/ 20 February 2015

Postgrad support is essential

Graphic: John McCann PhDs hold key to SA’s development
Graphic: John McCann PhDs hold key to SA’s development


The deputy director general of research development and support in the national department of science and technology, Dr Thomas Auf der Heyde, recently made a strong case for increased PhD production in South Africa (“PhDs hold key to SA’s development”, February 9).

One of the key challenges he pointed to is the need for more and better postgraduate supervision.

Unfortunately, postgraduate supervision is not well understood and there are many who assume it comes naturally to anyone who holds a doctorate. Our retention and throughput rates at postgraduate level demonstrate that this is not the case.

Students have to shift from engaging critically with knowledge to producing knowledge.

This process is not always well developed during undergraduate education and so the postgraduate experience for many students is one of isolation and failure.

Various interventions to develop supervision capacity have emerged and some, as noted by Auf der Heyde, are now nationally funded. The Strengthening Postgraduate Supervision (SPS) course is one such initiative, and has been offered free of charge to South African universities 24 times since 2013 – thanks to funding from the Dutch and South African governments (postgraduatesupervision.com).

Supervision output
The collaborative implementation of the course has so far revealed a few ideas about what we need to do to increase supervision output. Here we share just five of the lessons learnt to date:

• You have to be an active researcher to supervise. In order to support a postgraduate scholar to add to the very frontiers of a discipline, the supervisor needs to have some grasp of what is happening at those frontiers.

Few supervisors can claim to be experts in all aspects of their students’ work because of changes in knowledge boundaries, the complexity of problems being addressed and the use of interdisciplinary research to solve them. But through the SPS course, it has become evident that there are two troubling subsets of supervisors whose own research profiles do not serve them well to supervise.

One group, which makes up a large proportion of those attending the course, consists of people who are still completing their own master’s or doctoral studies. They have not yet published any of their work and are battling to come to grips with the research in the field. Because of demand, many are carrying heavy single supervision loads at postgraduate level on top of undergraduate teaching.

These novice academics are often overwhelmed by the demands of supervising a number of other people’s studies and this affects their own ability to develop their research expertise. The consequences for the quality of supervision are considerable.

The higher education and training department’s publication Staffing South Africa’s Universities: A comprehensive approach to building capacity and developing new generations of academics outlines an initiative that provides an opportunity to address this concern, provided that institutions develop appropriate internal support structures.

Limited success
The other worrying subgroup of supervisors has held their doctorate for years, but they do not attend academic conferences or produce any research. They have limited supervision success but the supervision shortage means they continue to be allocated students to supervise. The extent to which people can supervise if they do not keep themselves abreast of developments in their field is of great concern.

• Supervision is easier in research-rich environments. A repeated refrain in the course has been that novice supervisors in certain contexts feel lonely and uncertain. Those who work in departments where casual conversations about research abound, and where the sharing of academic readings is considered to be common collegial practice, take on and enjoy supervising.

In departments where the number of postgraduate students is small and in institutions where the research output is limited, novice supervisors expressed the most confusion and dismay about what was expected of them. Most indicated that their only knowledge about supervision came from their own experience of being supervised.

Increasingly, universities are overcoming this by developing postgraduate schools at faculty or institutional levels. This allows supervisors to form a community that is large enough for expertise to be shared and developed.

The ways in which departments position and deploy postgraduate students also varies extensively. In some cases, these students teach classes, offer seminars, attend staff teas and are generally seen to be novice members of the academy. Rich exposure to an academic environment inevitably affects the development of students’ research capacity. In other cases, students are treated bureaucratically and permitted little engagement beyond scheduled sessions with their individual supervisors.

• Supervising the writing. The course includes a number of sessions on how to develop student writing and provide meaningful spoken and written feedback. Although this is the session that gets the highest praise in the course evaluations, it is the one that elicits the strongest negativity when it is introduced.

Central to the process
Many novice supervisors in the course indicate that they do not think they are competent academic writers themselves, or that they are not language experts and cannot therefore develop student writing. Or they believe that development of student writing falls outside of the role of the supervisor. The course takes the position that, as long as the master’s and doctorate are assessed through writing, then developing a student’s capacity to write is central to the supervision process.

Course participants almost exclusively think good academic writing revolves around the mastery of grammar and spelling. Little is understood about how each discipline uses language in very particular ways. It is also evident that, although many supervisors resent focusing on surface-level correction of student texts, almost all their feedback to students is at this level. They are at a loss as to how to develop students’ conceptualisation and ability to craft meaningful arguments in writing. The ongoing support of supervisors in developing this capacity is crucial.

• Ensuring quality. The ways in which quality is assured at postgraduate level vary across the sector and there is probably a need for more national-level conversations about this.

The Council on Higher Education’s audit process clamped down on the use of supervisors as examiners, but there are concerns about the lack of quality control at the time of assessment. In some institutions, we heard of the same examiners being used repeatedly and often they were within the same department. The use of international examiners is also not yet uniform practice.

The role of a university’s higher degrees committee is problematic for many novice supervisors. Such committees are tricky spaces, with petty politics playing out in frequently obstructive ways. It is of concern that there appears to be little understanding of these committees’ role in protecting and supporting the supervisor’s and the student’s interests by demanding high quality.

• Supervising out of the box. Almost all the course participants are involved in traditional one-on-one supervision. This is particularly so in the humanities and social sciences, which receive the idea of collaborative teams of scholars working together on a project with some scepticism.

In the natural sciences, laboratory and fieldwork are more often undertaken on some collective basis, but multiple opportunities for peer collaboration and development do not seem to be readily embraced. Given the huge demand for postgraduate output and the high dropout rates, maximising such opportunities is essential.

Some interesting examples of doctoral programmes and writing teams have emerged, alongside innovative supervision models such as panel supervisions but these are still far from the norm.

The SPS course goes beyond the usual workshop model in that it is run over six months, using a combination of face-to-face and online teaching. It is nonetheless a single course trying to influence a complex and evolving pedagogy positively.

And although a course can provide important skills and resources for the novice supervisor, it has little effect on institutional policies and practices, even though effort is made to work with those responsible for managing research while the course is offered at a university.

For the postgraduate experience to be a more positive one for supervisors and students alike, we need to consider it from the micro level of supervisor competence and the macro level of institutional structure and culture.

Expecting individual supervisors to increase postgraduate outputs by improving their own capacity to guide and teach at this level is a big ask without a concomitant response from institutions themselves.

Sioux McKenna is associate professor and higher education studies doctoral co-ordinator in the Centre for Higher Education Research, Teaching and Learning at Rhodes University. Chrissie Boughey is acting deputy vice-chancellor: academic and student affairs at Rhodes