Who’s in your hero folder?


Do you help your PhD students curate a writing future? As students devour books and journal articles, do you encourage them to collect those that constitute the kind of writing they would like to do? This involves thinking beyond the thesis, and remembering that the doctorate is an apprenticeship during which there are multiple physical and virtual mentors. Other academic writers provide vital guidance in what can be published, what is exciting to read and what communicates clearly.

The style of admired writers can then be deconstructed and emulated, and the collected pieces form a career-guiding portfolio of what to aim for, even as the student develops an original voice. Encourage your students to set up a folder for these hero pieces and revisit them regularly. It is never too early in the doctoral process to begin imagining that academic identity in full flight. And do you share your own heroes with students? Who did you long to be like, and how did you try to get there?

Who is in my hero folder? Rosi Braidotti, Patti Lather, Laurel Richardson, Elizabeth Adams St Pierre, Irit Rogoff and lots more!

  • Susan Carter has written a great blog post about stylish academic writing on the Doctoral Writing SIG, and why students should aim for writing that is better than “submittable”. The hero folder is another way to get there: Exercises for stylish writing.

Note-making NOT note-taking


How do supervisors encourage students to undertake reading as a productive activity? If a key problem in literature reviews is simply restating or describing the research findings of others, what specific strategies help students move beyond this? And as always, how often do you show doctoral students your own notes, and share your strategies?

Here is a brief guide to making notes that assists students in moving beyond the basic.

  1. WHY?

Why this text? Why have I chosen to read this? (ensures recording of the source’s provenance and highlights the selective, creative and personal nature of literature reviews).

  1. WHAT?

Type of literature (theory, empirical research, practice, policy- this hones conceptualisation of student’s  own project).

  1. HOW?

Nature of contribution to field (ie. methodology, findings, proposed impact, recommendations).

  1. WHY NOT?

Limitations or shortcomings (attunes students to the need to find gaps in knowledge and engage critically).


Relevance to research questions and strategic positioning in relation to student’s ideas.


Points of departure from planned study (encourages students to already be positioning their work for publication).

These headings form a neat template that can assist students in developing thorough and generative reading habits. Pat Thomson’s latest post also gives some very useful advice about academic reading.

Who hogs your PhD students’ lit reviews?


Pat Thomson reworks the laundry list lit review in her new blog post and asks who’s hogging the limelight? How can supervisors support students to find some space for themselves in their lit reviews? Here are some lit review disrupters that might scare off the hogs!

  • First of all comes the shocking (to some) revelation that a lit review section/chapter is not compulsory. For eg. Prof Catherine Beavis worked her analysis of the literature into her thesis as a whole. Suddenly the concept of a necessary, chunky, listy thing is less tenable! If it doesn’t have to be like that, what other form can it take?
  • Secondly comes the idea that the “lit” review might contain the voices of others, especially those defined as “subjects” or “participants” (St Pierre, 2009), or those in the media. Multiple voices challenge received and traditional notions of how things can and should be defined. What about the concept of a “discourse review” instead, that cuts across hierarchies, and highlights the selective nature of any “review”? What about a lit review that includes the “voices” of non-human bodies, for the posthumanist thesis?
  • Separating off the words of the gods (academics, philosophers etc.) from the words of the mortals ie. subjects who provide “brute data waiting to be coded” (St Pierre & Jackson, 2016) is problematic. How does this sit with your students’ ontological and epistemological understandings? A lit review needs to have integrity as part of a consistent and carefully theorised approach, not as a positivist throw-back inserted willynilly into every thesis.
  • Ask students the question, re each reference cited: “what are you thinking with this theory?”(Jackson & Mazzei, 2012). This encourages students to perform as rhetors, shaping the language and argument of the literature review to serve their own acknowledged interests (Kress, 2010) rather than as acting as purported mirrors of the field. What is the original argument that is being advanced in each paragraph?
  • How about challenging the visually dominant concept of “re-viewing” itself? Or putting it to work to pull multiple meanings made of any text into play? How does the humanist figure “viewing” and mastering the field work with the theory invoked?
  • Show students some examples of creative approaches to literature reviews, as play scripts or drawn multimodal maps. Or share this article: “Literature review as creative inquiry: Reframing scholarship as a creative process” (Montuori, 2005).

