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Supervisory Professionalism and Recognition workshops

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On 3 and 4 May 2023 I attended a couple of workshops that introduced a professional recognition scheme for doctoral supervisors, which is run by the UK Council of Graduate Education, which is abbreviated to UKCGE. I attended these workshops since the OU is running an accreditation pilot scheme through the OU graduate school. It’s aim is to help to guide a cohort of participants through the accreditation process through workshops, sharing of resources, and providing mutual support, with an intention of making a submission in October 2023.

This blog post summarises what I considered to be some of the key points or highlights from the workshops. Very many of the words shared in this post come from points made by the presenter, and are also reflected within the UKCGE recognition scheme which is clearly referenced. Towards the end of the blog, I have offered some reflections and have shared some accompanying resources.

A further note is that the terms ‘student’ and ‘candidate’ are used interchangeably.

Introduction

The pilot was opened by Lindsey O’Dell, Director of the OU Graduate School. She offered a summary of the pilot scheme, and emphasised that doctoral supervision is an important part of the academic role, and it is important to both recognise and celebrate it.

Both workshops were facilitated by Stan Taylor who is an Honorary Professor from the School of Education, University of Durham. Stan said that he originally learnt ‘on the job’ as a supervisor, and later moved to the area of professional academic development. He is the author of UKCGE Framework for Good Supervisory Practice and led the development of supervisor’s recognition scheme. 

Stan also mentioned some books he has had an involvement with: a handbook for doctoral supervisors, a book that referred to the making of doctoral supervisors, and publications that examines the ways in which doctoral examinations take place and how supervisors are supported in different countries.

The changing landscape of doctoral education

The first day of the workshop began with a bit of history.

Historically, doctoral supervision was “an adjunct of the research function of academics” and underpinned by the master-apprentice model. Constant change within the higher education sector has, of course, led to changes to doctoral supervision. Key changes has included increasing formalisation and diversification of doctoral programmes, the commodification of higher education and increasing movement towards competition between institutions, and an increased emphasis on the welfare of candidates.

This perspective on welfare is important. Historically, if things went wrong, it was the fault of the student rather than the supervisor or the university. The movement towards thinking of a student as a consumer has, arguably, led to a change of power balance between student and supervisor. If students are not provided with effective supervision, there has been a precedent of students seeking compensation. It is now clear that institutions and individual supervisors have more direct responsibilities towards their students.

There was a historical perspective which can be phrased as: if students paid their fees “no one worried too much about how long they took” (Taylor, citing Simpson, 2009, p.458). A review of completion rates led to the introduction of tougher measures: candidates are now typically required to complete within a 4 year period, but there are exceptions to this, such as if they are carrying out research part-time.

A term that was introduced which I was unfamiliar with was: structuration. I understand this term to refer to the extent to which structures have been created to support doctoral students and supervision. This has partly arisen due to an increase in regulation. In the UK, there is the QAA, the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education. Countries now typically have their own national quality assurance systems for higher education and external monitoring. In response, universities have developed their own internal systems to ensure the quality of doctoral education, which can take place within supervision teams. This has necessarily led to the creation of graduate schools and accompanying units and roles. Doctoral supervisors need to understand what these units are within their own institutions and what services and support they offer. Graduate schools may also play a part in setting up of doctoral training and development alliances.

Diversity was emphasised from two different perspectives. Firstly, there has been increase in diversity of different types of doctoral programmes. In addition to a full time PhD, there are now different types of EdD programmes. There is also the possibility of a doctorate through submission, or carrying out research with an industrial partner.

The second perspective relates to the diversity of doctoral candidates. Historically, candidates were young, white, male, middle class, and studied full time. The demographics of candidates have changed: 48% of doctoral students are now women, but there has been less progress for candidates with other protected characteristics. Significantly, there is a significant underrepresentation of black candidates, which needs to be addressed.

There has been a change of perspective when it comes to the obligations that institutions and supervisors have to doctoral students. Historically, students were perceived as being responsible for their own mental health, which can present significant and ongoing challenges to students. There many be a number of issues for this, such as financial challenges, the limited number of opportunities in the higher education sector post-completion, and loneliness. Institutions are now seen as having a duty of care for students. This means that supervisors have a responsibility, but they may often lack confidence in terms of how to provide support.

Other changes include digitalisation and increasing interdisciplinarity. Whilst digital technologies can enable candidates to carry out their research at a distance, they also can present challenges too; candidates need to learn and work with digital tools and systems.

Interdisciplinarity can also lead to the emergence of barriers. Supervisors from different disciplines can communicate using different academic languages. This leads to the important question of: how do examiners from different disciplines understand what is meant by an effective contribution to a field?

Given that there are more doctoral students than full time academic posts, supervisors and graduate schools have a responsibility to offer help and guidance to candidates, to make them aware of what opportunities might be available to them after they finish their research.

