Just a thesis supervisor?


Sometimes doctoral supervision is referred to as thesis supervision. While this takes the focus of surveillance off the student, there is always a risk that the production of the thesis comes to dominate the supervisory relationship. A doctoral supervisor needs to be much more than a text editor: supervisor and student are really co-designers of an evolving career, with the student’s future like a sheet of paper laid out before them. Actually, it’s not a blank sheet, as in the image above. It’s full of all the life experiences that both participants bring to the relationship.

If a doctorate is truly an apprenticeship for an academic career, then writing a thesis is a bizarre hurdle, as no academic ever has to write a thesis again, unless heroic enough to take on another doctorate. A supervisor needs to learn with the candidate, as they study together, about features of academic life as varied as complying with journal styles, using social media to develop a profile and giving presentations. How can students and supervisors explicitly broaden the parameters of what constitutes supervision? How does the enormity of this relationship, and the impact it can have on a student’s career, feature in initial conversations around supervision?


Author: Lucinda McKnight

Dr Lucinda McKnight is a lecturer in curriculum and pedagogy at Deakin University. She has a BA in Fine Arts, Women's Studies and English from the University of Melbourne, an MA (Distinction) in Media, Culture and Communication, from the Institute of Education now at UCL, and a PhD in Education from Deakin University. Her cartoons have appeared in a number of publications, including Farrago and Health Voice. She has exhibited her artwork at Museum Victoria and the Victorian College of the Arts.

One thought on “Just a thesis supervisor?”

  1. Dear Lucinda,
    As a PhD student I really like the idea, In your post ‘Just a thesis supervisor?’ of the doctorate as ‘an apprenticeship for an academic career’, and the student and supervisor as ‘co-editors of an academic career’. I think that these are dimensions of the student/supervisor relationship that should be a part of the PhD thesis conversation during the course of supervision. However, often ‘supervision’ can feel like ‘surveillance’ instead of ‘co-designing’ or ‘an apprenticeship’, and the sorts of activities that I sometimes find myself responding to, feel like they are more about appearances and benchmarking for accountability purposes, than they are about the life of my mind or the writing process that I’m engaged in. In the words that my supervisors use to prompt written and oral responses from me, I detect traces of the institutional practices that mediate their relationship with me. I realize that they’re as caught up in institutional K.P.Is, standards and performance and accountability regimes, as we all are, but sometimes it would be helpful to have the tensions that exist between ‘mentoring’ and ‘managing’ openly questioned and critiqued as part of an ongoing dialogue between us about the ways that institutional practices and structures can undermine, de-skill and de-professionalise PhD students and supervisors alike. Many years ago my English Method lecturer talked about assessment in relation to schools as institutions and the word ‘arbitrary’ came up in that context. It was the first time I was introduced to the notion of a ‘deadline’ for example, as ‘arbitrary’, that is, as a social and cultural constructed that is potentially put in place to respond to an institution, rather than a human being. This critique of learning and assessment in the English classroom became an important lesson for me to reflect on and take with me into the classroom as an English teacher, especially when I moved into a multicultural and linguistically plural school environment where so many students struggled with the normative assumptions that underpinned teachers’ pedagogical practices. I like to think that ‘good’ scholarship is as much about being able to critique the ideologies that define our interiors, and the relations between us, as it is about critiquing the ideologies that shape the external world around us.


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