Supervising Doctoral Students – threshold moments

We have all experienced those times in our research when we simply cannot move on, we are stuck! It could be in formulating a research question, finding ways to cope with and interpret data, finding a ‘lens’ through which to look at our project, even putting pen to paper. Sometimes you feel like a rabbit in the headlights, frozen in the face of the challenges rushing towards you.  We know all about it as researchers, and we know that our research students must go through it. The question here is, are there ways to characterise these barriers to progression?  And if so, can we use this as supervisors to help students find strategies to overcome these barriers to progress?

On 6th December a small group of us attended a seminar given by Dr Terfot Ngwana from Bishop Grossteste University. Terfot is a social scientist currently teaching on the University of Liverpool on-line professional doctorate in Higher Education. We discussed the various models that describe approaches to student supervision, which Terfot characterised as bureaurocratic, didactic and collaborative. Although at times we need to adopt all three, the most productive is the last of these. The supervisor here is the designer of the intellectual learning experience, structuring the learning with and between individual research students, promoting social skills, challenging and being challenged by students and allowing the student’s role in the relationship to shift as they develop.

So what about the sticking points? Based on his own experience of supervision Terfot made links with the work of Meyer and Land (2005) and their theories on threshold concepts which he described as critical moments of irreversible conceptual transformation. We can describe these as ‘Aha! moments’, or times when  ‘the penny drops’. That is, when a real ontological shift takes place in the thinking and understanding of how a specific discipline is structured.  This is the point when our discussions took off, we began to share our own experiences of such moments, and the often painful times when the penny simply would not drop, when the way forward wasn’t clear.

What was interesting was that, both as students and as supervisors, we realised that it is these stories,  metaphors and analogies that help us to move on. Supervisors reassure students with stories of their own experience and give examples of ways they have overcome such challenges. In a way we must all go through these pain barriers ourselves, so the trick is not to try to find ways to avoid them, but to let students know early on that they will experience them and to give them some of the strategies to overcome them.

How we help students is another matter. Perhaps supervisors need to gather together a body of stories, analogies and ‘tricks’ that we use ourselves and which others have used?  Maybe we can incorporate methods of coping with liminal state experiences into generic training for students. One thing we want to avoid is a student hiding away, not seeking help and so remaining stuck, unable to move. The session made us think about the role of the research supervisor and how we might change generic PGR training. If anyone has further thoughts on this topic we would love to hear them.

Anne Qualter and Aimee Blackledge