This leads us to a wider question, which is: what is doctoral research for if its purpose isn’t to train academics? One answer be connected to the word capitalisation. In other words, doctoral research can have economic value as well as academic value. There is a link here to the notions of human capital and knowledge economies, and this can be linked to whatever is meant by economic growth. It could more directly argued the doctoral research helps to develop the skills and abilities of researchers. This release to the Vitae researcher development framework https://www.vitae.ac.uk/   which describes skills that researchers should acquire and develop over the course of their studies.

The UKCGE framework

Supervision has changed from an adjunct activity that takes place within a private space to a more demanding complex set of roles which are carried out and supported by supervisors and organisational units. 

What follows is a summary of the UKCGE framework. Stan was Invited in 2019 invited by UKCGE to define good supervision practice. These were combined into a draft framework which was then streamlined into 10 domains which aimed to describe the core elements of good practice. To become a recognised supervisor, applicants to the UKCGE scheme must provide evidence under each element.

What follows is a summary that has been made following the workshop presentation. The official description of these criteria can be found by through the Good Supervisor Practice Framework summary

1. Recruitment and selection

This element relates to the very start of the doctoral journey. Recruitment involves reaching out to diverse candidate populations, developing a research proposal with a potential candidate, and offering feedback to candidates.

Supervisors should publicise the areas of research that they can offer. They should also participate in campaigns to recruit from underrepresented groups, assess whether applications from candidates that are likely to make the transition to independent researchers, and assess whether a research project is realisable, and candidates have the knowledge and skills. Key tasks will include interviewing applicants, making a final decision and giving useful feedback. An important question to ask is: how do you make the decision about whether someone has the skills for independent research, and what is the evidence for this?

2. Relationships with candidates

This criterion relates to having an awareness of diversity of candidates, negotiating expectations between student and supervisor, monitoring of activities, and understanding of issues. Supervisors should be conscious of different supervisory styles and their relationship to student needs and be aware of how student needs change over time.

3. Relationships with co-supervisors

Supervision now typically takes place within teams. Supervisors need to be aware of the benefits of team supervision and issues that may arise whilst working within a team. It is important to clarify the roles of co-supervisors, important to set expectations of the project, and regularly review relationship with co-supervisors and candidates. This criterion relates to the importance and necessity of working well with others.

4. Supporting candidates’ research projects

This relates to “inducting candidates into research, advising them about how to go about it, advising on skills and issues”. In other words, helping them to become familiar with what research entails within a field of study. The involves “discussing conceptions and misconception of research, looking at threshold concepts”, discussing issues of academic integrity, choosing topics, advising on notions of theory, methodology and methods. Other aspects of support includes helping candidates to navigate through the necessity of gaining ethical approval (if appropriate to their project), and developing research skills.

5. Encouraging candidates to write and giving appropriate feedback

Encourage candidates to write “throughout their studies, not at the end of research, giving effective feedback”. Writing is something that can be practised. Although a lot of writing is typically done towards the end of a doctoral project, it is helpful to encourage candidates to write from the start of their studies to assisting their development of academic writing skills. Key points includes: create opportunities for writing, give timely, constructive and actionable feedback, and consider the suggestion and use of research diaries and writing of blogs. A point I noted down from the discussions were: ask students what they understand by the feedback they have received. Supervisors can benefit from getting feedback from their students.

6. Supporting candidates’ personal, professional and career development

This criterion links back to the earlier point that there are more doctoral candidates than there are academic posts. To help candidates with their personal and professional development, it may be helpful to offer advice and guidance about possibilities within the domain in which they are carrying out research. It is also important to be a good role model in terms of work-life balance, it would be useful to introduce candidates into disciplinary networks and activities, and supporting their development as teachers. Where possible, advice about academic careers and post-doctoral work (and challenges that accompany these roles) is helpful.

7. Supporting progress and monitoring progression

A point that was highlighted earlier was: candidates have to complete within a 3 or 4 year period. A question is: what might a supervisor do to motivate their students during this time? Also, how might a supervisor or supervision team actively monitor progress? Two suggestions could be: encouraging students to attend conferences (which can also help them to develop their writing skills and contribute to departmental seminars. From a pragmatic and administrative perspective, supervisors must help students to participate in formal progression events (in the OU context, this is called upgrade reports). This might mean the reviewing of documents before sent onto graduate schools.

8. Supporting candidate through completion and final examination

This point strikes me as being very practical. Supervisors should offer advice on submissions and examinations, and should work closely with a candidate to finalise their submissions. Some direct advice was shared at this point: encourage students to look at exemplar submission so students understand what is meant by, and what should go into a thesis. A thesis should, of course, present an argument, with accompanying evidence. Supervisors can offer some really practical help: they can help students to prepare for the viva by describing the procedures, and running a mock viva. Different supervisors from a supervision team can take on different roles. It doesn’t end with the exam: supervisors also have a responsibility to support candidates after the viva, especially if some corrections have to be made.

9. Supporting candidates to disseminate their research

This point links to some of the earlier points, which related to encouraging students to attend conferences and workshops, and thus help to develop their writing skills. Essentially, this point is all about “making work available within the community” and sharing findings with a wider audience. A useful point was: “set expectations at the start of the candidacy” about what is expected, role model the process of publication to show how its down, encourage candidates to publish as they go, and explain what is meant by co-publishing or co-authoring, and set up a post-doctoral publication plan. In some cases, it might also be helpful to consider dissemination and publication alongside the concept of research impact, which is something that postdoctoral researchers need to include into research bids and plans.

