Category Archives: Supervision

On Choosing Colleagues

By Ruth Wagstaff

There appears to be a lot of advice about how to choose the right supervisors, the right
research topic, and the right research questions. But, I think it is time to talk about choosing the
right colleagues. Colleagues are those PhD candidates who extend the hand of friendship and make suggestions about who to contact when.

During the week, it struck me just how important colleagues are. Some have become close
friends who I hope to keep in contact with until the day I die. Even though not all colleagues are
close friends, I respect each colleague equally because each one has contributed something critical to my life. Collectively, they are the reason that I continue to persevere with research.

And … it is likely many of them do not know how important they are. They are important
because they share the same study space, they say hello, make me laugh, share a bar of chocolate, or offer to make a hot drink when they make one their own. They do these things without thinking, but, by doing these things they remind me of how interconnected we are.

This interconnection is essential because study, especially at the level we have reached, can
be very isolating. This isolation can be overcome through interconnection with others. The most
important interconnection occurs through supervisors and colleagues. Supervisors provide links to our futures and colleagues provide links with our present. Colleagues link us with the present because they are in the unique position of understanding and supporting us in the day-to-day struggles, triumphs, and joys. It is the day-to-day support that separates them from supervisors.

Supervisors do not have the capacity for day-to-day support, but it is our colleagues who do.
I am blessed with incredible colleagues. They listen to my to my concerns, put up with my
jokes, and cheer me on when I lose hope. Some of these colleagues work in the same lab as me, but others do not. Not all have the privilege of their own study space at uni so connection is through Facebook, phone calls, or other colleagues. They study full-time or part-time, come from different faculties and schools, and are at different stages of their PhD. These differences make each colleague incredible, inspirational, and important.

I chose to undertake my PhD at USQ. I took the first steps in securing my supervisors, but I
did not choose my colleagues. They chose me, and I have chosen to accept their support. I am
honoured that they have chosen to reach out and included me in their day-to-day lives.

My hope is that I support them as well as they have supported me.

Change of Direction

By Madeleine Arber

I am well into the second year of my three-year PhD investigating the effect of chemo-brain on breast cancer patients and survivors in terms of cognition, self-control, and quality of life. Well, I was until I had to make the difficult decision to terminate the project.

Unfortunately, the injuries inflicted (i.e. forming the relationships needed in order to submit an ethical form outside of the university) were not compatible with life (i.e. submitting the dissertation on time).

As much as I loved researching my project and wanted to continue, I would not have been able to keep my head above water financially beyond the third year should I have continued. This was a difficult decision to make, as there is a certain grief comes with having to let go of two years’ worth of hard work.

It is difficult to describe to people outside of the research world what undertaking a PhD is like. It is perhaps even more challenging to try to express to family and friends the complexity in making the decision to end your project. They will see it as a large quantity of time lost on something that did not get off the ground.

For me, however, this was not just about two years of work. There is a relationship between the student and the project. This is something that takes up most of your waking hours (and sometimes some of your sleeping ones). It surrounds you and your thoughts and develops alongside you over time (like a fine cheese). Your project becomes a part of you.

My project somewhat defined who I was as a person. I was the individual introduced at friend’s parties as the PhD student studying… [insert old project here]. It was a fun little fact about me that served as a talking point.

The end-of-project realisation was not something I recognised suddenly, but rather a slow, painful, and stressful decision I eventually came to understand. The project was a dead horse I had been attempting to revive for months because I was in denial. It was the worst break-up I have experienced so far.

Sadly, I did not get to wallow in my own sadness for long (i.e. eat ice cream for breakfast in the bathtub – delicious and not so nutritious!). I have to rebuild Rome from the ground up with a deadline in sight. Fortunately, my supervisory team had a back-up plan that would allow me to submit a dissertation on time.

Nevertheless, even with a back-up plan in place, taking on a new project still has redirected me back to a beginning of sorts. I feel slightly unsteady on my new feet (i.e. project) and I have lost the ‘elevator talk’ skill (the ability to explain your project within the time frame of an elevator’s ride) and babble endlessly; but I have a direction.

I am not quite out of the water yet… but I will submit, more or less, on time. I have hope that the work I started was not for nothing, and that another student may complete it at an appropriate time.

I wanted to share my story for anyone else out there who may be going something similar.

Confirmation of Candidature – Marcia’s Story

By Ruth Wagstaff

This is the story of someone’s confirmation. Let’s keep this person anonymous and call her Marcia. Marcia loved the topic that she settled on. She read far and wide. She talked about it with anyone who would listen. She found scholarships to apply so that she had to write for different audiences. She would write literature reviews to help consolidate and refine the research question. Her supervisors were happy with her progress and they mostly enjoyed supervision because she was constantly finding new questions. However, her supervisor’s joy was tempered by Marcia’s inability to choose the measures and methodology.

