Supervisor or superhero?

At the end of March I attended the 2nd International Conference on Developments in Doctoral Education and Training at Oxford University (the program is online here if you are interested). I enjoyed catching up with colleagues in the ‘hallway track’ and hearing about new stuff happening in various universities. In particular I was impressed by the papers about how to better support supervisors to support you.

But many of my colleagues seemed disheartened about supervisor development work. I share in this despair. Despite our best efforts to make workshops and courses relevant and interesting, some supervisors avoid doing any professional development. Older supervisors can be particularly resistant, perhaps because they think they have nothing left to learn.

This attitude has always mystified me because I think one of the fun things about being an academic is that you never really master it. There is always something new to learn.

The truth of this really hit home for me in the last session I attended, unpromisingly titled ‘Benchmarking supervisory development’, by the respected Durham University academic Stan Taylor. Stan has carefully catalogued all the changes in doctoral education – increasing numbers of students, more diversity, different career destinations – and made some useful suggestions about how to rethink the way we do supervision.

I’m a great admirer of Stan’s work and was cheering him on until the very end, where he presented a checklist of things supervisors should be able to know and do. Stan made this checklist to evaluate whether his supervisor courses were effective. Supervisors were asked to respond how much they understood each point – from ‘not at all’, to ‘very confident’.

I reproduce this checklist in full, with apologies for the length (just skip to the end if you prefer):

Do you know and understand insitutional policies and procedures for:

  • recruitment and selection
  • health and safety
  • research ethics
  • intellectual property rights
  • roles and responsibilities of supervisors
  • roles and responsibilities of students
  • montoring progress
  • complaints and appeals
  • examination
  • quality assurance (code of practice

Are you aware of insitutional sources of support for students, including:

  • counselling
  • careers
  • visas and immigration
  • student union and societies
  • family support groups
  • ombudspersons

How confident are you that you understand the pedagogy of supervision, including:

  • supervisory styles
  • determining student needs
  • aligning styles and student needs
  • maintaining alignment during the project
  • supervising students in groups
  • cohort-building

Can you respond effectively to diversity? Including supervising:

  • international research students
  • non-traditional domestic students
  • part-time students
  • students studying at a distance
  • students from other disciplines

Can you play appropriate roles in supporting candidate career development, including:

  • academic careers
  • careers outside academia

Can you work effectively…

  • in supervisory teams
  • with supervisors from other disciplines
  • with non-academic supervisors

Can you support timely completion, including:

  • understanding the causes of delay
  • strategies to enhance completion
  • times and rates

I studied this list with a growing sense of dismay. As one of the people in my university tasked with helping supervisors, could I put my hand on my heart and swear I am accomplished at everything on that list?


Before you judge me, bear in mind that I’ve studied doctoral education for nearly 10 years now. I know about many of things on that list in great, even obsessive, detail. I know at least something about the rest – in theory. But I’m not across all of it, particulary the administrative, intellectual property and other legal stuff. I seem to be always asking my students to chase up forms and guidelines so I can help them navigate through the various university processes like admission and milestone presentations (you almost deserve a PhD for that alone).

It looks simple as a set of dot points, but there’s just such a vast array of knowledge, skills and abilities packed in there. Let’s take just one of them: ‘strategies to enhance completion’. If I type ‘completion’ into my library I get 115 papers on that topic alone. Even I haven’t read all of them – and I’m a total research education nerd, not a busy chemistry professor.

In fact, I would bet good money that NONE of my colleagues, even the most experienced and awesome ones, could truly claim to embody that list. In the session I voiced these concerns and asked Stan if, maybe, we were asking too much of supervisors. If after 10 years of concerted effort I can’t tick everything off, how could I expect anyone else to?

He disagreed, arguing that doctoral supervision is the highest form of teaching and that we need to hold ourselves to high standards. While I agreed with the first point, I think I have to respectfully disagree on the second. ‘High standards’ does not have to mean ‘super human’.

I think we need to challenge the ‘supervisor as superhero’ idea and replace it with something more, well – human. But where can we look for these human-yet-awesome supervisor models?

Perhaps in unlikely places.

