Place has an impact for doctoral supervision

Where doctoral supervisions happen can have an effect on how well they work. Doug Specht shares his research findings

Doug Specht is a senior lecturer and director of teaching and learning in the School of Media and Communication at the University of Westminster.

Regardless of some of the highest Covid-19 case numbers we have seen, or evidence for the effectiveness of blended learning, the government in England seems set on pushing for students to be taught almost entirely on campus again.

But to what kind of campus are students returning?

Because many universities have been quieter than usual for the last two years, some have leveraged this to undertake redevelopment work on their estates. Others have invested in digital infrastructure to support more long-term distance learning.

Most have undertaken a bit of both, with world-class physical and virtual learning spaces appearing across the country. But in all this, one group of students has been forgotten by many institutions: doctoral researchers.

Experiencing supervision

New research examining how location can affect supervision meetings for students undertaking PhDs or master’s degrees highlights the need for more thought about the physical environments on campus that can be used for this specific type of work.

The research, which asked students to reflect on their supervision experiences, led to some startling and at times worrying results, including supervision meetings taking place in the homes of academics—or in one instance, a bathhouse.

These extreme examples are, thankfully, in the minority, but more common sites of supervision—such as offices (open-plan, or single-occupancy), cafes (on- and off-campus), as well as classroom spaces of walks on the campus grounds—also led to a range of issues for students and supervisors alike.

Office politics

Most students still receive their supervision on campus and in their supervisor’s office. This has many benefits, in terms of students feeling comfortable in a professional setting in which boundaries and expectations are made clear through the setup of the space (e.g., an office signals “working space” to students). The norms associated with the office can actually have a relaxing effect on students, with doctoral researchers suggesting that “[it] helps create healthy boundaries if the meetings are in the office”, and that in more public spaces they have to be “aware of who is around and who is listening”.

But many doctoral researchers reported that their supervisor’s office was no longer a suitable space for supervision. The increase in shared and open-plan offices across universities means that supervisors’ offices are often too noisy, busy, or unavailable to be suitable for meetings. This is a situation exacerbated by the use of supervisors on fixed-term contracts that may never be given offices and have to hot-desk.

This lack of office space pushes supervision out into other spaces—most often coffee shops on campus or nearby. There has been a great deal written about the potential benefits of supervision in such places. There have been suggestions that they are more relaxed, are better places to share difficult feedback or even that their atmospheres are better suited to students from less academic backgrounds.

However, research suggests that often it is the supervisor rather than the supervisee that feels more relaxed in these spaces. And these spaces hardly help reduce the issues of noise or space, with doctoral researchers reporting that much of their supervision time can be used up by the “constant struggle to secure unused, semi-quiet space” when meeting in public or at campus cafes.

Favourable spaces

There is a huge range of experiences of supervision even within this small pool of respondents. An optimistic view might be that the supervision process responds to individuals’ needs by tailoring their supervision experiences. For some respondents, this appears to be the case. For the majority, though, the location and space within which supervision takes places appear to remain by happenstance and are under-considered. The office is the primary location for many, and if third spaces are used, it appears to be because of the constraints of shared offices (or no offices) and other managerial special decisions rather than those linked to pedagogy.

Good supervision can improve the quality of any learning environment by drawing trust, compassion and care to create what Nomanesi Madikizela-Madiya and John Mushomi Atwebembeire term ‘favourable space through values’. But at the same time, starting with spaces that are more suited to supervision will greatly enhance students’ experiences, as well as supporting them in completing their studies in a high quality and timely fashion. Consistency in the types of spaces used and the learning styles signalled by those spaces will also help even out the mixed experiences of supervisees seen in this research.

As the return to campus continues, universities would be well-placed to consider how the estate can support teaching in the form of supervision, providing physical spaces for meaningful discussions about research in which both supervisor and supervisee can work at their best.

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