Academic work is commonly understood to be a tripartite trifle of research, teaching and admin. Researchers obviously have free and abundant access to doing research as a formalised part of their role, and can find admin work to do by joining formal research staff committees, organising sector conferences, and belonging to institutional special interest groups e.g. Athena Swann.
So what about teaching? Where do researchers learn not just how to ‘do teaching’ but also how to ‘be a teacher’ in a university setting. David Hyatt says that thinking beyond workshop learning and skills development, we need to aid researchers in developing ‘repertoires of practice’ that fit their work environment, doing academic work by a process of inclusion and actually supporting them to get on with the job. And for universities to do this properly we have to look around at the value that research staff offer to our teaching & learning, and supervision strategies.
In many (not all, but many) research groups, research staff are skipped out of the formal line-management structure with all students reporting to the PI. Not much supervision experience there then. This will be due in varying proportions to the accountability attached to studentship funding, persistent constraints on research staff contract length, and the usual struggles with being viewed as being of appropriate position and status to handle supervision.
There’s a tension though as we as researcher developers know that postdocs view experience in supervision, teaching and learning as core to scoring that academic career (Akerlind 2005) and that development of that academic sense of self is in part a result of having the right formal institutional responsibilities and resources (McAlpine et al., 2013) as well as turning out papers. Where we do engage (read ‘permit’) research staff in formal teaching & learning opportunities they benefit from having that experience on their CV yes…but I ask, in developing researchers: are we preparing them not only to ‘get’ the job of being an academic, but to be equipped to do the job well? When does ‘supervisor development’ start?
I’d say as early as possible and at the University of Sheffield I have designed a Thesis Mentoring programme where the mentors are post-doc research staff and the work they do is very much what you’d call supervision work. They meet regularly with their mentee over a 4 month period and they discuss everything to do with the practices of academic writing — from how to overcome negative thinking, to how to integrate data with the literature, to how to create a writing plan you can stick to, to how to get the feedback you need from your supervisor in a timely way. They help PhD writers chunk the task down, focus on what they can achieve, and figure out what works for them.
So, what do research staff bring to the supervision party as Thesis Mentors — well, something subtly different and complementary to what the project supervisor does.
- relevant and recent experience of writing a book about PhD research, and the resounding empathy that accompanies that;
- distance, they aren’t entrenched in past histories of tense relationships, pet projects, and ‘that’s the way we always do it’ — they bring a fresh and critical eye to the process.
- time. Precisely 1h every 2 weeks to focus on the practices of writing.
- non-judgement. Because they have the privilege of not themselves being judged by that student’s performance.
- willingness to engage in ‘metasupervision’. They think about what they’re doing for that student, how it’s working, and how it could be better. They act with the intention to provide a specific relationship that aligns with the needs of the student.
And what do the research staff say they themselves get out of being involved with the process? Evaluation data say yes, research staff feel they gain better supervisory practices that transfer to ad-hoc thesis support in their groups as you would well imagine. They also were pleased to be able to evidence formal learning and teaching experience for job applications and accreditation processes. But interestingly also,
- Personal satisfaction and fulfilment. Everyone needs a bit of that in their life.
- Negotiation skills e.g. setting boundaries, engaging in proper listening, creating shared solutions to difficult problems.
- Increased reflection and self-understanding . Research staff say they become better writers themselves through helping others with writing. And they describe how they developed a considered and intentional approach to supervision too. Score!
When does ‘supervisor development’ start – well, way before we welcome the new lecturer in post. Follow this link to see some student feedback on just how skilled post-docs are at supervision when given the change to experience it. How can research staff enhance your teaching & learning, and supervision strategies.
McAlpine, L., Amundsen, C., & Turner, G. (2013). Identity-trajectory: Reframing early career academic experience. British Educational Research Journal.
Åkerlind, G. S. (2005). Postdoctoral researchers: Roles, functions and career prospects. Higher Education Research & Development.