Guides, Sherpas and Fellow Travellers

This post is Dr Gabrielle Appleby, Senior Lecturer at the University of Adelaide Law School. She researches and teaches in public law, and is particularly interested in questions about the role and powers of the Executive, federalism, and the judicial branch of government. In this post Gabrielle reflects on taking the role of supervisor for the first time – something that we hope will happen to us all one day!

The PhD ‘journey’ is a well-used metaphor in student and supervisory circles.

Despite its cliché-status, I have always felt a high degree of resonance with it. It is apt to describe so much of my own PhD experience – the need for maps and guides before stepping off into unchartered territory, the exhilaration of meeting new people, experiencing new things and gaining new knowledge, the dread of looking at the length and difficulty of the path that stretches into the horizon, the devastation of a wrong turn and the need to retrace one’s steps, the elation of looking back at the path navigated to date and reflecting on the memories, experiences, knowledge and wisdom collected along the way.

lonely mountainRecently I was asked to reflect upon the metaphor that most aptly described my preferred relationship as a supervisor with my PhD student. Given that I had found the journey metaphor so appealing as a student, I wondered what my role as a supervisor was on that journey. Was I a personal guide? A Sherpa? An information kiosk? A fellow traveller?

 I quickly dismissed the idea of being a Sherpa. I certainly don’t plan on doing the heavy lifting for my students. Students have to learn techniques to bear the weight of their own bags on their PhD journey. This allows them to realise their own capabilities. Without that lesson, the journey will have taught them nothing.

 I’m also uncomfortable with the metaphor of guide. To me, a guide implies I know the terrain and have travelled it before. I know some terrain in my specific field of research. I have travelled along a route through that terrain and I can share my experiences along that route, but I cannot claim that my path or techniques are the only or best way. I also know myself as a very particular type of traveller – both of the conventional and PhD type. I’ve seen other travellers tackle the path in very different ways and successfully arrived at their destinations. I should not be foisting my idiosyncrasies upon others.

A guide implies I know the way and also the destination. I have a good feel for what a completed and successful PhD looks like – I have reached the summit of my own mountain in that sense (to continue the metaphorical theme) and seen a fair few others summit theirs. I have therefore a good idea about a summit when I see it, but I don’t know the location of the summit of my students. That’s for them to find.

 An information kiosk, helpful when asked, but otherwise silent behind my oversized ‘I’? It’s very ‘hands off’. It could work for a confident, self-motivated student who envisages the PhD as an opportunity to pursue their own ideas and agenda. However, I fear it could leave many students disorientated in a new town, not even knowing what help I could offer if only they walked into the information kiosk. I also fear it could leave me feeling too isolated from my students, not knowing if they need my help and intervention.

 Of the various possibilities, I was immediately attracted to the prospect of being a fellow traveller. I think the reason for this is that I have only limited experience as a supervisor, but also because it is what I would have wanted during my PhD candidature (I still find this one of my easiest reference points for the perspective and needs of my students).

 I feel ill-equipped to take on a guide position because I am still exploring the landscape. I am still on my journey (and I challenge any successful PhD candidate now working in academia to tell me the PhD completion was the end of their research journey!). For me, the PhD completion marked the end of the first years of the rest of my life. Yes, I’ve proven I can conduct research – that’s the point of the PhD. Now, I must continue to conduct that research with rigour. I still feel, in many respects, the same as I did when the word document on my computer screen was a PhD chapter and not a book chapter.

 Treating my PhD students as fellow travellers recognises my sense that I am merely more progressed on my research journey, rather than able to offer definitive advice to others on how they should undertake theirs. That’s not to say that I haven’t learnt some pretty important lessons along the way. And I see my role as sharing those lessons: how to identify challenges and how I coped (and cope) in the face of them. But I never want to feel that I am taking control of my student’s PhD journey. They are the captain of that. I know some students are looking for more than this, but I can’t offer it. 