10. Reflecting upon and enhancing practice

Reflection is a cornerstone of education, and it feels right that those involved in providing supervision should not only reflect on their practice, but regularly “undertake appropriate professional development and disseminate”. A bit of advice to accompany this point was: use an appropriate mix of methods for evaluating supervision, undertake initial and continuing professional development, and contribute to the professional development of other supervisors. A further point was: professional development isn’t just about workshops; it can also be keeping up to date with reading. There is, of course, also a considerable literature about supervision. Finally, professional development opportunities may be provided by your university’s graduate school, or equivalent unit.

Writing an application

During the workshops we were offered some advice and guidance about the application procedure and the process of writing an application.

A submission is a reflective account of your supervisory practice which addresses each of the 10 headings. Applications should be 5k words in length, with a permitted 10% leeway. Two referees are required, one of which should be from a former doctoral candidate. The second referee should be a colleague who knows about your practice, but need not necessarily be someone who is involved with supervision.

Applications are read by two reviewers who are recognised supervisors themselves; all applicants receive constructive feedback. The reviewers are recognised supervisors who have completed a training programme about how to evaluate submissions. If recommendation is acceptance, you become a UKCGE recognised supervisor.

Preparing a submission

To help to prepare a submission, the UKCGE have prepared a workbook, in the form of a detailed Word document. The workbook is a template, which offers some guidance and spaces to allow candidate to comment on each of the criteria of the framework. A practical suggestion is to provide two examples to evidence your understanding and experience.

Begin with an introduction

A useful bit of advice was to begin with an introduction. Do describe your educational background, summarise the number of research students supervised and in what capacity including the number of students who have completed. Also provide other relevant information, such as whether you have experience of an examiner of research degrees, and whether you have been an internal or external examiner.

Evidence of scholarship

A question that was asked was: “are we expected to use academic references in our application, like we did for an Advance HE SFHEA submission?” The answer is: yes. Evidence of scholarship, and awareness of scholarship that relates to supervision is necessary. A practical suggestion is to provide between 8 and 12 references. A good place to look is the bibliography documents which are provided by the UKCGE. A couple of links have been provided in the resources section of this blog.

Points to bear in mind

Do include evidence that relates to all the criteria. If this is not possible, offer an explanation why not. Examples should be drawn from recent practice.

Application should relate to you, and should have a reflective quality. Write about why you did something.

As suggested above, you should show engagement with research, scholarship and professional practice, and links with professional bodies and wider communities.

You must demonstrate real and practical commitment to reflection about supervision practice.

Making a submission

In this pilot, the OU will be making what is called a group submission. The UKCGE does, of course, accepts individual submissions, which must be accompanied by a processing fee.

Reflections

Things have changed since I was a doctoral candidate. There is more structure and formality than there used to be. 

Reflecting on the framework, I’ve come to the conclusion that I had a pretty good doctoral experience. My supervisor gently introduced me to many of the principles and ideas that are embedded within Stan’s framework. There were regular meetings, I was encouraged to write and publish early, to join academic communities, and there were discussions about the role of theory in research, and what is meant by co-authoring. There was also some discussion about post-doctoral planning too, but it was done in quite an informal way.

Thinking back, it took me quite a few years to publish the final article from my doctoral research. Curiously, it wasn’t the main research that had the biggest impact. A small paper that I wrote along the way grabbed the attention of fellow software engineering researchers. This goes to show the importance of “getting things out there”. 

Two noticeable differences come to mind: I don’t remember there being a graduate school when I was a doctoral student, and there wasn’t a supervision team. 

I also remember struggling too. At the time, I was trying to do too much: I was working part time whilst I was studying full time. I should have made more time to have more fun, and to relax; that could have potentially helped me to be a bit more creative.

I’m currently a supervisor on two different doctoral programmes; a doctorate in Education programme, and a disciplinary doctorate. I’m also something called a third-party monitor for candidates on both programmes.

I like the framework since I feel that it solidifies and clarifies many of the important responsibilities of supervisors. It also implicitly connect with another (optional) aspect of my day job, which is supporting undergraduate students. With all these different perspectives, I’m definitely going to make a submission.

Resources

I have written some other blogs about doctoral study and supervision, as well as summarising some of the continuing professional development that I have participated in:

The following resources from the UKCHE are likely to be useful when it comes to making a submission:

For supervisors making submissions, the following two resources may be especially useful, depending on the context:

Supervisors should, of course, be aware of the following framework:

During these workshops, the QAA, the UK Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education was mentioned. The following link offers a summary of the characteristics of doctoral degrees:

Acknowledgements

A substantial acknowledgement goes to Stan Taylor who designed, delivered and facilitated the workshops, with help from Soraya Tate from the OU graduate school. Acknowledgements are also given to Linsdey O’Dell, director of the graduate school, and fellow workshop delegates.

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