Marcia announced to her supervisor that she wanted an early confirmation. The supervisor nodded in agreement, no doubt hoping it would force Marcia to make decisions that she alone could make about measures and methodology. The associate supervisor simply went along with the decision because he trusted in Marcia’s ability to get things done. Her supervisor nominated the panel and to Marcia’s surprise they all accepted.

About 3 weeks before the proposal was due to be submitted to the panel, Marcia polished her proposal. Polishing the proposal had three effects on Marcia. The first is that just has her principle supervisor had predicted, she was forced to make decisions about methodology and measures. This was a very good outcome. Another effect was that polishing provided an opportunity to tighten the conceptual work. Another good outcome. But less a desirable effect was the realisation that the project could go very pear shaped, and even worse, that she did not have the skills and knowledge to do complete the project successfully. Her feet went cold but hands became sweaty. Sleeping became a little difficult. She became irritable. Marcia had visions of the panel laughing at her and cutting her down into bite size pieces. Marcia had gone from a confident and carefree soul to one shackled by poor confidence, imposter syndrome, and anxiety.

Supervision was no longer something Marcia looked forward to but her supervisor was wise and very experienced. Not only had he seen it all before, but experienced similar emotions during the confirmation of his Ph.D. candidature several decades earlier. In his usual calm voice, the supervisor asked Marcia what she was most afraid of.

Marcia’s reply was honest. She said, “I feel academically very vulnerable – even when doing a practice presentation for you here in your office. There is no reason for me to feel like this because you do not bite, and you do not want to tear me apart. I have worked on this proposal solidly for 12 months. It is mixed with my blood, sweat, and tears, and comes from my inner soul.”

The supervisor nodded in agreement, waited a moment, and said in a slow deliberate tone, “Yes, but the panel and I only want you to succeed. We are on your side.”
As he spoke, Marcia reflected on the stories of the candidates who were left in tears. Through the haze of Marcia thoughts, her supervisor’s voice took centre stage again.

“If you knew the answers to this research, it would not be Ph.D. worthy,’” he continued. “You have done the work required. Relax in your ability to get this done. You are not alone on this journey.”

As alone as Marcia felt, the evidence was that she was not alone. Her closest friends were Ph.D. colleagues and were always there. She knew her supervisors were walking with her, mentoring, and guiding her. The panel was walking with her by taking time out of their busy day to read the proposal, listen to the presentation, and make comments to help her. The panel did not have to do this but chose to. Marcia was definitely not alone.

The day of the confirmation presentation came and went. Marcia may have felt as if she was carrying the world on her shoulders, but as she heard her voice begin the oral presentation, her concerns lifted. Her PhD friends were there. Her supervisors were there. The panel were listening attentively. Extra staff were there to support her as well. There is still work ahead but her project is Ph.D. worthy. Marcia is now a confirmed candidate: she has crossed a bridge and is about to embark on a new phase of her PhD journey.

Confirmation of Candidature Couplets

By Debbie Mulligan

Congratulations! Today is your day

You’re off to great places, you’re off and away! (Seuss, Dr.; 1990)

 

Finally! How hard can it be

It’s about time and IT’S ALL ABOUT ME! (Mulligan, Dr.; 2030)

 

I’ve sweated and practised and sweated some more

If all else fails I’ve got cartoons galore

 

And a dvd with old men on bikes

I just hope it starts when it’s s’posed to- Yikes

 

I know, I’ll win them over with chocolate called Roses

And just for good luck, I’ll throw in some poses

 

The panel walks in and they all take a seat

I feel like they are the diners and I’m the cooked meat

 

Oh well, here we go, it’s now or never

Now is the moment to show them I’m clever

 

I deliver my speech and sit down with a sigh

Really Deborah, sit up straight, this is no time to cry

 

“I notice on page 10 you’ve used the word which…”

It’s then that I develop an unforeseen twitch

 

“Errrrrrrr, ummmmmm,” I mutter, stalling for time

How can they look at me like it’s such a big crime

 

No one told me this would be the longest hour of the day

My desperate thoughts start rambling and my mind starts to stray

 

I look around the room and my supervisor is nodding

Willing me onwards as my words just keep plodding

 

“The end,” says the chairman and graciously smiles

“The end,” says my battered psyche like it’s run 1000 miles

 

Thank heavens it’s over, I’m home on my bed

I’ve taken some Panadol for my poor aching head

 

Some chocolate and red wine are on the agenda

This could be the beginning of a very long bender………….

 

And then the next day my peers gather round for a report

I feel blessed and I’m grateful for all their support

 

This doctoral road is tricky, fraught with bends and dead ends

But it’s made just that bit easier with my new found friends.