A literature review should be a really fun thing to shape, that makes a particular, motivated kind of sense of what is out there. It is a creative endeavour, like every aspect of a thesis, whether we pretend otherwise or not. Literature reviews are productive, not (just) reproductive work. Tell that to the hogs!


Jackson, A., & Mazzei, L. (2012). Thinking with theory in qualitative research. New York: Routledge.

Kress, G. (2010). Multimodality: A Social Semiotic Approach to Contemporary Communication. London: Routledge.

Montuori, A. (2005). Literature review as creative inquiry: Reframing scholarship as a creative process. Journal of Transformative Education, 3(4), 374-393.

St Pierre, E. A. (2009). Afterword: Decentering Voice in Qualitative Inquiry. In A. Jackson & L. Mazzei (Eds.), Voice in Qualitative Inquiry : Challenging Conventional, Interpretive, and Critical Conceptions in Qualitative Research, (pp. 221-236). London, UK: Routledge.

St Pierre, E. A., & Jackson, A. Y. (2016). Qualitative data analysis after coding. Qualitative Inquiry, 20(6), 715-719.

Thomson, P. (2017). Avoiding the laundry list lit review. Retrieved from https://patthomson.net/2017/09/11/avoiding-the-laundry-list-literature-review/

Supervisor and university congruence


What does it feel like for PhD students when their supervisor tells them a good, solid PhD cannot be done in less than four years, and yet they are told by the university that they must finish in three? What is it like when the university demands a detailed time plan for candidature, and the supervisor says this requirement is rubbish, and the student should just fabricate something? What is it like when a supervisor denigrates compulsory course work requirements, for example ethics training, that the university offers?

These are real examples of conflicting advice and practice that create significant stress for PhD students. Serving two masters is never easy and supervisors need to be very careful not to place students in difficult positions. A supervisor’s dissatisfaction with university requirements needs to be taken up with the faculty, not enacted upon students. Otherwise, doctoral candidates become pawns in a game of “fight the bureaucracy” that distracts them from the important work to be done and undermines confidence in both supervisor and university.


Academic conferences 101


If supervision is about inculcation into academic culture, how do supervisors explicitly assist their students to make the most of conferences?

  1. Select conference with student

Do you talk with your student about the relative merits of different conferences, which potential future collaborators will be at each one, where publishers of relevant journals may be, which special interest groups might be most advantageous, and where the student has the best chance of having an abstract accepted?

  1. Draft abstract with the student

Supervisors need to explicitly teach the way to write a conference paper abstract that complies with conference requirements, and review student drafts before submission. It’s great to deconstruct great abstracts together. You don’t just want your student to be accepted, but also to have an audience on the day! The most important thing is that contribution to the field, and what listeners will take away.

  1. Attend the student’s presentation

Yes, even if there is something else fabulous on at the same time. This is non-negotiable, and part of the generosity and ethics of care inherent in the supervisory relationship.

  1. Organise to socialise

Arrange to meet the student at particular social times/events and invite someone you would like them to meet too. Scaffold conference socialising! Actually introduce the student and say something about their work that will interest the other academic.

  1. Model interaction with publishers

“Oh, you know how we’re thinking about a new text for that core unit- come and have a word with Sarah at Routledge about what she’s got coming up.” I used to be a project manager for a publisher. Publishers are academic’s partners! Introduce students. Show them how to order inspection copies!

  1. Pre-plan which sessions to attend

There is nothing worse than being trapped in a long session that is not what you expected, with poor presenters. Help your student strategically select a conference program that will engage and delight.

  1. Plan some possible post-student paper audience questions

Help your student anticipate some possible questions and talk about strategies for responding. Let the student know that they can always throw to you if they get completely floored. This is particularly important if you feel gender may be an issue here. As a female ECR, I have been shouted at by a male academic asking me a question at a conference, in an extremely aggressive way.

  1. Plan some questions for the student to ask other presenters

Talk about strategies for asking conference questions, draft some thoughtful questions and make sure your student aims to ask one at each session! Again, gender may be an issue. Students need to know their questions matter and no single person should take the floor at question time.

  1. Reach for the stars!

If there is someone special at the conference, go up with your student to say hi and ask questions, make a comment etc! This is one of the best things about conferences, that you can meet the people whose names are on your beloved, dog-eared books! Then you can be star-struck together! No need to play it cool; we don’t share enough of the excitement and thrills of being an academic with our students.

