Metaphors and analogies for supervision: rivers, rods and rooms

This post is co-written by Evonne Miller and Sian Vaughan. Sian works as a Senior Lecturer at Birmingham City University and part of her role includes supervisor development for the Faculty of Arts, Design and Media ( The post was inspired by a post by @SianVaughan on twitter asking for any metaphors and analogies that might be helpful for supervision. 

It was a thought-provoking question. Metaphors abound in the literature on doctorates and supervision is a complex and fluid academic practice. In our daily chats with colleagues we often use metaphors and analogies to capture the nuances and challenges of supervision. Metaphors can help our students understand the often private and mysterious doctoral experience. They can also bring a slice of humour that is reassuring for students – and for us!

So what metaphors and analogies could help us, as thesis supervisors?  We have started the conversation below with six, but please contribute yours as well, via #PhDmetaphors. 


METAPHOR / ANALOGY 1: Like rafting a river, supervisor the guide  

This analogy was shared over dinner one night by Professor Jillian Hamilton*. She described the PhD Journey as like rafting a river  – the student goes up and down rapids, exploring lots of tributaries (ideas) along the way.. some of those are dry gullies that go nowhere, but others connect and turn into major waterways. At the beginning, a student sees the entire river system, which is often drawn on the whiteboard with the supervisor as key researchers, theories and ideas are mapped out (often, this looks like a life’s work.. but, the supervisor and student together pick a river to start exploring). It is a fun, never boring, and always changing, ride.  And, as the guide, the supervisor has the map: they know the terrain, they have been there before and know the shortcuts, the best route to take. As the guide, it is the supervisors job to point out any big rocks (roadblocks, problems) and the dry gullies (deadends, waste of time journeys) – especially towards the end of the thesis journey, when time is running out and there is no time for interesting detours.




METAPHOR / ANALOGY 2: My head is a ‘messy room’

In a wonderful example of synchronicity (meaningful coincidences), one of Evonne’s  PhD students^ had just earlier that day described how all the ideas and thoughts in her mind were like a  ‘busy, messy room’ (ideas).. that she could not tidy away, into drawers (articles/thesis chapters).. She knew she needed to focus and implement some structure, but the room (her mind) was so messy, she was struggling to.  Helping a student apply order to that chaos is a key job of a supervisor. Evonne tweeted the messy room analogy to @SianVaughan, who replied that her head felt like a “junk shop most days”. Evonne’s reply: lots of treasure in junk shops, but you have to know what you are looking for. 

METAPHOR / ANALOGY 3: The Rollercoaster

Travel and journey metaphors are common in how we talk about getting a PhD. The rollercoaster analogy reminds us that it is an emotional journey, with highs and lows. It can be exciting but also terrifying for students and at times they might feel out of control. A rollercoaster ride has a start and end point, even if the route in-between seems to be full of loops and turns. As a supervisor, you ride with the student and can share the excitement; you encourage them up the hills and help them handle the moments of fear. It can also be useful at times to remind students that this ride will come to an end, whatever moment they are in, it won’t be like this forever.


Circus metaphors are common in academic life.° As busy academics we can all relate to the idea of rushing around spinning plates. Juggling is a metaphor that Sian uses to describe her own supervisory practice. When all is going well, it just flows and you don’t really stop to consider how it works, it just does. Supervision, like juggling, can be taught but like all skills it is best learnt and improved through practice. Sometimes you are juggling ideas and theories, sometimes the demands of the multiple students. As a metaphor it is also a useful reminder as a supervisor not to take on more than you can handle. In real life Sian can juggle three balls with apparent ease; she still hasn’t quite mastered four balls. Sometimes passing a ball to someone else might be the right thing to do.


METAPHOR / ANALOGY 5: Birthing the baby

Whatever the discipline, a doctorate is a creative act as new knowledge is brought into being. Whilst nurturing and parenting metaphors spring to mind, perhaps the supervisor-midwife is a more useful metaphor. As supervisors we have the experience and specialist knowledge to guide and monitor our students, and to step in and assist if disaster looms. The baby (the thesis, the contribution) however is theirs not ours, and the hard work of labour is something they themselves must do. [Admittedly, if we think of caesarean sections this metaphor breaks down a little.]


METAPHOR / ANALOGY 6: Be the ‘magnetized rod’, attracting ideas.. 

Finally, while it might not be easy to drop this into conversations with your students, the imagery is powerful. In his wonderful book, The War of Art, Pressfield exlains how “when we sit down each day and do our work, power concentrates around us.. we become like a magnetized rod that attracts iron filings. Ideas come. Insights accrete“.

So the take-home message is: be the magnet, do the work, and draw ideas to you. 

We think metaphors (and analogies) really help us communicate and think about supervision more clearly. Please share any of your helpful metaphors below and/or on twitter. Let’s build a repertoire of illuminating and useful metaphors for supervision and research degrees.


Acknowledgments and Disclaimers 

For the grammatical record, Evonne struggles to know the difference between an analogy and a metaphor; hence why this post dodges the question and labeled these as both. Yes, a grammar chicken – if interested, here is a post explaining the differences:

*Professor Jillian Hamilton ( is Associate Director, Academic Development at QUT. She has co-authored a report and several papers on supervising creative practice theses (for example, see:

^The PhD student with the messy mind will remain anonymous; but trust me, she is scarily smart, so it does not surprise me that her mind is constantly on the go. 

° Sian and Geof Hill ( have recently even starting running Supervisor Development as circus skills training workshops.

Image is of an upside down raft in a river, from Morguefile.


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