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Using vignettes to explore how supervisors and students clarify expectations during doctoral studies

The research will explore which strategies and resources are being used and how useful these are to student outcomes.  The project will also explore what would improve doctoral students’ understanding of the supervision process.  The plan is to develop a set of visual vignettes to be used in further research and to support discussions with students and supervisors to unpack expectations and understanding of the supervision process for an improved experience.

Man and woman talking over laptop

Researchers

Research background

When students commence a doctorate, it might be the first time that they have experienced supervision. The absence of students’ experience of being supervised can result in a limited understanding of expectations for the supervisory relationship (Bui, 2014).   Supervisors can develop students’ expectations through a university’s code of practice which sets out guidelines to tackle any mismatch in prior assumptions (Taylor et al. 2018).  In addition, the literature outlines to both students and supervisors, information on what they can expect from supervision or to consider the nature of the relationship (Phillips and Pugh 2000; Delamont et al. 2004).  There are a number of checklists and questionnaires to enable supervisors and students to agree expectations or to determine how they will work together (Lewis & Habeshaw, 1997; Taylor et al. 2018). A change in supervisor can cause disruption, loss of confidence and insecurity which can impact on students’ progress (Benmore, 2006).  This could mean that the code of practice and checklists would need to be revisited. Research compared doctoral student perceptions of their role and their supervisors’ roles during their studies against the university’s code of practice.  Differences were found in the student perceptions around their belief of which aspects were a shared responsibility as opposed to the sole responsibility of their supervisor(s). The research emphasised that the clarification of roles was important early on in the candidature and suggested the use of tools (e.g. surveys) (Helfer & Drew, 2019).  However, these tools are existing solutions and research suggests there are still issues with agreeing expectations during doctoral studies.

Research aims

This project will explore how supervisors and students clarify expectations through vignette methodology to gain or ‘elicit’ insights into perceptions or experiences of sensitive topics.  The aim is to create a set of visual vignettes to support teaching and learning conversations about supervision and further research.

The study will aim to answer the following research questions:

  • How are expectations determined between supervisors and students?
  • What happens following changes in the supervision team? 
  • What strategies or resources are being used to develop relationships, agree milestones and expectations?
  • How useful are these to the student and supervisor relationship and student outcomes?
  • What would improve students’ understanding of the student and supervisor expectations?

Research methods

Students and supervisors will be asked to reflect on a range of existing visual and descriptive vignettes from the literature which feature student and supervisor perspectives in relation to agreeing expectations.   The methods will take influence from research undertaken by both Vaughan and Miller (2017) and Kara (2015).  The participants will include both supervisors and students which is important as much of the research is from supervisors’ perspectives and the inclusion of supervisor and students perspectives together is limited (Bui, 2014, Helfer & Drew 2019).  The research will explore which strategies and resources are being used and how useful these are to student outcomes.  The project will also explore what would improve doctoral students’ understanding of the supervision process.  The plan is to develop a set of visual vignettes to be used in further research and to support discussions with students and supervisors to unpack expectations and understanding of the supervision process for an improved experience.

Project outcomes

The aim is to create a set of visual vignettes to be used in supporting discussions with students and supervisors during teaching and learning in order to unpack expectations and understanding of the supervision process for an improved experience.  The vignettes will also be utilised to undertake further research.  The other aspect is that any good practice identified by the research in relation to strategies and resources could be collated and shared (e.g. through a toolkit).  The students and supervisors will be asked what would be useful to support the development of expectations and this could lead to the creation of a resource or seminar.  The plan would be to communicate with the PGR community and supervisors as key stakeholders to ensure any impact is captured.