 What I can offer is empathy along the way. In many cases I’ve not only been there, I’m there. Received conflicting advice from supervisors (or peer reviewers)? Have to condense a chapter of important research into a 20 minute conference presentation? Overcommitted and struggling to find time to just think and write? I can share the strategies that help me cope and progress. I must always remember my coping mechanisms may or may not work for others. I can suggest other fellow travellers for my student to speak to if we decide my advice and techniques are not gelling with them. My way is not the only way.

 What I hope my approach offers my students is the potential to feel that they are not alone. Their anxieties and concerns are real and confront us all. But, at the same time, this approach also makes it clear that they will have to learn their own set of skills to navigate their way through these obstacles. It was learning these skills that I found the most important part of my own PhD journey. It is these skills that I still rely upon as my research journey stretches on.

Thanks Gabrielle! Now I’m wondering: what kind of supervisor do you want to be? Do you have a metaphor that’s helpful to you?

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9 thoughts on “Guides, Sherpas and Fellow Travellers

  1. An interesting post, thank you. Perhaps there are other metaphors that work even better… for instance, perhaps ‘Trip Advisor’ is more the role you are playing? Rather like the website of the same name, you are available to the students with helpful knowledge of the path, and they pick and choose which applies to their situation.

  2. I was fortunate to have supervisors like you who walked along with me through my journey and offered constructive advice when I needed it.

  3. Not sure about the ‘fellow traveller’ metaphor either. It is the student’s journey, and really, anyone else (even the supervisor) can only share parts of it. I like the Trip Advisor idea – students can decide when they need help and what it will be for. But sometimes they may not recognise that they need help, so a more interventionist approach may be needed – like that of a caring ‘fellow traveller’.

    I will own up to having thought about this a lot – as part of of my PhD I asked supervisors what metaphors came to mind when they thought about supervision. It’s telling that some really had difficulty answering the question. I think that probably any metaphor is useful if it’s one you’ve come up with that suits your supervision style. But for most supervisory relationships, different metaphorical ‘styles’ will come into play at different times. Best thing is to discuss all this at the first meeting, and repeat the discussion at intervals. that way you can both be as clear as possible about expectations.

  4. Although they are useful for some I really find metaphors not that useful and even a bit tiresome (I realize I’m probably in the minority). Depends on the learner and the way they create their own meaning. I try and meet their needs and when they don’t know what they don’t know we have a discussion about the topic or area and encourage them to access information from multiple sources. For some its just a project, others more….sometimes I try not to overdo it -its obviously an investment but I find acknowledging that while treating like a project which you project manage over a few years can put it in perspective.

  5. To me “fellow traveller” is a very problematic metaphor that elides the differences in power that every student feels acutely. The reality is that a supervisor’s labor is tiny on a PhD project compared to that of a student. Incredibly significant and impactful perhaps, but still tiny. Not like a fellow traveller at all. A useful metaphor would foreground that difference.

    In a techno-scientific industrial model where the student is doing your funded work according to your instructions as an apprentice then that’s not so much of a problem. But for a self-directed student project I think it is useful to be realistic about the limits of empathy. The critiques of “identification with the oppressed” in development studies are possibly quite useful for PhD supervisors as well.

  6. This is an excellent post and after finishing my PhD I have some ideas as to what a supervisors role should be. I think a good supervisor is one with whom you are standing at a junction and looking at a few paths leading to set of caves (with a lot of unknown inside) beyond which the eureka moment that is your PhD degree awaits you. His role is to tell you from his experience to venture in to one of the unknown paths and try your luck. You have to carry all the baggage, occasionally, if you are hanging from a cliff or badly hurt he might offer some solace.

  7. This is really special and I would like to dedicate it to my Supervisor Ann Nevile who is more than a fellow traveller with me on my PhD journey but more a significant traveller on this journey – and a journey it is!

  8. Pingback: The Toddler’s Guide to Doing a PhD | The Thesis Whisperer

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