Dancing around the edges of supervision … without stepping on anyone’s toes

This post is by  Dr Abigail Winter, a trans-disciplinary independent scholar. Abigail reflects on her experience as a ‘critical friend’ in the supervision journey, there to support the student but not step on anyone’s toes. 

Research supervision is hard. It’s difficult, often challenging work to guide someone on a complete research journey, from novice to professional. It’s demanding and challenging to work with students of different abilities and interests and needs, often more than one at the same time. A delicate rhythm has to be maintained to keep everything flowing as it should. Research supervisors have to be capable and competent, and sometimes they need a little extra help and support to get a student successfully through the formal research dance.

Not all supervision is formal. Not all mentoring is formal. Neither always have to be approved by your institution’s hierarchy. There is a place to step out at the edges of supervision – that liminal, riparian space, where your student needs help that you simply doesn’t have the capacity to give. Students’ reasons for needing extra help vary, from doctoral orphans to the project-management-skills needy, through detailed editing support to other needs, including those who don’t want to or for some reason simply can’t hear what you, their supervisor, is telling them.

In those cases, you or the student may decide that what they really need is a critical friend – someone who is outside the normal research process hierarchy, but who can provide help or expertise. This is a role that I play informally at my institution – a third space professional, an independent scholar who has been through the PhD process, a coach for those who find me and need my help finding their own steps in the rhythm of the research dance.


But a critical friend is very carefully not a part of any formal supervision process, and gets no recognition or workload allocation for their work (although they often receive applause and bouquets from those they have helped). The role of the critical friend is to fill the gaps, to be the back-up dancer in your chorus line, unnoticed in the final success of the research performance.

The role of critical friend is common in teacher education literature, particularly as a useful element of reflective practice, although I first experienced it in the context of project management. The critical friend’s purpose varies from cheerleader through devil’s advocate to coach and mentor, depending upon the needs of the particular student. When I first worked on change management in higher education, we invited the Assistant Dean (Teaching and Learning) of the Science Faculty to be our critical friend as we developed a new reporting system. His input helped us to make the resulting reports useful both for his own faculty and for his peers across the university, resulting in a successful outcome for the project. In the same way, I see my role as a critical friend to research students in my university as providing useful input to help them succeed.

That critical friendship can come in various forms. For some students, I am the metronome, pounding out a demanding rhythm for them to work to – expecting to see 1,000 words in the next week so that they can meet their supervisor’s requirement for a draft section by the end of the month. For others, I provide a more nuanced choreography depending upon their needs at that point in the research dance – some months I push them hard to take a more complicated forwards step in their research, while at other times we return to the soothing routine of simply revising what they have already written.

The one thing I am most careful of is not stepping on the toes of their supervisor, or interfering with the way that they are leading their students. My role is purely as a support for the student, but in being there for them I hope that I am also helping their always overworked, often overburdened academic supervisor. By taking on some of the practical load in terms of project management, editing, and motivation, I am leaving what Nygaard (2017) calls the genre, collaboration, and quality themes of research for the formal supervisory team, while I help the student who is struggling with the process.

As Merilyn Childs (2017) argued in this blog not long ago, there is a growing need for “third generation supervision”, by people who are higher-education trained but not a part of the formal research supervision process. She recognises the growing need to invite collaboration and critical friendship from those, like me, who can hear the music and help others choreograph their own dance to it, but who have no desire to be a part of the final performance. I am curious about others’ experiences, both about the other third space professionals out there helping others, and about supervisors’ experiences of working with (or having their students work with) critical friends like me. Because, in the end, we all want the dance to be a success, even if it does sometimes mean coming perilously close to stepping on each other’s toes.


Dr Abigail Winter (AFHEA) is a transdisciplinary independent scholar, whose day job is working as the Information Coordinator in QUT’s Reporting and Analysis section. Her research interests vary broadly around the higher education sector, including organisational change management, journalism, early childhood student aspirations, student employability, research methods, and various aspects of teaching and learning. 



Childs, Merilyn. (2017). Beyond the ‘training’ silver bullet. The Supervision Whisperers. https://thesupervisionwhisperers.wordpress.com/2017/10/17/feeling-stressed-tip-it-is-desserts-spelled-backwards/. Accessed 17 October 2017.

Nygaard, Lynn P. (2017). Publishing and perishing: an academic literacies framework for investigating research productivity. Studies in Higher Education, 42(3), 519-532.



Doctoral Orphans:
Benmore, Anne. (2016). Boundary management in doctoral supervision: how supervisors negotiate roles and tole transitions throughout the supervisory journey. Studies in Higher Education, 41(7), 1251-1264.

Wisker, Gina & Gillian Robinson. (2012). Picking up the pieces: supervisors and doctoral “orphans”. International Journal for Researcher Development, 3(2), 139-153.

Wisker, Gina & Gillian Robinson. (2013). Doctoral orphans: nurturing and supporting the success of postgraduates who have lost their supervisors. Higher Education Research & Development, 32(2), 300-313.

Critical Friends:

Costa, Arthur L. & Bena Kallick. (1993). Through the lens of a critical friend. Educational Leadership, 51(2), 49-51.

Swaffield, Sue. (2004). Critical friends: supporting leadership, improving learning. Improving Schools, 7(3), 267-278.

Swaffield, Sue. (2007). Light touch critical friendship. Improving Schools, 10(3), 205-219.

Williams, Jan K. & Reese H. Todd. (2016). Debriefing the interpretive researcher: Spider sniffing with a critical friend. The Qualitative Report, 21(12), 2161-2175.


*The image is from Unsplash, a neon green sign saying “Dance” by Georgia de Lotz. 


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