A satisfied doctoral researcher is engaged and efficient. A risk of burn-out and drop-out increases when well-being at work decreases.
Factors increasing satisfaction of doctoral researchers
- Mutual understanding on the supervisor's duties, and the contents and frequency of supervision (Pyhältö et al. 2015)
- Support from the supervisor and research community (Peltonen et al. 2017) and having multiple supervisors (Cornér ym. 2017)
- Sense of belonging, competence, and contribution (Virtanen & Pyhältö, 2012, Veikkaila et al. 2013 and Vekkaila et al. 2014).
- Feeling of competence as a writer (Lonka et al. 2014)
- Autonomy of research work (Virtanen & Pyhältö, 2012, Veikkaila et al. 2013, Vekkaila et al. 2014)
- Perceived active relational agency in the research community (Pyhältö & Keskinen, 2012)
- Received respectful, fair, and equal treatment, and prioritization of supervision activities (Löfström & Pyhältö, 2020)
- Awareness of the meaningfulness of the doctoral studies to the career prospects (Sakurai ym. 2017)
Risk of drop-out and burn-out are, on the other hand, increased by
- Struggles and conflicts within the scholarly community (over problems in the research itself; Vekkaila et al. 2013).
- Writer blocks, perfectionism and procastination (Lonka et al. 2014)
- Feeling of loneliness and isolation as well as inadequate supervision and feeling of inequality (Cornér et al. 2017).
- Experienced infidelity, injustice, and maleficence, e.g. abandonment, exploitation, infringement on autonomy (Löfström & Pyhältö, 2020);
Source: Sanna Vehviläinen, Ohjaustyön opas and Toolkit for supervisors.
Supervision is the expert influence offered by a senior, guidance of learning and provision of help and support. It is a collaborative activity, that promotes changes in learning, work, and life planning processes that are meaningful for the supervisee, so that his/her agency is strengthened.
Strengthened agency can been seen as increasing ability, knowledge, competence, and skills, active ownership and responsibility, capability, self-confidence, autonomy, self-regulation, ownership of one’s competence, inclusion, critical influence of environment and relying on others, and ability to collaborate; giving and receiving support.
- is not only based on research excellence - the ability to evaluate concrete products (e.g. manuscripts) is not dependent on this
- is not a matter of “chemistry” or a mystery
- does not depend on a personality or temperament
- is based on interaction (see below)
- may involve problems but interaction is “repairable”
- is built and maintained through repeated encounters, being thus “rehearsable”
- consist of normal, friendly, work-oriented activities = good enough supervision
Orientations of supervision interaction
Good interaction is a key to successful supervision. Within the academic supervision, three orientations of supervision interaction have been identified. All of them are essential. The supervisor can select which orientation is suitable and preferable in each situation (and identify to which orientation the supervisee is inviting him/her).
As a rule of thumb, offer first supporting orientation, then inquiring orientation, and as a last step problem-solving orientation.
Supporting orientation is about focusing on the situation, being present, observing, listening actively, being open, and empathetic. The situation at hand is experienced and accepted as it is. This usually happens "silently", without words, using body language.
Supporting orientation is needed at the beginning and end of encounters or in confusing situations (e.g. after receiving rejection from a journal). This orientation helps the supervisee to endure what has to be endured, and prevents from acting hastily, reactively or defensively.
Inquiring orientation is about stopping to investigate the experience, situation, problem or challenge before solving it. The aim is to get a more comprehensive, analytical and wider understanding on the situation and circumstances around it. Inquiring orientation prevents from getting stuck in and wasting time on irrelevant problems. Questions are the main tool in this orientation: the supervisees are invited to describe their thinking and meanings.
Inquiring orientation increases understanding both “inwards” and “outwards”. The supervisees learn to understand their own internal working process, learns from their mistakes and successes, and also understand more deeply the external criteria (e.g. why the text is (not) working). As a consequence, their skills of critical reflective thinking and meta-learning, which are indispensable for expert work and problem-solving, are developed.
The most commonly used orientation in which the aim is to identify the problems and solve them quickly with an advice given by the supervisor.
This orientation is efficient but limited, if the identified problem is not the actual problem. In that case, the advice fixes the problem in the product but not in the working process, where the problem originates. Also, when the supervisor identifies the problem and offers a solution, the supervisee's capability of solve problems is not developed. Neither, it will not be known if and how the supervisee understood the solution.
Skillful use of advice the supervisee is first heard in order to make sure that the identified problem is the real problem. The supervisor must take time before giving the advice in order to it to be thoughtful. It is also good to include the supervisee in problem-solving. Problem-solving orientation is not appropriate in all situations.
Using the orientations
Please, note that in total, using these orientations does not require extra time nor extra resources. After you have become aware of the orientations and taken the time for them, they bring focus and structure to even brief encounters and help to focus on the essential.
More information about the orientations and concrete tips e.g. about giving feedback: Toolkit for supervisors (in Moodle, requires UEF-login).
Below you can find a list of tips for supervisors created in a supervising workshop (led by Sanna Vehviläinen) of Seminar for PhD students and their supervisors in 2018 (see Sway-presentation on How to improve PhD supervision).
- Reserve time for establishing a mutual understanding on goals and means to reach them. Make sure that you are aiming at the same goals.
- Let your supervisee to tell about his/her own views, experiences and motivation.
- Help the supervisee to set realistic and concrete goals.
- Don't assume, ask! Establish a mutual understanding (e.g. on what happens next).
- Find time for interaction, have discussions. Both of you will benefit from that.
- Let your supervisee know that you are willing to help.
- Stimulate supervisee’s thinking by giving honest, realistic, concrete, positive and encouraging feedback. Be gentle and discreet. Criticism can be hard or even breaking, even if it was aimed to be constructive.
- Support, inspire and encourage. Motivate again and again (and push a little if needed).
- Let the student process and understand.
- Evaluate the process (e.g. actions taken) together.
- Get to know the problem to get it solved. The problem might be something else than it seems at first glance (see inquiring orientation in the section Successful supervision).
- Reserve time for informal moments together (coffee breaks or organized events).
- Get to know your supervisees and their working styles.
- Pay attention to your own communication style (see orientations in the section Successful supervision).
- Have common rules for communication.
- Allow feelings to be expressed.
- Give enough freedom and space, but make sure to interact regularly! Be active.
- Take the cultural background(s) into account: doctoral researchers from high power distance may need more concrete advice and guidance (see Hofstede's dimenstions).
- Keep an eye on the workload: reasonable working hours and enough free time will promote, not delay the progress.