What other explicit conference-maxing strategies do you use with students?

Some of these ideas have been generated by involvement with #FEAS: Feminist educators against sexism.

The PhD journey metaphor


After reading Professor Pat Thomson’s critique of the journey metaphor for doctoral study, I have tried to avoid using ‘the PhD journey’. I’ve discussed her post with HDR students and struggled with it in my own work involving posthumanist theory- for feminist posthumanists trying to flatten the human figure into the landscape, the kind of conquering, masculinist hero celebrated by the journey metaphor is deeply problematic. This links to Pat’s critique of the individualistic nature of the journey, and the way it can limit analysis of structural forces beyond a student’s control, and the institutional workings of the doctoral process.

Then recently I heard Dr Robyn Heckenberg (2017) and PhD student Sadie Heckenberg (2017) speak about their use of the Indigenous metaphor of wandering in their work, as mapping their paths on to cultural and spiritual memory. This made me think about the multiple ways the journey metaphor is constructed across cultures, and the need to be aware of this and to think deeply with students about metaphor, remaining sensitive to its cultural manifestations. What about diverse understandings of what metaphor even is?  I’ve written with Ben Whitburn (McKnight & Whitburn, 2017) about metaphor as fetish, and the importance of interrogating the metaphors we use in research.

This is also an opportunity to think about what cultural assumptions inform our critiques of metaphor. The search for a better PhD narrative may involve not only finding different metaphors, but exploring diverse cultural constructions of the ‘journey’. Will I be receptive and sensitive to my students’ proposed metaphors for the experience of research, and for research itself? How will this align with being constructively critical about metaphorical entailments? And also, what about issues of appropriacy and appropriation when students seek to use metaphors or understandings from cultures to which they do not belong?

Read more suggested metaphors for doctoral supervision posted by the Supervision Whisperers.


Heckenberg, R. (2017). The journey-man. Paper presented at the Postgraduate and Early Career Researcher Group 19th Research Symposium, University of Southern Queensland, Springfield, QLD.

Heckenberg, S. (2017). My wandering heart. Paper presented at the Postgraduate and Early Career Researcher Group 19th Research Symposium, University of Southern Queensland, Springfield, QLD.

McKnight, L., & Whitburn, B. (2017). The fetish of the lens: Persistent sexist and ableist metaphor in education research. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09518398.2017.1286407

Thomson, P. (2015). Is the PhD a journey?  Retrieved from https://patthomson.net/2015/03/23/is-the-phd-a-journey/

Composing a supervisory panel… with a paint brush


The key to a successful PhD supervision panel is composition, or rather, design. What are the principles of good panel design? Who should be on the panel and why? As a transdisciplinary academic artist and writer, I think the arts provide us with some good principles re composition for still life. So we can think about:

The student as focal point of the arrangement. Relationships between panel members and their interpersonal or professional issues must never dominate.

Background and foreground need to be clearly defined. Panel members’ agendas and preoccupations should not skew the student’s project.

The negative spaces. Those composing the panel need to be aware of what is invisible that exists between and around them, and how this might affect a student.

Agreement on what needs to be sharply defined and what can be blurred. When one supervisor wants to let a student roam free and another wants a contents list updated weekly, disaster lies ahead.

Theoretical harmony. Panel members’ theoretical influences need to harmonise and work together, not violently clash. In a painting, for example, artists create harmony with related (not identical) shapes that sing against each other.

Rhythm is important. In art, rhythm is movement, and (in painting) a visual beat. Projects need to progress with a rhythm to which everyone on the panel can move. Meetings need to be held regularly. Reliable and stimulating patterns of submission and feedback need to be established.

This last point is perhaps the most controversial one. Elements of a painting should not be of equal size, or on the same plane. There should not be equal divisions on a canvas. A focal point should not be exactly in the middle, but off to one side. Not everyone on the panel can have the same degree of influence, nor should they. Striving to achieve equality here is not helpful. It is likely that some advice will prove more influential, and panel members need to be collegial and generous in recognising this.

These are quite traditional principles, and in art, of course, all rules are meant to be broken! These ideas may be useful as a starting place though. How often are panels composed without reference to any principles, and just based on who is available?