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2nd May


atmosphere in higher education today. Clutching a draft paper I climbed the stairs and sat down in her study. There were very few jobs and the prospects for the future looked grim. Over 20 years later I can remember the conversation almost word for word. "Les, I feel I must say this," she said. "I think you are talented and you have a lot to offer but I can't see a future for you and think you might be wasting your time continuing with the PhD." I don't remember coming away from that meeting feeling demoralised. Rather, the lasting impression is how much courage it must have taken to say those things to a young person. She had the guts to say an uncomfortable truth as she saw it. It wasn't a period when many people had much confidence in the future. I continued regardless and managed to complete my PhD largely due to the patient critical integrity of my supervisor. Pat's fears were not realised, partly through stubbornness and luck but mostly because of the improvement of the university's fortunes and an expansion of higher education over the last ten years that is now coming to a close. The point is that as supervisors we muster the best advice but we are not prophets. As a student recently commented in a supervision meeting: "I always assume that you have the answer in your head!" No, supervision is a place of deliberation and a time of thinking together, where potential answers are tossed around and tried out rather than transmitted from supervisor to student.

A student once complained, "I can't write it in the way you want me to write it."

 


He missed the point. I was not trying to get him to write in a prescribed way but rather arrive at his own means of presenting his material and so enable his arguments to stand in their own terms. Repeated leaps of imagination are required in order to see how each piece might connect to the larger argument and the thesis as a whole, problems have to be formulated and reformulated and chapters are drafted and re-drafted over and over again. No wonder then that supervision - for student and supervisor alike - can seem exasperating, akin to wallpapering in a dark room!

What qualities make for a good supervisor? As I started to ask students this question a range of things emerged, many of which surprised me. Firstly, students said that a supervisor needs to be interested in and excited by the students' work. A sense of intellectual excitement conveys value to the student. Others said beyond this it is important that the supervisor is still excited about scholarship and their vocation more broadly. Secondly, students want supervisors to listen attentively and read carefully and take time and not make the student feel like they are an inconvenience to be dispensed with as quickly as possible. Good supervisors need to be patient and not teach everything they know but rather encourage students to arrive at answers for themselves. Part of the value of supervision is that the doctoral student has to give an account of him/herself and their project on a regular basis. Sometimes

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