Doctoral supervision in an international team PhD: lessons learned

Chris Lord |

In this blog post, Chris Lord reflects on lessons from PLATO for doctoral supervision. As an international, cross-disciplinary and cross-sectoral PhD network, PLATO has created an unusual opportunity to compare supervision practice. But its innovative supervision arrangements and collaborative nature have also placed unusual demands on supervisors and PhD researchers.

Large sheet with words written by hand in different colours

What to expect from a supervisor? And from a PhD researcher? Supervisees and supervisors jointly developed PLATO’s Supervision Charter at the project’s first supervision workshop in Oslo

PLATO is an Innovative Training Network (ITN) funded by the EU’s Marie Sklodowska Curie programme. The network consists of 15 PhD researchers from nine different European universities. PLATO investigates whether recent crises in European have amounted to a legitimacy crisis, defined as a crises that calls into question the very rightfulness of the EU as a justified form of political power. Each of the 15 PhD dissertations makes it own distinctive contribution to answering that research question. PLATO is an original form of collaboration at doctoral level, so what lessons can we draw for PhD supervision?

First, PLATO has created an unusual opportunity to compare practices in supervision. 26 supervisors and co-supervisors have been involved in supervising the 15 PLATO projects. Some have more than 30 years experience with doctoral PhD supervision. Others have views of PhD supervision that are shaped by their own recent experiences as supervisees. All work in countries, universities and even academic departments with somewhat different practices, procedures and concepts of the relationship between supervisors and PhD researchers.

Second, PLATO is an unusual way of researching a PhD, especially in the social sciences. PLATO is a form of PhD research together and apart. Each doctoral researcher has her or his own independent investigation. Yet each also contributes to a process of collaborative research within the network of researchers. That places unusual demands on supervisors as well as PhD researchers. It also means that PhD supervision is less of a one-to-one relationship between doctoral researchers and their supervisors.

What follows describes PLATO’s originality in greater detail. It then makes some observations on supervision from the perspectives of its PhD researchers and their supervisors. Some of those reflections relate to any supervisory relationship. Others tell us something about the specific problems and possibilities of researching a PhD in a network, rather than a through a more one-to-one relationship between PhD researchers and supervisors.

Innovative supervision arrangements

Our project introduced several innovative arrangements which had important bearings on the supervisory relationships: co-supervision, network meetings, supervision workshops, and shorter stays with non-academic partners.

First, each PLATO PhD researcher has had a co-supervisor in a partner university. Since most universities require two internal supervisors, most ended up having three PhD supervisors. Of course, there is nothing unusual about co-supervision. It is also becoming increasingly common to create ‘supervisory’ teams. But more unusual is to have a co-supervisor in another university; and for PhD researchers to spend three months working with external supervisors as visiting researchers.

Second, PLATO organised four week-long research schools, attended by all PhD researchers and many of their supervisors, as well as other researchers from partner institutions. The schools were important to the process of supervision. They provided one more opportunity for PhDs and internal and external supervisors to meet to discuss all the normal questions involved in writing a dissertation: research questions, research design, methods and writing up.

PLATO also used the research schools to organise supervision workshops lead by Vitae, a further partner in the PLATO network.

Five people sitting around a table

Drafting PLATO’s Supervision Charter at the Oslo kick-off conference: PhD researchers Philipp Lausberg, José Piquer and Joris Melman with supervisors Julie Smith and Dirk De Bièvre

All 15 PhD projects were complemented by short secondments, most to think tanks working on EU affairs, some to civil society organisations. The work placements were an innovative aspect of our doctoral training. The secondments provided insight into research careers other than in universities. Even for those pursuing an academic career, secondments in think tanks provided understanding of one of the main means by which academic research into European integration is turned into policy advice or influences public debate. However, a need to define how the PhD researchers could best benefit from the experience was one further matter they needed to discuss with their supervisors.

The model of collaborative and networked PhD research developed by PLATO has required supervisors to go beyond their core role of advising on the writing of a dissertation

In sum, then, the model of collaborative and networked PhD research developed by PLATO has required supervisors to go beyond their core role of advising on the writing of a dissertation. Supervisors have been indispensable to supporting mobility of researchers within the network. Patterns of mobility required matching the interests of PhD researchers to those of supervisors and coordination of research designs and research outcomes.

Above all, supervisors have had to contribute to guiding the network as a whole: to overall discussion of how the network should answer its shared research question through 15 related PhD projects. The role of the supervisors in coordinating research questions, research design and research outcomes was crowned by a collaborative book project bringing together this research. The book was co-edited by four of the PLATO supervisors. Individual chapters were then based on the frameworks used in the PLATO PhD dissertations. Several meetings on the book, and the editorial role of supervisors, provided an ideal means of co-ordinating and integrating findings whilst respecting each PhD project as an individual investigation.

Vox populi: PhD researchers on supervision

Starting with feedback from our 15 PhD researchers, we asked them to rank what they found most valuable in the roles of supervisors. We gave them the following possibilities.

  1. Discussing the structure of my thesis
  2. Helping me frame my research question
  3. Commenting on my drafts
  4. Identifying where I am going wrong
  5. Providing me with advice on a research career
  6. Providing me with ideas
  7. Suggesting books and articles I should read

Note that we did not include the role of supervisors in advising on training in methods needed for their PhD research. That, we assumed, is a necessary requirement of supervision and not something on which it is really possible to have preferences on what is most valuable in the supervisory role.

