The jigsaw approach


How often do you really understand how a supervisory meeting, or thesis writing, fits into a student’s day? Experienced supervisor, AP Joanne O’Mara believes it is vital to understand what else is going on in students’ lives so supervisors can jigsaw their advice to allow for the competing demands many students face. She feels this is central to understanding what is and isn’t happening in relation to any doctoral project.

There is a lot of potential for developing this concept of jigsawing as supervisory skill, requiring sensitivity, empathy and also respect for student privacy, too. Jigsawing means negotiating reasonable and flexible expectations for further work which take into account all dimensions of a student’s life. It means students not walking away from meetings with the sick feeling they have agreed to something impossible, because their father is requiring repeated hospitalisation, or they are performing in a play that’s about to open, or they are writing reports in their school teaching job. Jigsawing means good supervision based on communication and mutual respect.


Are you a supervisor of choice for Indigenous Australians?


On the brink of National Reconciliation Week, this is an important question for Australian PhD supervisors of all colours and races. Do you:

  • highlight opportunities for your non-Indigenous students to increase awareness and understanding of Indigenous cultures?
  • demonstrate your own ongoing learning about Australians’ shared and different histories?
  • include a range of Indigenous perspectives in all doctoral coursework units taught?
  • welcome or acknowledge country as appropriate, and discuss with students how they may do this too, including in their thesis documents?
  • share with students what you have learnt from your institution’s cultural awareness training?
  • actively seek recruitment of Indigenous students, for example through your awareness of scholarships and other supports?
  • ensure Indigenous Australians are represented in the visual and other media cultures of your university?
  • participate in the development and/or dissemination of your university’s reconciliation action plan?

I acknowledge the traditional owners of the lands where I work, and pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging. I also acknowledge Indigenous Australians involved in doctoral study, especially in the field of education, and hope to cross paths with you in the future. Read more about National Reconciliation Week here.

Are you a single cup supervisor?


You won’t find this in any Higher Degree by Research Guide to Candidature, but do you really make your students welcome in supervision meetings? There are tales of supervisors who will call “enter” at a knock, then proceed with an hour’s discussion nursing a cup of tea… but without even offering the student a drink! I know a wonderful supervisor who has special cups and glasses in her office, and makes each student feel valued by making a shared warm or cool drink (or at least the offer of one) part of the supervisory experience. I guess I’m coming back to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs here, and the idea that it’s hard to learn or even listen when you are thirsty, or feeling ill at ease. What are the material traces of an ethics of care in doctoral supervision?

Making academic writing sparkle


Do you use Gerry Mullins and Margaret Kiley’s great article ‘It’s a PhD not a Nobel Prize: How experienced examiners assess research theses’ (2010) with your doctoral students? One of my favourite sections describes how:

‘One of the unifying responses was the use of the artistic metaphor… the use of the artistic metaphor extended to such terms as “elan”, “passion”, “excitement” and “sparkle”.’

(Mullins & Kiley 2010, p. 379)

What does it mean for academic writing to sparkle, or even sizzle, to move beyond visual metaphor? What are some examples of sparkling writing you show your students, if we know that’s what examiners seek? How do you assist students in engendering excitement in their readers, as opposed to consigning their audience to the deadening effects of much academic writing?  Maybe literary support is useful for supervisors here, to think about precision in the choice of language, careful editing and polishing, deft structuring of sentences and employment of figurative language. I am interested in the pedagogies supervisors employ during the PhD as writing apprenticeship that go beyond clarity to elan.

Mullins, G., & Kiley, M. (2002). It’s a PhD, not a Nobel Prize: how experienced examiners assess research theses. Studies in Higher Education, 27(4), 369-386.

TOP SECRET supervisor PhD history


Which of the following do you show your PhD students? Do you share your own:

  • PhD proposal
  • colloquium (or similar) document
  • drafts
  • final thesis
  • examiner feedback
  • articles or books published from the thesis?

I am imagining a great online resource that displays all these things for each willing PhD supervisor in a faculty (with all privacy concerns addressed, of course- but this is just an imagining)! I must be having these daydreams because of a unit I’m teaching for pre-service English teachers in which they are foregrounded as writers themselves. How do we foreground PhD supervisors as students ourselves, always learning, always evolving, and performing this in everything we write?

This resource would also be a great way to show how doctoral projects often end up in very different places from their beginnings. Plus it would help balance the relationship and emphasise shared experiences, rather than any power imbalance. I would be happy to show these items to my future students… but I wonder how often this is done.


How to build a publication plan…


… when your student feels getting published is like getting through a brick wall. With doctoral theses increasingly being completed by publication, this post may be less relevant for some. If your students are completing conventional theses, however, do you complete a publication plan with them early in candidature? Do you try to aim for a publication per year of candidature, with each student? Are you explicitly committed to your students completing their doctorates with appropriate publication records in place? Do you use your own reputation and writing skills to ensure that students’ records already demonstrate the capacity to publish in high-ranking journals in your field? How do you help students decide how much time to devote to crafting publications during candidature?

I now regard joint publication as an essential aspect of doctoral supervision, especially since I finished my PhD several years ago and started applying for academic jobs. Students who have not had such publication-focused supervisors may take years to catch up on the soft skills of publication, and on establishing a publication track record.  An achievable joint publication plan is now an ethical imperative for all supervisors to prepare and enact with students.

The axe or the knife? Teaching re-drafting


How do you help students with the craft of academic re-drafting? I like the distinction that my reliable Creme and Lea makes between re-drafting and editing. Re-drafting is the writer crafting what they really want to say. Editing is fine-tuning and checking. As Creme and Lea say, individualistic university writing for assessment does not prepare students for a career as an academic, and dealing with multiple rounds of  (sometimes contradictory) peer feedback that ask for significant re-working to clarify ideas, structure and so on. The feedback from members of a doctoral panel or supervisory team may begin to replicate this, but how do we teach students to work with both this feedback and their own reflections to re-draft?

Wood provides us with some useful metaphors here, of carving, whittling, splicing, splitting, chopping and stacking. Re-drafting is about letting go, about the heft and free-fall of the axe swing, and the ability to work with the grain, without destroying it. Do supervisors share their own struggles re-drafting their papers after peer review? I would like to show my own peer reviews to my students, along with different drafts of my articles and careful explanations of how I responded to criticism and moved towards publication. I believe that this sharing of practice is the true mentorship of doctoral supervision.

Creme, P., & Lea, M. R. (2003). Writing at university: A guide for students. Maidenhead, UK: Open University Press.