The five Spice Girl supervisor types: which one are you?


The literature around supervision offers countless models and styles of supervision. Based on the multiple narratives I encountered while doing my own PhD, I simplify this here into the five iconic adviser types for all genders.

  1. Busy Advice

This is the one who is always overseas at conferences and sends students emails casually mentioning that thesis draft feedback is now five weeks beyond the agreed date because they have been “busy with important matters”. Accessories include carry on wheelie suitcase.

  1. Scary Advice

This is the one who can decimate a conceptual framework with the raise of an eyebrow, then really get stuck in. Students take frantic notes and then can’t understand them afterwards but are too scared to ask for clarification. Accessories include anything by Deleuze and/or Guattari, if in the arts or social sciences.

  1. Matey Advice

This is the one who tells students all about how difficult it is having old plumbing replaced, and a big book deal happening, and a cat with plaque and then, oh, look, what a shame, the hour is up. Accessories include mobile phone that is always on.

  1. Creepy Advice (this one highlighted in the spirit of #FEAS)

This is the one who wants to have a drink after a late supervisory meeting. Hmmmm. Accessories include a copy of Kate Millett’s The prostitution papers (1975), with certain sections pertaining to graduate students highlighted. Surely the worst eg. ever.

  1. Keeper Advice

This is the one who is clever and kind and supportive and collegial… and then gets a fabulous job on the other side of the world. Accessories include downloaded and dog-eared papers on best practice for research supervision.

How many supervisors actually talk with prospective students about their supervisory style, their planned absences, the limitations of their theoretical preoccupations, their careful observance of work/life boundaries, their university’s sexual harassment policies, and their immanent career trajectory? Which one of the above will I be, or will I be all of them at once (surely not the creepy one)? Have I made any glaring omissions?

Millett, K. (1975). The prostitution papers. New York: HarperCollins.


Power and thesis feedback


Research supervision training should include some critical discourse analysis of sample feedback on thesis drafts, so potential supervisors can grasp how the apparently neutral discourse of “comments” enacts social practices and power relationships of supervision.

Take this example, written beside a paragraph in a thesis chapter draft:

“I will consider allowing you to do this.”

We can ask (Fairclough 1992, 1995):

  • What is represented here?
  • What interpersonal relationships are set up?
  • What is the textual work taking place?

“I” as the active opener and dominant subject of this sentence is the supervisor. This “I”, coupled with the strong modality of “will” embodies supervisor power and agency. “Consider” feigns a softening, yet also implies condescension. The student, the “you” addressed passively, must await the uncertain outcome of the supervisor’s deliberations. What poses as receptivity and responsivity on the supervisor’s part is actually a controlling, delaying and destabilising gambit. “Allowing” sets up the supervisor  as authority, policeman, gatekeeper or parent. The student is not understood to be expressing ideas, but seeking permission for the expression of those ideas, which is a different matter entirely.

This is just a beginning, but demonstrates the ideological bases and goals for the language chosen by supervisors in comments. Where and how does the language you use position you in relation to your students? If you would like to post a sample in the Comments below, I am happy to analyse it for you!

Fairclough, N. (1992). Discourse and Social Change. Cambridge, UK; Cambridge, MA: Polity Press.

Fairclough, N. (1995). Media Discourse. UK: Edward Arnold.

Are you a supervisor of choice for mature age students?


What are the specific strategies you put in place to support mature age students doing a PhD? Are you up to date with the resources, such as social media groups, that your university offers? When I was doing my PhD I started collecting screen captures of my university’s home page, looking for representation of people like me (middle-aged woman). The only time I saw someone similar to myself represented was as a parent, visiting the campus with a young adult student, as if in an orientation week. Being a mature age student can be a very lonely experience.

The range of backgrounds of mature age students can be enormous, too. Recently, in an undergraduate program, I taught a student who had never used a computer mouse before, and needed to develop a whole new set of motor skills.  Mature age doctoral students may be thirty or more years away from their last experience of study and have a whole set of study-skill and technology-related needs. How do you help prospective students evaluate their readiness for a return to study and share with them what the university has in place to support them? Does your Higher Degree by Research website have specific advice and info for mature age students, for example? What does your library offer? What special welcome does your student union provide?

Most importantly of all, this post on Professor Pat Thomson’s blog patter reminds us to celebrate mature age students and everything they have to offer.

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.