Screen Shot 2015-04-01 at 5.50.58 amPhD student, Charlotte Pezaro at the University of Queensland reckons her supervisor is great because he is like Rupert Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s a brilliant analogy. I’m glad she’s too busy doing her thesis to write a post on it and graciously let me steal it. For those of you who haven’t watched all seven seasons of this fantastic TV show, like I have (more than once), Giles is a librarian, but secretly he is Buffy’s ‘Watcher’.

A Watcher is assigned to each Slayer to help her, well – kick demon ass. Giles does his Watcher duties in a particularly self effacing, careful way which many supervisors could learn from.

When Buffy encounterrs demon trouble at the local graveyard, Giles is at hand with a pile of books to help find the answer. Giles rarely knows exactly what book will do the trick, but he cuts down Buffy’s literature mountain by picking the sources he thinks will be most relevant. Not every problem can be solved by a book of course, so Giles is a dab hand with sword and is happy to serve as Buffy’s sparring partner to help her develop a full range of ass-kicking techniques.

When Buffy fails and doubts her abilities, Giles gives her feedback and advice. Often this feedback is positive and affirming, but not always. If Buffy has stuffed up, Giles will tell her exactly how and why it happened, but Giles does not criticise to demean or demoralise but to help Buffy grow. Even when Buffy resents Giles guidance (which she frequently does), she eventually takes it on board because she knows it comes from a place of love and understanding.

Giles always has Buffy’s back. This does not mean that he is always useful. Giles admits when he doesn’t know what to do next and is prepared to just sit with Buffy in the Valley of Shit – to keep her company and reassure her that she is not alone. Occassionally Giles himself needs rescuing and is appropriately grateful to Buffy when she saves his ass.

When Buffy gets her ass kicked by a demon, Giles is there with the tissues and bandages. He often feels frustrated that he can’t go out there and kick the demon’s ass himself, but he understands that this is Buffy’s fight.

So I want to be a supervisor like Rupert Giles. Warm, helpful, supportive – but falliable, vulnerable and sometimes in need of help myself. What about you? Who is your supervisor hero?

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22 thoughts on “Supervisor or superhero?

  1. Dear Thesis Whisperer,
    I read this with interest and in some regard hold to Stan’s idea that supervision is the highest form of teaching. But unlike what appears to be his belief that one has command over all the relevant material, I see the ideal as a destination and each stop along the journey, each new student or each new evident for a well known student, helps the supervisor acquire more knowledge about this complex form of teaching.
    The lesson this provides me both as a supervisor and a reserach student is that one person can’t be the solution to everything and there is value in having a community of supervisors and critical friends each of which can support a student and for that matter a supervisor along the road.
    I worked at QUT where they had implemented a quite varied delivery approach to research supervisor professional development which became my portfolio, but despite this not all supervisors attended. That is not to say that not all learned as I trust that many learned about supervision by reflecting regularly on the experience.
    I think the greatest worry is starting to believe that you are there rather than continually asking yourself ‘am I there yet?’. Stan’s list provides a suitable benchmark(s) to evaluate this.

  2. In a prehistoric period (1979-86) I had the luxury of two supervisors working in tandem, not as first and backup. One supervisor was self-effacing, logical, politically and epistemologically inclined in the opposite directions to me and a great stickler for paperwork. The other shared my politics and epistemology, was outgoing , intuitive, talkative and always inclined to flout regulation . They discovered accidentally through working with me (initially tag-teaming around periods of leave, then agreeing to share the supervision load) that they were a great team and that they liked team supervision, and went on to supervise at least two other candidates that way. All of us submitted and passed, so something worked! For me what worked was that my back was covered in terms of support for my ideas and challenge to my ideas, paperwork and encouragement. Once I became a supervisor myself I tried always to share the load. This wasn’t easy to arrange, but I pushed and insisted and sometimes won. I think it helped the students and I know it helped me as a supervisor. I think it might be even more helpful;as the lists of requirements for supervision get even longer.

  3. I appreciate that we are all not super ‘human’ however if an academic accepts the very important task of assisting another ‘human’ being to complete a thesis they must, at least, attempt to cover off on most of the things on Stan’s list.