Commenting on drafts was thought to be the most valuable role. Helping to frame a research question and ‘identifying where I am going wrong’ were not far behind. Easily the least valued role was ‘providing me with advice on a research career’. However, amongst qualitative comments, advising on how to publish was thought to be important. The following is an example:

‘I found that close supervision during the publication process was extremely useful. As I was about to submit an article to a journal for the first time I relied on my supervisor’s experience. My supervisor watched over my shoulder before submitting, during the peer review, the revision process and resubmitting the article. I think this was extremely useful since I had no former experience of the process. Also my supervisor gave great feedback on my response to reviewers. This gave me insight to what journals exactly want’.

Several responses emphasised the importance of the supervisory role in the ‘end game’ and not just in the conceptualisation of the project

Other qualitative comments emphasised the importance of advising on just what is a PhD. We all know that every PhD needs a research question, a research design, a method, a beginning, a middle and an end. But just what those things are – and what they should be in the case of a specific investigation – often remain difficult to define. Yet, several responses emphasised the importance of the supervisory role in the ‘end game’ and not just in the conceptualisation of the project: ‘In knowing what to do to finish a dissertation’. Also important to some were simple tricks of the trade. ‘The best advice I got: “write everday”. It does not need to be great but it forces me to make sense of what I read during the day’.

Supervisors’ difficult judgement call

Discussions in our supervision workshops give some indication of how PLATO supervisors might respond to the foregoing views of what is most important in the supervisory role. The same discussion emerged on the relative importance of supervision in designing and finishing the thesis. As one supervisor put it, ‘the most exacting stage in any PhD supervision is always the first year – when the PhD has to formulate a research question, develop a theoretical model and a research design’.

On the other hand, there was also a discussion on how to encourage completion; and, on the role of the supervisor in identifying where a thesis is more than good enough to be submitted, even if that means saving up ideas and findings for future publications and projects.

The biggest challenge is to get through to a student who is clearly determined on a research path that is not working out

In a sense, all that is obvious enough. But that does not detract from the difficulty of the ‘judgement call’ and the ways it falls on supervisors as well as PhD researchers. The role of supervisors in identifying where things might be going wrong was also discussed. As one supervisor put it, ‘the biggest challenge is to get through to a student who is clearly determined on a research path that is not working out in terms of time-scale, feasibility or results’. But, again, that seemingly obvious part of the supervisory role is anything but self-evident in practice. As another supervisor put it, there is always a risk that a great idea, hypothesis or data mine might simply not yield significant results.

But how far should supervisors aim to solve those problems rather than just talk their PhD researchers through them? ‘Leave them alone, but not too much alone’ summed up the difficult balance most of the PLATO supervisors felt was intrinsic to their role; or, as one put it, ‘avoid being interventionist in a way that stops PhD researchers sorting as many problems as possible for themselves.’

Three people around a table with cards

PLATO supervisors Natasza Styczynska, Dirk De Bievre and Bas Denters using the Vitae RDF Development Cards

Whilst, though, we spent some time exchanging thoughts about all those usual problems, PLATO was quite as much an unusual experience for supervisors as for PhD researchers. For sure, our institutions usually require co-supervisors. But the idea that our PhD researchers might have co-supervisors in other universities or pick up all kinds of dangerous advice from casual conversations in a network of researchers, perhaps strains our ideas of control.

Yet, for all the importance of taking a controlled and self-controlled approach to satisfying all the necessary conditions for a successful PhD, there is always that crucial non-linear dimension to research. Cross-fertilisation of of ideas is more likely in networks of PhD researchers and their supervisors than in one-to-one relationships.

Personality types and motivators

At one of our supervision workshops, VITAE introduced us to three personality types. One has a need for achievement; a second a need for affiliation: and a third a need for power. Each of these personality types would be likely to write a different kind of PhD; and each would be likely to pose a different challenge of supervision. The achiever would be good at solving the research problem. (S)he would be creative and resourceful. But (s)he would also be likely to be perfectionist and insist on doing things her own way. The affiliator would be a good listener and good at synthesising ideas. But she would also be likely to lose her way in seeking to include too much and to reconcile conflicting findings and ideas. Finally, the power seeker would be likely to concentrate on what is ‘in it for me’: perhaps to be more interested in a PhD as a personal career move than as an exercise in discovering knowledge.

Of course, the lesson of all this is ‘know your PhD researcher’. If, as suggested by our simple survey ‘identifying where I am going wrong’ is important for PhD researchers, supervisors will need to know where the latter are most most likely to go wrong, depending on the persons they are and not just the researchers they are.

If everyone belongs to one of those three personality types, that will go for supervisors and not just PhD researchers

Yet, if everyone belongs to one of those three personality types, that will go for supervisors and not just PhD researchers. Perfectionism? Insistence on doing things ‘my way’? Avoiding conflict instead of pointing difficulties out? Asking only ‘what is in it for me’ and for my own research, rather than treating a PhD project as something of great value to the student? Surely all those are instances where the personality of the supervisor can have a negative effect on the research.

But are there any lessons for collaborative forms of PhD research where the role of a PhD supervisor is not just to advise on a single project but on how that project can best be developed within a research network? Intuitively, one might think that networked research is best suited to ‘affiliators’ who contribute to the synthesis of ideas through the network. Maybe, though, that is too simple. Whilst collaborative networks of PhD researchers and their supervisors can probably do without ‘power-seekers’, they probably do need a balance of the other types: of achievers ready to challenge any lazy synthesis and affiliators ready, none the less, to persist in bringing findings together where that helps as many as 15 different PhD investigations contribute answers to a common research question.

List of descriptors of the 'affiliator' personality type

David McClelland’s theory about human beings and motivation identifies The Affiliator as one of three motivational types (handout by Emma Gillaspy/Vitae at PLATO’s third supervision workshop)

All photos: Marit Eldholm, ARENA, University of Oslo