 

 

 

Doctoral supervision: The candidate’s perspective

By Nona Press

The reason for undertaking a PhD varies for many students, and the expectations of the journey also vary, but the outcome is always the same – i.e., a significant contribution to knowledge and practice, as an embodiment of a research inquiry. The research shapes and indeed often dictates how the candidature is undertaken and supervised. There is a growing body of literature about PhD supervision, narrating the voices of not only the supervisors but also the candidates, often as autoethnographic individual reflective pieces. In contrast, my three supervisors and I had recently undertaken an empirical investigation of our respective conceptions of doctoral supervision, as a collaborative autoethnography and an interdisciplinary, phenomenographic case study, an outcome of which was a contribution to a forthcoming edited book on research supervision. The reflections in this blog post draw upon the findings of this study, and relate to my lived experiences as a PhD candidate as a whole.

My candidature began at another institution as a part-time student. After a year, I continued the journey at USQ from 2012 onwards, where I am privileged to work with three supervisors from two disciplines (education and nursing). Experiencing different universities, institutional practices, supervisory teams and, for that matter, supervision styles gave me important points of reference as I reflected upon my experiences. With distinct and contrasting practices and styles between institutions, these experiences shaped and re-shaped my understanding and expectations of doctoral supervision. In the phenomenographic interview for the study noted above, my conception of supervision was interpreted as a “pedagogical commitment”:

My lived experience of supervision…is that…it’s like an enculturation…into the discipline where your supervisors are affiliated….You’re given the opportunity to grow with guidance. You’re given the opportunity to interact with your community environment with the kind of tools that will allow you to grow….So my learning about methodology, for example, wherever that takes me, is very much situated; I am living it. But they’re there to guide me, to challenge me, to question me….Because in this relationship feedback is the most important [element], coupled with guidance.

For me, the interpersonal dimension of supervisor-student, supervisor-supervisor, and student-supervisor relationships was critical for my holistic growth as a researcher and academic. It is significantly more productive, for example, to work with a cohesive and supportive supervisory team who actively supported not only the candidate but also each other. In my experience, a positive environment was critical, whereby I was nurtured to take ownership of my research by a united supervisory team. Without such unity, receiving conflicting guidance was completely counter-productive to a point where I felt any disagreements between the experts were caused by me – much like how some children feel between disagreeing parents. Notwithstanding, drawing on my positive experiences, my understanding of doctoral supervision as a pedagogical commitment has deepened. Nowadays, I think about it as also relating to mutual learning opportunities.

My thesis is nearing completion and I am aiming to submit for external examination at the end of the year. I must say, as my understanding of supervision became clearer over time, the more enjoyable the doctoral journey. So for you fellow candidates out there, think about what your conception of doctoral supervision is – what do you mean when you say “doctoral supervision”?

The tyranny of distance

By Ruth Fielder

Another ReDTrain email arrived yesterday.

These emails arrive so regularly I could set my alarm to their arrival, but it is an alarm I could do without. The ReDTrain alarm is a bitter-sweet reminder of how far I live from campus: and it makes me feel lonely because I want to be with other PhD-ers. But being on campus is not an option for now. This is a third or fourth-hand story of another external PhD candidate’s (Ahhh*) battle with the tyranny of distance, and was shared by a fellow external PhD candidate (Jeezz*).

Ahhh lives in the deep tropical rainforest of far North Queensland. Ahhh’s problem was that his PhD was based in Toowoomba and he was allergic to cold westerly winds. So allergic, that his eyes and nose would run at the mere thought of cold or westerlies. The only viable way do the PhD was to enrol in an external program.

There were some good reasons to study off campus: no on-campus distractions, and he was still surrounded by the world he loved and knew. Supervision was via Zoom. Emails were a great way to ask quick questions The supervisor gave Ahhh her private phone number, so that when weekend supervision was needed or the unstable internet connection was down so he could stay in touch. Ahhh felt like part of a big fuzzy community.

One day, Ahhh was seized by panic and lost confidence. There was no way that this PhD would be a success. ReDTrain notices were informing him of candidates’ topics and by comparison, his topic was vague. It did not have real word application. It was insignificant. It was boring. His supervisor suggested that a face-to-face meeting and a week long campus visit was in order. So, Ahhh reluctantly made the flight bookings and drove 300kms to the closest airport. He was glad it was summer in Toowoomba–-the cold would not threaten his health.

Ahhh was taken back by not only the beauty of the Toowoomba Campus, but communication with his supervisors was much easier and productive. Face-to-face conversations flowed more easily than Zoom conversations, and responses to questions and ideas were instantaneous compared to email. He got more done in five days on campus than a month at home.
Rather than a distraction, campus activities added the richness of his on-campus time. It was not home, but he still managed a laugh or two while having a cuppa and lunch with Jeezz and others. Parting from campus was tinged with a little sadness and longing to return. He even experienced a twinge of jealously toward on-campus candidate.

I got a lot out of Ahhh’s story.

While external study has its perks, and zoom meetings and emails are critical for progress, extended campus visits are invaluable. And who knows, I may even make some lifetime friends. The ReDTrain alarm is no longer a bittersweet reminder of the tyranny of distance, but rather it keeps in me focused and serves to remind me of the fuzzy community I have decided to join.

* To protect the identity of candidates’ these are not their real names.