Similarities and Differences in How Supervisors at Canadian and UK Institutions Understand Doctoral Supervision

Carolin Kreber, Cyril Wealer, Heather A Kanuka
International Journal of Doctoral Studies  •  Volume 16  •  2021  •  pp. 657-688

The study seeks to establish the potential role that policy and disciplinary contexts of doctoral education play in supervisors’ subjective understandings of PhD supervision. It also intends to show how research into the different ways in which supervision may be understood can help supervisors become more effective in their practice and additionally help institutions design more effective professional development opportunities for supervisors.

Previous research has highlighted the linkages between quality PhD supervision and positive student outcomes; nonetheless, why supervisors do what they do remains poorly understood. A few studies with small samples sought to better understand supervisors’ views on supervision and also identified qualitatively different ways of understanding supervision. The present study with a larger sample builds on and extends this work by looking specifically at the concrete intentions by which supervisors engage, in particular supervisory activities they consider important, differentiating the findings by policy context and discipline.

Participants included full-time faculty members with extensive PhD supervision experience from UK and Canadian institutions, thirty from each country with ten each from History, Biology, and Engineering. The study was comparative in that a data set generated in a previous study of the same design the researchers carried out with thirty supervisors from the UK (Kreber & Wealer, 2021) was drawn upon and compared to the new Canadian data set. The study was primarily qualitative and relied on two rounds of face-to-face interviews with each participant. In the introductory phase supervisors in each sample identified their views on the purposes of PhD study in their field and the goals of their supervision, and in the main research phase they articulated the concrete intentions by which they engage in supervisory activities with particular students. Data from both phases were subjected to inductive thematic analysis, facilitated by NVivo and Excel software respectively. The thematic analysis of statements of intent, the main data source, revealed six qualitatively different understandings of supervision, in each sample, which then were further examined for differences across policy contexts and disciplines.

Policy context did not appear to make a difference in the self-reported intentions by which supervisors engage in distinct supervisory activities. Six qualitatively different ways of understanding PhD supervision emerged from a thematic analysis of intentions within each of the samples: ‘Enculturation’, ‘Functional’, ‘Emancipation’, ‘Critical Thinking’, ‘Care/relationship building’ and ‘Preparation for career/life’. Given that the first five ways of understanding doctoral supervision were also identified by Lee (2008), the study enhances confidence that supervisors tend to understand supervision in terms of this limited range of qualitatively different ways. The six concepts also allow us to identify, describe, and better understand supervisors’ personal conceptions of their supervision practice (which concepts feature strongly and which are in the background), which is helpful for encouraging supervisors to reflect on why they do what they do in their supervision practice.

‘Enculturation’ and ‘Functional’ appeared as the dominant concepts for supervisors, in relation to the supervisory activities they had identified, with the other four concepts being addressed less frequently in their statements of intent. When intentions were articulated, not in relation to specific activities but as underlying their supervision practice more generally, supervisors tend to espouse objectives that emphasize core academic values, rather than the ‘functional’ perspective. The comparative design employed pointed to more commonalities than variations across the two policy contexts and three disciplines. Identifying statements of intent and sorting them into qualitatively different understandings or ‘concepts’ of supervision allowed us to describe the personal and multidimensional conceptions of supervision held by individual supervisors and observe their idiosyncratic nature.

Academic development professionals in universities charged with providing professional development on supervision are encouraged to make use of both the method employed in this study and its findings to encourage supervisors to become aware of the assumptions underpinning their supervision activities and to develop alternative conceptions and approaches to supervision that may be better suited to meet students’ needs.

The findings call for a deeper investigation into the reasons for observed small variations in intentions behind supervisory practices, beyond a focus on the particular disciplines and national contexts considered in this study.

Supervisors who are reflective practitioners and able to adapt their practices to the needs of particular students are likely to provide more effective supervision, which contributes to the completion of high-quality doctoral research and, by extension, to countries’ economic, social and cultural development.

New directions for research include a focus on development or changes in conceptions of supervision over time as well as on the linkages between conceptions of supervision, effective supervision practice, and positive student outcomes. We also strongly recommend that attention be paid to the concrete practical value of research on doctoral studies and encourage the pursuit of actionable and engaged scholarship on doctoral studies and supervision.

doctoral supervision, intentions, qualitatively different ways of understanding supervision, personal conceptions of supervision
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