Integrating and Normalising Coaching as a Routine Practice in Doctoral Supervision

Claudia Marie Bordogna, Mariangela Lundgren-Resenterra
International Journal of Doctoral Studies  •  Volume 18  •  2023  •  pp. 099-118

Recent research highlights the growing decline in doctoral students’ mental health and wellbeing, caused not only by the pressures, stress, and isolation of doctoral studies but also by existential issues around personal development and future prospects. Consequently, we argue that there is an urgent need to reassess the supervisory process to support doctoral students in addressing these concerns. This paper offers a potential solution to this challenge by exploring and examining how integrating coaching methods into doctoral supervision can support doctoral students’ growth and development, thereby increasing their wellbeing and human flourishing. Coaching aims to help individuals produce optimal performance and improvements in personal and professional settings by deploying a series of tools and models. Coaching is essentially a non-directive form of development, enabling people to identify goals and skills and then extracting the capacity people have within themselves to achieve their ambitions. This paper explores how coaching methods could be made a regular feature of doctoral supervision.

The need to reconfigure doctoral supervision as a practice to address humanistic issues regarding whole-person development, self-actualisation, and personal worth is nothing new. Over the years, researchers have produced models of doctoral supervision, highlighting the growing need for supervision to incorporate more pastoral and emancipatory elements, which facilitate personal growth instead of focusing purely on academic function and criticality. Although coaching is identified in previous studies as being a valuable addition, nothing examines how to modify existing supervision practices to accommodate more pastoral elements.

This paper offers a conceptual analysis whereby the argument primarily synthesizes existing research on doctoral supervision to understand why coaching methods may provide a solution to the evolving requirements of student welfare and emancipation. Since the commentary in this paper is not based on the findings of an empirical study, the following two conceptual research questions frame the discussion. First, are coaching methods beneficial when supervising doctoral students? Second, what are the challenges when implementing and integrating coaching methods into existing doctoral supervisory practice?

The paper utilises the Normalisation Process Theory as a ‘thinking tool’ to help answer these questions. The theory evaluates phenomena in applied social research settings to help understand how complex practices are made workable and integrated into context-dependent ways. Therefore, the theory acts as an analytical tool, enabling researchers to think through implementation issues when designing complex interventions and their evaluation.

This paper contributes to knowledge by highlighting ways in which management responsible for a doctoral provision in higher education settings can modify their organisational structures and systems to encourage coaching methods to become a normalised part of doctoral supervision, thereby legitimising its practice.

The Normalisation Process Theory has value because it produces a roadmap for integrating and implementing new or modified practices into existing systems of operation. It, therefore, assists by producing an output that enables a current/new practice to be dissected and categorised under specific headings. In this research context, this output assisted in understanding the operational challenges when considering the normalisation of a practice. The theory helped generate something managers tasked with managing doctoral provision could consider (i.e., institutional paradigms, policies, regulations, etc.) when thinking about what may need to be reconfigured to enable coaching methods to become an integrated and normalised part of doctoral supervision over time.

It is recommended that practitioners consider the integration of coaching methods into supervision. First, once implemented, it requires monitoring to ensure the practice’s quality and consistency amongst the supervisory community. Secondly, to assess the impact of the practice on other services within the organisation, such as student services or faith services, and thirdly, to ensure training in coaching methods is made timely and relevant to assist all academics involved in doctoral supervision.

The authors recommend collecting empirical evidence using the Normalisation Process Theory to evaluate the integration and normalisation of a range of practices in higher education settings. Moreover, once implemented, more research is required on the long-term value of coaching methods within doctoral settings.

Doctoral education is increasingly significant in a world where knowledge is fundamental to generating economic growth. Identified as having the technical and professional skills needed to fuel the knowledge-based economy, student wellbeing, and mental health must be optimal to ensure they can contribute to the knowledge-based economy as effectively as possible.

More research must be conducted on how doctoral supervision can become more humanistic; for example, by focusing on student self-awareness, reflection, and reframing instead of just the traditional academic function. Consequently, improving these facets is vital in developing sustained wellbeing and life-long success.

coaching, PhD, research supervision, doctoral students, Normalisation Process Theory
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