Supervisor or superhero?


ICDDET programme for packs v2

\"superhero-blank1\"At the end of March I attended the 2nd International Conference on Developments in Doctoral Education and Training at Oxford University (the program is online here if you are interested). I enjoyed catching up with colleagues in the ‘hallway track’ and hearing about new stuff happening in various universities. In particular I was impressed by the papers about how to better support supervisors to support you.

But many of my colleagues seemed disheartened about supervisor development work. I share in this despair. Despite our best efforts to make workshops and courses relevant and interesting, some supervisors avoid doing any professional development. Older supervisors can be particularly resistant, perhaps because they think they have nothing left to learn.

This attitude has always mystified me because I think one of the fun things about being an academic is that you never really master it. There is always something new to learn.

The truth of this really hit home for me in the last session I attended, unpromisingly titled ‘Benchmarking supervisory development’, by the respected Durham University academic Stan Taylor. Stan has carefully catalogued all the changes in doctoral education – increasing numbers of students, more diversity, different career destinations – and made some useful suggestions about how to rethink the way we do supervision.

I’m a great admirer of Stan’s work and was cheering him on until the very end, where he presented a checklist of things supervisors should be able to know and do. Stan made this checklist to evaluate whether his supervisor courses were effective. Supervisors were asked to respond how much they understood each point – from ‘not at all’, to ‘very confident’.

I reproduce this checklist in full, with apologies for the length (just skip to the end if you prefer):

Do you know and understand insitutional policies and procedures for:

  • recruitment and selection
  • health and safety
  • research ethics
  • intellectual property rights
  • roles and responsibilities of supervisors
  • roles and responsibilities of students
  • montoring progress
  • complaints and appeals
  • examination
  • quality assurance (code of practice

Are you aware of insitutional sources of support for students, including:

  • counselling
  • careers
  • visas and immigration
  • student union and societies
  • family support groups
  • ombudspersons

How confident are you that you understand the pedagogy of supervision, including:

  • supervisory styles
  • determining student needs
  • aligning styles and student needs
  • maintaining alignment during the project
  • supervising students in groups
  • cohort-building

Can you respond effectively to diversity? Including supervising:

  • international research students
  • non-traditional domestic students
  • part-time students
  • students studying at a distance
  • students from other disciplines

Can you play appropriate roles in supporting candidate career development, including:

  • academic careers
  • vcareers outside academia

Can you work effectively…

  • in supervisory teams
  • with supervisors from other disciplines
  • with non-academic supervisors

Can you support timely completion, including:

  • understanding the causes of delay
  • strategies to enhance completion
  • times and rates

I studied this list with a growing sense of dismay. As one of the people in my university tasked with helping supervisors, could I put my hand on my heart and swear I am accomplished at everything on that list?


Before you judge me, bear in mind that I’ve studied doctoral education for nearly 10 years now. I know about many of things on that list in great, even obsessive, detail. I know at least something about the rest – in theory. But I’m not across all of it, particulary the administrative, intellectual property and other legal stuff. I seem to be always asking my students to chase up forms and guidelines so I can help them navigate through the various university processes like admission and milestone presentations (you almost deserve a PhD for that alone).

It looks simple as a set of dot points, but there’s just such a vast array of knowledge, skills and abilities packed in there. Let’s take just one of them: ‘strategies to enhance completion’. If I type ‘completion’ into my library I get 115 papers on that topic alone. Even I haven’t read all of them – and I’m a total research education nerd, not a busy chemistry professor.

In fact, I would bet good money that NONE of my colleagues, even the most experienced and awesome ones, could truly claim to embody that list. In the session I voiced these conerns and asked Stan if, maybe, we were asking too much of supervisors. If after 10 years of concerted effort I can’t tick everything off, how could I expect anyone else to?

He disagreed, arguing that doctoral supervision is the highest form of teaching and that we need to hold ourselves to high standards. While I agreed with the first point, I think I have to respectfully disagree on the second. ‘High standards’ does not have to mean ‘super human’.

I think we need to challenge the ‘supervisor as superhero’ idea and replace it with something more, well – human. But where can we look for these human-yet-awesome supervisor models?

Perhaps in unlikely places.

PhD student, Charlotte Pezaro at the University of Queensland reckons her supervisor is great because he is like Rupert Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s a brilliant analogy. I’m glad she’s too busy doing her thesis to write a post on it and graciously let me steal it. For those of you who haven’t watched all seven seasons of this fantastic TV show, like I have (more than once), Giles is a librarian, but secretly he is Buffy’s ‘Watcher’.

A Watcher is assigned to each Slayer to help her, well – kick demon ass. Giles does his Watcher duties in a particularly self effacing, careful way which many supervisors could learn from.

When Buffy encounterrs demon trouble at the local graveyard, Giles is at hand with a pile of books to help find the answer. Giles rarely knows exactly what book will do the trick, but he cuts down Buffy’s literature mountain by picking the sources he thinks will be most relevant. Not every problem can be solved by a book of course, so Giles is a dab hand with sword and is happy to serve as Buffy’s sparring partner to help her develop a full range of ass-kicking techniques.

When Buffy fails and doubts her abilities, Giles gives her feedback and advice. Often this feedback is positive and affirming, but not always. If Buffy has stuffed up, Giles will tell her exactly how and why it happened, but Giles does not criticise to demean or demoralise but to help Buffy grow. Even when Buffy resents Giles guidance (which she frequently does), she eventually takes it on board because she knows it comes from a place of love and understanding.

Giles always has Buffy’s back. This does not mean that he is always useful. Giles admits when he doesn’t know what to do next and is prepared to just sit with Buffy in the Valley of Shit – to keep her company and reassure her that she is not alone. Occassionally Giles himself needs rescuing and is appropriately grateful to Buffy when she saves his ass.

When Buffy gets her ass kicked by a demon, Giles is there with the tissues and bandages. He often feels frustrated that he can’t go out there and kick the demon’s ass himself, but he understands that this is Buffy’s fight.

So I want to be a supervisor like Rupert Giles. Warm, helpful, supportive – but falliable, vulnerable and sometimes in need of help myself. What about you? Who is your supervisor hero?