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”?

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About Tegan Darnell

Librarian, USQ Doctoral student, and the Principal Editor of ReDBlog. Tegan's research topic for the Doctor of Professional Studies is how librarians’ narratives inhibit or create preferred library futures, and creating spaces for librarian transformation.