Monday, March 13, 2006

DPhil Supervision

Today I went to a seminar run by the Learning Institute (formerly IAUL) in Oxford with the intention of finding out more about DPhil (PhD) supervision in the Social Sciences. Since comments on student-supervisor relationships are naturally rather personal, everything said by individual participants was ‘off the record’, but I’m sure I can give some general thoughts on the day.

It was interesting to note that when supervisors thought back to their own experiences of being doctoral students, they reported much the same good and bad points as current students – freedom to direct research, but a total reliance on the supervisor, worries about guidance and so on.

Indeed, it was good just to be reassured that everyone experiences many of these problems, the second year ‘plateau’ (loss of motivation when the thesis becomes a slog) and so on. I was the only student from Politics unfortunately (and probably not a very representative one, at that), but others shared some similar experiences – or, if not, at least other problems.

On the other hand, it was also interesting to see things from the supervisor’s perspective. We discussed a number of case studies, all written from such a viewpoint – concerning awkward, argumentative students, or ones who didn’t seem to be making sufficient progress with a final draft (for example).

What we generally found was that the supervisor only has one side of the story. Why isn’t the hypothetical Paul submitting more final drafts, for example? Is it because he hasn’t written them? He’s too busy teaching? Or on the other hand is he still in touch with his old supervisor? He’s not planning on finishing this year, but using a JRF to do so?

I suppose what was really underscored was the importance of communication. Both students and supervisors have a responsibility to make sure they don’t go AWOL and lose communication. Sometimes work may progress smoothly without the constant threat of supervision, and deadlines for submitting chapters/drafts, but I think it’s good practice to at least keep others informed as to how the project is progressing. I’m lucky that I get a chance to see my supervisor most weeks in term – so we can always exchange a brief word if necessary, or are at least reminded of each other’s existence – which is better than ‘falling off the radar’, which then makes re-establishing contact difficult.

Another key feature of communication is that it allows one (or rather, both of you) to clearly set the parameters of your relationship. It seems people differ on exactly how they approach things – e.g. whether the relationship is ‘strictly professional’ or somewhat personal. As Nigel cleverly put it, it must therefore be an ‘iterative and interactive’ relationship, what the student and supervisor and their dynamics make it.

It was interesting to note, in the results of our admittedly small survey that while students and supervisors agreed in some areas of expectations (e.g. that the supervisor shouldn’t be actually writing the thesis – or so heavily involved s/he might as well be, presumably), they disagreed markedly in others (e.g. supervisors seemed to expect absolutely no responsibility for the final presentation, whereas students seemed to feel supervisors should at least be offering pointers on written style/presentation).

Comments on supervision experiences welcome…

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