    I love Buffy’s Giles as a metaphor for a supervisor – thank you Charlotte and @thesiswhisperer! I am lucky to have one myself. Unfortunately, a lot of academics I have come across over the last 15 years probably lack the appropriate personal attributes to be a supervisor. Perhaps this is due to a) the competitve ‘publish or perish’ nature of academia, and b) too many academics lack ‘real world’ experience. If the mantra became ‘collaborate or perish’, we may see a different generation of supervisor who enjoys collaborating with their colleagues and external partners? This could only enhance their ability to supervise others.

  4. Perhaps there is an opportunity or even a need here to consider the approach taken by many other professions of recorded and structured Continuous Professional Development (CPD) for those in and aspiring to supervisory positions? In most professions, such as engineering and accountancy there is a requirement for members at the top of the developmental tree to undertake and demonstrate a certain number of hours of CPD in a rolling average, such as 90hrs per three years, 150hrs per three years etc. this forms part of the professional achieving and maintaining chartered status, and allows them to practice independently.
    Every profession manages the form this CPD takes in a different way, but a model such as this could ensure a higher degree of consistency across the technical side of supervision – there will always be different styles and personalities which is all part of the human and learning experience and that should be embraced.

  5. As I understand it, universities in the UK are better funded than they are here. It may be that at Durham there is more administrative assistance for academics, so they have a bit more time and mental space for this kind of thing?

  6. Yes … but my supervisor never (to my knowledge) hypnotised me with a crystal, injected me with drugs, and sent me off to face monsters in my weakened state as a sadistic test set by a patriarchial society. Oh, wait … that would explain a lot …

  7. I love this analogy and am also lucky enough to have had a Giles. In the life sciences there is most definitely is a problem with the supervision falling to postdocs who are given zero information or guidance with regards to the points on that list, and under the stresses of their own research have neither the time or incentive to engage in their own teacher development. With the growing trend for research-based teaching we are likely to be creating even more supervisors and need to making sure they are committed to the matters on this checklist.

  8. Giles would appear a better metaphor than Fletcher from the movie Whiplash – a superman as a sadist. The checklist is nice tool for revealing just how little I know.

  9. I have two awesome supervisors and we work together as a “team”. One of them constantly tells me that to do a PhD is to stand on the shoulders of giants – my opinion is that you first need to find a giant, stand in their shadow, ask questions and learn from their knowledge. Lists are fine and so are expectations, but giants, they are special beings am I am lucky to have found two of them. The administrative stuff I can get elsewhere…

  10. I can’t fit any of my supervision team into a model. They are unique. My senior supervisor has been an absolute Godsend – encouraging me, motivating me, and even standing with me through “stuff”. He has even helped me navigate department politics.
    My other two supervisors have done an amazing job of showing me other literatures I knew nothing about, challenging my preconceptions and pushing me to achieve more. Fabulous, the lot of them!

  11. What a fascinating piece Inger! Love the idea of Giles as supervisory inspiration. Being a supervisor now is an amazing learning experience where I’m trying to be as human, and helpful, and open-minded as possible. It’s such a journey and this has made lots of food for thought.

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  13. I also agree that most on the list (such as admin stuff) is really secondary to finding a personality that is a “giant”. A person that can share their knowledge without squashing you, guide you through your mistakes without making you feel like crap for doing them in the first place and also show “behind the curtains” process how their work. Finding a good and kind human being is far more important that having a knowledge in procedures. I can always find an admin staff that will help me out with these.

    I have one awesome supervisor, one totally crappy one. I was crazy happy when I managed to swap the roles of the supervisors and the crappy one became the secondary supervisor, not the primary. Now I can have very little to do with him. The current supervisor is also like a mentor for me, I learned a lot not only about research, but approaches to career, life and work that just teach me to be a better human being, not only a researcher. I come from the mental health field, so I cannot but think that finding a good supervisor is like finding a good psychotherapist. Credentials matter, but experience and personality match matters more.

    I also have to agree that we should not expect supervisors to be superheros. They are human. And I think as PhD’s we are responsible to find other ways to get our needs met if the supervisor cannot cover some parts. It is an adult relationship with a business part in it so I think as PhD students we have to take more ownership of the overall PhD process by finding writing groups, peer mentoring etc.

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  17. This is a great article–very useful list, particularly since I’m a Graduate Chair who would like to create better discourse on supervision for supervisors. Thanks!

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