Doctoral supervisor as ‘confident companion’

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The first day of the #DSHull (Doctoral Symposium, University of Hull 3rd – 5th June 2015) saw Professor Malcolm Tight offer a surprisingly informal key note lecture on Metaphors for the Doctoral Journey.

In this post, my colleague, Dr Max Hope offers her thoughts on how this ‘journey’ (if journey is the metaphor we use) and the doctoral researchers’ travelling companions may be thought about.

This post has been reblogged from Max’s own Blog:  http://www.maxhope.co.uk/

I am not surprised to see this post from Max. I suspect she is toying her own question (asked during the symposium) – even if from a slightly different angle:

Following an interesting session with Prof Malcolm Tight (University of Lancaster), I have been pondering the use of metaphor to describe the research student experience (University of Hull, 3 June 2015). Prof Tight talked of whether the doctoral experience could usefully be seen as a ‘journey’. He also explored a number of metaphors such as ‘student as consumer, ‘student as apprentice’, ‘student as client’ and even ‘student as slave’ (a particularly uncomfortable one which I am not sure should be used, even as a metaphor).

It strikes me that all of these metaphors, in one way or another, present the research supervisor as ‘expert’ or ‘master’, with the research student taking the position of ‘beginner’ or ‘learner’. I appreciate that this may, of course, reflect the experiences of many doctoral students, and therefore, might be appropriate, but there is something about this dynamic which makes me feel uncomfortable.

If we stick with the idea of the doctoral experience as a journey, these metaphors conjure up images of the supervisor as driver, leader, route-marcher or guide. The supervisor chooses the destination, plans the route, and leads the student to make sure they stick to this route. If the student starts to wander from the path, the supervisor pulls them back. We could even go further and see the supervisor as cartographer – someone who draws the map itself. But is this the way that supervisors want to be seen?

I prefer to see my role as a doctoral supervisor as one of a ‘confident companion’. This expression is not my own, but is taken from Carl Rogers, in his work about person-centred therapy. Rogers holds a strong position that the counsellor or therapist is not the expert or sole knowledge-holder, but rather, needs to trust the client to be able to direct their own lives. In his work on empathy, he writes that counsellors need to be a ‘confident companion to the person in his or her inner world’ in which they ‘look with fresh and unfrightened eyes at elements in which he or she is fearful’ (Rogers, 1980, p142). For me, translating this to the role of doctoral supervisor is helpful. As a supervisor, I might be seen as a confident companion with a doctoral student as they navigate their way through the process of doing a doctorate. The end goal – the destination – is the production of an individual thesis, but the way in which each and every student gets there is unique, and the challenges they face on this journey is different. As supervisor, my role is not to tell them exactly where to go, or to route-march them through the journey, but to be alongside them, as a confident companion, with ‘fresh and unfrightened eyes’. The student might be seen as the navigator, the supervisor as companion. This means that each and every student can have their own personal journey and create their own route, and even their own destination.

Students might feel that this metaphor falls down at the point at which supervisors give them feedback on their written work. Students, I know, sometimes find this process difficult and challenging as they see supervisor comments as criticism. But I wonder whether this is because students are caught up in the perception that supervisors are experts (even masters), and therefore, give particular weight to their comments (ie. ‘my supervisor knows best and therefore, I must have done this wrong’). If students saw their supervisors as ‘confident companions’, they might be able to see this feedback in a different way (ie ‘they are alongside me, supporting me to work my way through my own journey, pointing out possible pitfalls on the way. I can decide for myself whether to pay attention to this. They might, after all, be wrong’).

I might just hold these ideas in mind when I supervise doctoral students. If I can manage to communicate that I am a confident companion on what is their own personal journey to a doctorate, then we might go some way to equalising the power dynamic that is inherent in all of the other metaphors.

Watch this space. Any comments – from doctoral students or from supervisors – are welcome.


Rogers, C. R. (1980) A Way of Being. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.

The Hidden Labyrinth of the Clinical Examination

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And so the penny drops.

One reason why the Doctoral journey (please indulge the metaphor for now) is such a transformative experience is not so much that more and more knowledge is piled on top of what we already know, it is rather that what we know, or rather what we thought we knew is suddenly up for grabs. It is no longer what we thought it was. It is transformed. And so are we.

