This post on cohort supervision is written by Dr Lee McGowan, Senior Lecturer and HDR Coordinator in the School of Creative Practice, Creative Industries Faculty, Queensland University of Technology. A Scot living in Brisbane, Lee has spent the 6 years since his PhD graduation crashing through intensive, consecutive and concurrent teaching contract (including running the Faculty’s professional doctorate program, The Doctor of Creative Industries). As a creative writer, practitioner and researcher, Lee is interested in telling stories, and is currently working on the history of women’s football in Australia, Queensland and Brisbane. In this post, Lee challenges us to explore new ways to supervise.
Supervision can be brutal. Finding the time, turning over the reading and the grind of a schedule full of meetings is pretty uninviting, seemingly relentless and often thankless. But. I love it. It’s one of the best parts of being an academic. So, I’ve adopted a more effective approach.
I have been trying to meet with each of my HDR candidates every two weeks. It’s a little idealistic and isn’t always possible, but trying (an email conversation, a phone call) means I’m across my students work and where they are at. A regular pattern of contact also keeps words flowing, reading continued, and the smoother running of the project as a whole. It’s not always enough. Often, substantial parts of meetings are absorbed in dealing with administrivia, forms, deadlines, progress reports, conferences, building networks, building a research profile, dealing with job opportunities, and sessional teaching. None of this is bad, in fact it’s nearly always good, but across 10 students, it can get repetitive.
In addition, as Research Training Coordinator in my School, my role requires the fostering of a research community and setting a good example. As a gardening hobbyist, I prefer grass-roots to astroturfing.
Rather than holistic Musketeers approaches, inviting everybody to everything, I prefer to help people find ways to build their own communities, to help those small groups grow and look to make organic, natural connections.
I’d been looking for ways to make it more efficient without losing the level of quality when I ran into a most excellent colleague. Associate Professor Sarah Holland-Batt is an exceptional supervisor and one of Australia’s best poets. She also has a great system for supervision that still involves 2 meetings a month with each student. She has loads of supervisions, but her approach has reaped excellent outcomes and successes for those students, has led to an exemplary completion rate for the supervisory teams, and provided the basis for rich peer to peer learning. It’s inspired and inspiring.
Sarah is a highly productive practitioner, researcher and all-round academic. Her time, like every supervisor, is precious. So, one of the two monthly supervisory meetings focuses on the individual student’s work, and solely on the work. For the second, Sarah meets with her students as a group. These meetings cover general discussion on research fields and topics, research activities, milestones, academic writing practices and conventions, conferences, CV building and the Faculty’s processes and inner workings and all the other stuff that orbits a research project. The result, is a self-directed research group of students up to speed with their own projects, who support each other in building their collective knowledge. For the supervisor, it offers the gift of time (for me its 11 meetings a month instead of 20), and limits repeat questions – better that third year candidates can address first year candidate concerns.
In our School, alongside the poetry group, the number of small research groups continues to grow. The drama/theatre/performative studies cohort are making connections into their broader academic and industry-based communities. The Creative Writing cohort used to read each other’s work and practise conference papers.
Now the candidates are leading it themselves, it features guest academics and alumni in other institutions who discuss getting into and surviving academia; how to build research strategies; and how to carve out time for academic writing amid the numerous roles and responsibilities. The Visual Arts group run semesterly seminars, which always feature a member of staff sharing their own research. This approach allows Early Career researchers, Higher Degree researchers and Student researchers to share their work and hang out and discuss the field. These four groups are vibrant, engaging and instrumental in building a sense of community in their respective forms and disciplines.
Each group does things differently, but they all offer the benefits inherent in community-building. We are all better off for it. Importantly from a supervisor’s perspective, they ease the burdensome aspects of supervision, and make more time for informed discussion, raising the bar, and connecting with other researchers – all the best parts of research!
I’ll be looking to Sarah’s model to make my life easier next year, but I’m keen to find out about other models. What are you doing to help yourself?
Images are from UnSplash; first is a cactus garden, by Kylie Jen. Second is by Randy Faith – of a team of builders at work, on the roof of a building.