Boundaries in PGR Supervision

By Steve Hutchinson, Director of Hutchinson Training & Development specialising in Leadership, Communication and Personal Effectiveness; and co-author of ‘Coaching and Mentoring for Academic Development’.

If you meet postgraduates you’ll hear horror stories about supervisors. For example recently I encountered a furious PGR with “a terrible supervisor” who, it transpired, “only sees me once per week!” (!) Of course, bad supervisory behaviour does occur, but many poor PGR experiences, as here, are results of mismatched expectations and unclear boundary lines or occur when people aren’t sure about their rights and responsibilities or feel an inferred pressure (sometimes unreal) to perform in a certain way.

For intellectual balance, supervisors tell horror stories too. Like the candidate who radically underestimates what a doctorate entails and is mentally spent through trying to hold down a job and a family and produce a thesis but who simply isn’t coping. Or the international PGR whose sole ‘friend’ in the UK is their supervisor and who they call at home, distraught, in the middle of the night. These scenarios too are rooted in unclear boundaries and expectations (and, I’d offer, sometimes questionable recruitment).

A concept that supervisors value is that of providing ‘freedom in a framework’; i.e. enough framework, structure and boundaries to help ensure movement, direction and safety – but also sufficient freedom to allow exploration, development and growth. Too much structure or control and people become stifled. Too much freedom and they lose focus and clarity.  Of course, as a supervisor, boundaries and structures are potentially more fluid than in other professional relationships – partly since PGRs are supposed to become independent (it’s literally the whole point…) and also since they embark and leave the doctoral ride at different points and have different needs, motivations, trajectories and expectations of what the process might entail. The question then, is how to agree boundaries that provide enough freedom and framework for the PGR, enough evidence of progression for the supervisor and (vitally) enough protection for both parties.

It’s vital to start with the boundaries and expectations that are already explicit to both parties. To that end, consider:

  • What are the supervisor’s actual responsibilities? (i.e. what is the job description as per institutional ‘rules’, departmental steer, and guidance to which the institution may subscribe? )
  • What is the institutional expectation, from a workload perspective, of supervisory contact time per student per week?
  • What is the explicit institutional expectation of the responsibilities and rights (e.g. normal working practices and holidays) of a PGR?
  • What can be negotiated between the supervisory team and candidate? (For instance, the institutional code prescribes ‘frequent’ meetings, but this is open to interpretation (half an hour a week, or an hour a fortnight etc) and should rightly be finessed depending on the subject, nature of study, stage of the candidature and geographical proximity.

Next, ensure that all parties are absolutely clear about whose responsibility it is to:

  • Set the schedule for meetings
  • Choose the direction of the initial work
  • Choose an intellectual standpoint for the work (whose preference takes priority?)
  • Liaise with the wider supervisory team
  • Proof-read written work
  • Solicit or provide feedback
  • Ensure progress is reported

Be mutually clear about the boundary lines of contact. What type of issue needs to be addressed immediately and what can wait until the next formal supervision? What could be a simple email today and what needs a meeting? Are you available outside office hours and are you modelling boundaries in your own visible work-life balance?

And ultimately, discuss what needs to happen before, during and after each supervision. For instance: Before (agenda / direction and focus / adequate preparation and documentation sent in advance), During (focus on prior agreements and a prioritised agenda with clearly documented agreements) and After (written action-plans for all relevant parties).

Purely procedurally there are myriad other research frontiers that need to be jointly agreed, including: thesis logistics (when is enough enough?), resources (what spend of money and time is acceptable?) quality (‘good enough’ versus ‘perfect’?) These elements all need to be tabled and discussed before problems occur. There are, however, other lines that need to be raised and made absolutely explicit so that all parties are clear. For instance:

  • Where is the boundary between having enough material for a thesis and having too much (albeit good for a research group’s outputs)?
  • When does a thesis plan become a quest for truth that is destined to over-run?
  • When does inability to choose a novel thesis direction leave no time to actually do the work?
  • What are the expectations of all stakeholder parties when it comes to the doctorate – and what are the interfaces, boundaries and overlaps between these agendas?

In terms of the research programme, you may also need a conversation about the ‘waterline’ boundary. Some elements of research might be appropriate for a PGR to tackle with complete freedom (above the waterline), while some things might be fraught with professional risk (below the waterline). Supervisors and PGRs should explore the water level to determine appropriate supervisory freedom and framework.

The final area that needs to be made transparent is that of human interactions, since boundaries are found where meetings are held. Certainly the supervisorial relationship is adult-adult, but it’s one in which one party holds all the power. At what point then does an unbalanced conflict of intellectual opinions become bullying? And, where is the boundary between robust criticism and aggression? It’s a terrible thing to type, but a closed-door meeting potentially leaves both parties open to accusations of impropriety. Power imbalances are always open to abuse, whether real or imagined, deliberate or accidental. As such, boundaries and best practice needs to be discussed, clarified and agreed.

Above all, it is imperative that both parties are clear about the borderline between intellectual and pastoral support – indeed many institutions have mentoring or personal tutors for PGRs to separate the boundary between thesis support and human care. In short, know, as a supervisor, what you are there for and what you are not.

Ultimately, I consider my doctoral supervisor to be a friend and I think fondly of our chats fuelled by coffee and biscuits (and occasionally ice-cream…) but supervision is first and foremost a professional relationship – and it is imperative for the supervisor to take the professional lead in discussing the boundary lines.

One response to “Boundaries in PGR Supervision”

  1. Reblogged this on A community blog, on doctoral supervision relationships and pedagogies and commented:

    “Of course, bad supervisory behaviour does occur, but many poor PGR experiences, as here, are results of mismatched expectations and unclear boundary lines or occur when people aren’t sure about their rights and responsibilities or feel an inferred pressure (sometimes unreal) to perform in a certain way.”


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