For Mike, a medic with years of experience and expertise, a particular view of what happens in the process of clinical examination was transformed. He finds that what he thought was going on is not what was happening at all.  A technical-rational process of objective examination, checking symptoms against a definitive list of underlying causes – is opened up as subjective, an opaque weighing up of hunches and inclinations against evaluative criteria that are never made explicit because they are never acknowledged.

It strikes me that the distinct ways of framing the clinical examination echoes an ongoing argument that has been waging throughout the social sciences for some time.

What counts as evidence and how to we evaluate our statements about the world? 

There are three basic positions on the issue of evaluative criteria: foundational, quasi-foundational and non-foundational

Foundationalists […] who contend that research is research,quantitative or qualitative. All research should conform to a set of shared criteria (e.g. internal, external validity, credibility, transferability, confirmablity, transparency, warrantability.

Quasi-foundationalists contend that a set of criteria, or guiding framework unique to qualitative research need to be developed.These criteria may include terms like reflexivity, theoretical grounding, iconic, paralogic, rhizomatic and voluptuous validity.

In contrast, non-foundationalists stress the importance of understanding, versus prediction. They conceptualize inquiry within a moral frame, implementing an ethic rooted in the concepts of care, love, and kindness

(Denzin, 2009: 42 – 43)


Denzin, N. K. (2009). The elephant in the living room: or extending the conversation about the politics of evidence. Qualitative research, (2), 139-160.

A good end to a good few days (we saved the best until last)

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One of the joys of working in HE is the chance to meet your academic heroes. You know, the ones who in other circumstances  you’d only encounter in brackets with a date after their name. Professor John Field’s presentation to the Doctoral Symposium invited us to consider the ways in which social media might enhance our academic profile. He also set us a challenge by pointing out that – as educators – we don’t seem to have the kind of online presence that other disciplines enjoy. Put plainly,

I can’t answer that – but along with a few others – I can change it.

Sympathy at the Symposium

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In this post,

Paul Hopkins @hopkinsmmi

offers a considered overview of the Doctoral Symposium and concludes by challenging a few of our ideas about the primacy of words:


It’s been a while since I’ve blogged and this post is stimulated by the doctoral symposium that took place at the University of Hull over the last few days:

Operationalising research: real journeys, real voices, digital worlds

Firstly, thanks to Carol Azumah Dennis, Joseph Ploner and Anastasi Gouseti at the Faculty of Education in Hull for their hard work in organising the days, speakers and food!

There is the, “loneliness of the long-distance researcher” that is combatted by such events and the three days reminded my of the reasons I left school teaching and wanted to be in Higher Education – the opportunity to sit around a table and argue about the nature of the human mind as a computational algorithmic device with a sociologist and a philosopher of mind (thanks Mark and John) as well as be inspired, challenged and comforted by the research narratives presented by colleagues old and new.

The symposium explored a number of metaphors over the course of the few days – the journey of course came up and like all metaphors it stretched only so far. However it was good to meet people at different stages of their journey and to, “walk a little way in their shoes” be that at the beginning, the middle or those final stages as they staggered towards conclusion. As well as some keynotes of parts of the process the range of subjects under study by those still on the road was large and fascinating. Be these children oscillating between the liminal space of special and secondary school, how Thai speakers of English are understood by other speakers of English, Goths in the GDR or analysing websites in schools promoting neo-colonialism in Nigeria; to name but a few. As so often in these events it is the conversations in the spaces around the events that help shape ideas, thoughts and processes and there is no doubt that one comes away richer.

My contribution to the event was to challenge some of the orthodoxy in how we present a thesis – entitled “Crushed beetles on dead trees” it questioned the notion of the thesis as x thousands of words on the page. Not that words on the page were not a perfectly good way of expressing ideas, concepts, thoughts and results but that they were not the only way.

Beetles and trees

Whilst you can see the general idea by clicking on the Prezi above some further text will be useful as I tend to do “just the pictures” when presenting, this will follow shortly. What you might like is the doctoral process presented as an emoji stream – you can add your own captions ;-D