the use of role theory on the grounds that “the degree of simplification required to make any analysis of this sort in terms of role theory is so great that the resulting analysis omits much of what is important in understanding the development of the supervisor/student relationship and the degree of satisfaction felt by the student. In particular, the gathering together of opinions of students and supervisors who are concerned with an enormous variety of projects, from highly sophisticated theoretical problems to complex projects concerned with experimental design and development, means that to talk in terms of a single role misses the very aspects which may well give rise to dissatisfaction” (p.148).

This last point is amplified by Cullen et al. (1994) who highlight the “extreme variability and subtlety” of the relationships that emerged from their analysis. They note that “the difficulty with such lists as guides to practice is that although they are well meaning, they are very general and indicate little sense of the judgements involved in their application.” In an attempt to circumvent some of these issues Cullen et al. (1994) adopt a more holistic approach that acknowledges the “highly complex, dynamic” relationships between supervisor and supervisee. Crucially, they strive to avoid focusing on the individual relationships which obtain between students and supervisors. By locating that relationship in a broader context, the authors hope to identify universal strategies that transcend individual differences.

Cullen et al. (1994) present a high level three-stage model of supervision that attempts to encompass the key features of how experienced supervisors seek to structure the supervisory relationship as a student’s PhD study progresses. The first stage is characterised by a significant input of time and effort helping the student to find or establish a question, problem or topic for their thesis. In the next stage the student is monitored but allowed to operate with greater independence. Unless there are warning signs, contact is most often left to the student to initiate. The final stage involves writing up and, like stage 1, is again characterised by an increase in the time and effort exerted by the supervisor.

Cullen et al. (1994) claim that this model is common to all disciplines and highlights certain basic elements:

The importance of focusing on process over roles is also advocated by Pearson and Brew (2002) who argue that the primary utility of elaborating the roles of the supervisor is limited to enabling supervisors to articulate their practice. Crucially, the authors suggest that role elaboration is not so useful for determining the content of supervisor development programmes. Several reasons are adduced to support this claim:

This last point is related to the process of ‘enculturation’ during which novices (i.e. PhD students) learn the socialised skills of laboratory work, and through which research problems are conveyed. Since a number of individuals typically contribute to this process over time, continuity arises from the process, and not from the peripatetic individual participants (Delamont et al., 1997).

A useful set of dimensions for assessing the quality of the supervisor relationship has been proposed by Kam (1997). She performed a factor analytic investigation of the level of student satisfaction with the supervisory process within a large population (n=250) of postgraduates at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. Kam found that student responses were consistently clustered around three emergent factors: ‘work organisation and problem solving’, characterised by work tasks that denote efforts made to assure work quality in the research process, ‘research preparation’ representing work tasks typical of those found during the early part of the research process, and ‘communication’ standing for work tasks centred on communication and interaction at different levels. Based on student responses with respect to these three factors, Kam (1997) isolated four distinct groups of students that varied in their level of independence or dependence as measured by each factor. Group 1 represented students who were relatively independent along all three dimensions and constituted the largest grouping at 38% of the student body. Other groups represented students who exhibited mixed levels of (in)dependence along the latent dimensions of ‘work organisation and problem solving’, ‘research preparation’, and ‘communication’. Interestingly, none of the groups were highly supervisor-dependent on all three dimensions. The level of subjective student satisfaction (as distinct from the objective quality of the research outcome as measured by completion time, pass rate, etc) was found to be strongly dependent on the extent to which the supervisor addresses needs engendered by the most salient dependent dimension. Consequently, Kam suggests, no one supervisory style can adequately meet the needs of all students.

A novel IT-based metaphor of supervision is pursued by Zhao (2001) who argues that the quality and productivity of research supervision would be enhanced if knowledge management concepts were effectively integrated into the process. He proposes a model that conceptualises the supervisory process as an input-output process mediated by a knowledge conversion stage. The input is the research candidate and environment and the outputs are a competent researcher, completion of the research degree, and research products. The intervening knowledge conversion process is modified by separate knowledge creation, transfer, and embedding processes. On the assumption that goal of research supervision is to nurture capable researchers (Down et al., 2000), Zhao claims that effective supervisors develop students as independent researchers by interventions targeted at enhancing these sub-processes.

Following Cullen et al. (1994), Pearson and Brew (2002) suggest that a more productive approach is to focus on what supervisors are actually doing and why. This is done on the assumption that this grounds discussion in the practice of supervision and the behaviour of participants, ensuring that their learning is situated in their particular research contexts.

Although the international research literature on postgraduate supervision is replete with examples of what constitutes good supervision practice (Moses, 1985; Zuber-Skerritt, 1992; Christie and Adawi, 2006; Holbrook and Johnston, 1999; Johnson et al., 2000), there is a dearth of longitudinal research that actually assesses the impact of interventions designed to improve postgraduate supervision.


The increasing international importance of innovation and knowledge generation has driven an increase in the research literature on research supervision. However, although a rich array of supervisory models have been proposed to account for the multifarious factors that are associated with effective supervision there is still a salient need for a program of coherent empirical validation.


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2 Responses to “General Articles on PhD Supervision”

  1. Dolma Hari June 30, 2012 at 2:45 am #

    Hey there, I think your site might be having browser compatibility issues.

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    up! Other then that, awesome blog!

    • Mark Ingham June 30, 2012 at 8:16 am #

      Dear Dolma

      Thanks for the heads up and it is just a simple worpress site so will check with them….

      Glad you like the site… Will keep adding relevant stuff as and when.

      All the best


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