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  • Dr Kay Guccione

Postdocs can't supervise!

This is a guest post by Dr Kay Guccione, from the University of Sheffield. It details the rationale for Sheffield’s Associate SuperVisionaries Framework designed to support supervisory practice development in early career researchers. Kay also edits a blog related to doctoral supervision practice, which can be found here.

Institutional and sector pressures on the doctorate, on doctoral supervision, and on academic practice, have increased in recent years, and supervision is just one element of academic practice in an increasingly high demand ‘all-rounder’ academic role. Supervision, and the supervisory relationship, is often described as the most important determinant of doctoral success (linked to success, happiness, and mental health) and is therefore a critical academic skill-set. However, effective research supervision can be overlooked as an essential practice when appointing new academic staff as official experience of supervision is difficult to gain, prior to academic appointment.

Although it tends to be informally arranged, and is not often officially recognised, early career researchers (post-doctoral research staff) play a key role in the support and development of the doctoral students around them. Additionally, the numbers of doctoral researchers in our institutions are increasing, but the numbers of academic staff are not. Perhaps we can acknowledge that we need postdocs as valued colleagues in the supervision of all the new students we want to recruit?

Post-doctoral researchers have been telling us for a long time now that they view experiences of supervision and teaching gained during the post-doctoral period, as core to succeeding with their academic career. We also know that the development of an academic sense of self is, in part, a result of being offered the right formal institutional responsibilities and resources. Yet, post-doctoral researchers as a group aren’t always afforded these formal opportunities (see here for Imperial College’s exception). As a group, postdocs often aren’t commonly named in institutional Learning & Teaching strategies, seen as educational assets, or understood to possess the specific skills or the right experience to supervise doctoral researchers. Postdocs are often explicitly excluded from taking on doctoral supervision responsibilities due to the nature of their fixed-term research contracts (see here for a 2018 review of UK Eligibility to Supervise). How then, can early career staff learn how to supervise, before being in a position of high stakes responsibility for supervision?

In many other ways we are preoccupied with the development of postdoctoral staff and their transferable skills. For the last 10 years (of Roberts funding, and post-Roberts funding) UK Universities have been crafting bigger and better provision for postdoc development, but we seem to have got stuck in a training trap – offering workshops, but not the opportunities to put the learning into practice. We, as developers, have an opportunity to remedy this; the UK guidance on postdoc development (the Concordat to Support the Career Development of Researchers) has recently been reviewed and the launch of a revised version, fit-for-purpose in the 2019 post-PhD context, is expected later in the year. How this revised Concordat might help us to 'offer the right formal institutional responsibilities and resources’ is yet to be seen, but since we will all be reviewing our postdoc development provision, this seems an ideal opportunity to build in some structural opportunities.

As I argued here (with allies from Kings College London, and Cambridge), rather than sticking with postdoc development that focuses on a training approach where postdocs learn in the classroom then bank their new theoretical skills ‘for future use’ — a Postdoctoral Research Associate role could be a truly valuable development experience in its own right.

To make this happen, we need to change our attitudes towards what postdocs can, and are permitted to, do within universities. If we want to encourage embedded development of sophisticated leadership practices (which is what supervision is), we need to embed development opportunities within the expectations of the postdoc role, acknowledge that postdocs can supervise, and permit our early career staff to supervise in practice.

Emotionally competent research leadership, as well as technical and intellectual mentorship is required of academics, and the need to establish good rapport and ‘high-quality’ student-supervisor relationships has been emphasised over and over again in recent reports on wellbeing and mental health and also before the recent media attention on mental health and universities, for example here and here. Hoping that new academics' own prior experiences of supervision will be enough to inform their development as supervisors, is insufficient as an approach to encouraging and ensuring good practice. For a more detailed appreciation of the fact that supervision quality is not related to supervisor eligibility, please read this excellent critique.

In summary universities need:

  1. New academic staff to be highly skilled PhD supervisors because that role is both complex and essential for success;

  2. To enable postdocs to develop sophisticated leadership and management practices suitable for a range of career paths.

A strategy with two contributions

At the University of Sheffield we have combined these two drivers into a robust mission for development, and worked to design a comprehensive supervision practice framework for postdocs – the Associate Supervisionaries Framework. It combines practice-based development, with classroom-based and observational learning, and draws all this together in a reflective assessment. Our pilot is running currently with 22 participants, and I look forward to reporting the outcomes later in the year.

At the core of the framework is Thesis Mentoring, a practice-based development opportunity. The now-embedded Thesis Mentoring programme has recruited and trained over 200 postdocs as Thesis Mentors. It was developed in response to an identified need to develop a coaching approach to support for doctoral thesis writing. The programme pairs doctoral writers with a postdoc mentor who is trained in the ethical practices of coaching & mentoring. Over a 16-week period the pairs meet to discuss personal barriers to thesis writing progress, and to co-create bespoke solutions.

Interview data from this programme’s 600+ completed partnerships shows that through delivering mentoring postdoctoral researchers develop robust supervision practices in building trusting educational alliances; in helping students to self-evaluate; and in giving feedback. They develop a greater awareness of the challenges that doctoral writers face; and of the impact of supervision on thesis writing motivation and progress. Importantly in this programme, due to their coaching ability and non-judgemental positioning, postdocs are making a contribution to thesis writing support that official supervisors cannot, and that is complementary to the guidance of the supervision team. See some of the impact of the Thesis Mentoring programme on this site. Through this formal opportunity to deliver in practice, postdocs are making a real contribution to university priorities.

Thesis Mentoring then, presents both a niche for postdocs in higher education learning & teaching, and a solid foundation for a supervision development framework. And because it’s not linked to the entire 3+ years life-cycle of a doctoral student, but a specific kind of supervision, for a specific doctoral crunch-point, we escape the fixed-term contract problem.

The available evidence leads me to advocate strongly that universities do not seek to enhance supervision through just a one-shot annual online training course for established academics. What will also contribute to solving our collective doctoral supervision worries, is a comprehensive package of development, with a strong foundation in relationship building, applied from the postdoctoral career stage. I hope to see such practices expand in institutions and I hope this post will inform institutional strategic planning in response to the new Concordat guidelines.

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