Musings on research supervision

I have supervised many dissertations at undergraduate and postgraduate levels as well as supervising PhDs. Some are a breeze, some are a struggle and 90% are in the middle somewhere. The first stumbling block for me is the student’s choice of topic. Sometimes the proposed title is surprising, intriguing, exciting or off the wall. But sometimes the proposed title is just dull and makes me sigh. It’s all the more disappointing because the student often thinks this is a great title and that no-one will ever have thought of it before. It’s OK that the student thinks that way to start with, as this is how one learns about the importance of uniqueness in research; the importance of making a novel contribution. The topics that bore me rigid are often about students’ use of social media (snore) or promotion of cosmetics (zzzz) or the power of online influencers (done to death), which seem to come up more regularly than they should. So I force myself to take a step back. This is the student’s passion. It’s what has galvanised them into writing a proposal. It’s only when they start their reading that they’ll find what they have planned is either too parochial, has been done many times before and/or is based entirely on their own experience or opinions. As supervisor I have to guide them gently through those disappointments to work their project into something more exciting, relevant and, above all, new. The good thing is that they are willing and happy to read around their subject and are usually happy to reconfigure their plans so make the best use of the research already available as a starting point, rather than repeating existing research. Once our supervision sessions get under way and we start talking about the different ways one could approach this particular subject, the different concepts and theories we could use to explore it and the new and interesting data we could find if we didn’t do just an online survey of undergraduates but were more inventive, then things start to look up.

I learned this through my own experience. When I started my PhD back in 2002 I was researching motivation theory (cue massive snores from all HR and OB specialists) because it fascinated me and the sector I was researching was the UK book publishing industry. I still find human motivation interesting and it plays a big part in consumer behaviour theory, so it’s still part of my work now, although it is more nuanced and specific to marketing. But back in 2002 when I was reading many, many journal articles and academic texts about motivation in the workplace, my supervisor must have been sighing. He was an organisational behaviour specialist and it had been his teaching on my MBA that had inspired me to go on to a PhD. I spent the whole of my first year reading, absorbing, taking notes and thinking, working full time and cramming the PhD into evenings and weekends. I enjoyed the reading, although I was permanently tired, and could get quite animated about the subject when talking to others (mainly my husband, who was probably even more bored by it all than my supervisor). But after a year of reading articles about motivation theory and motivation in the workplace, I came to a dead end. At a tutorial with my supervisor I said…

‘I’ve read a lot about this and you know nothing much has changed in the theory for years.’

‘Hmmm,’ he said, tactfully.

‘I mean no-one seems to care. The research doesn’t make any difference to anybody.’

‘Oh?’ he said, in a lightly questioning tone, encouraging me to go on.

‘If people aren’t motivated to work, managers don’t do all this stuff about making their job more varied and autonomous. They don’t reward people with praise or anything else of real note – not that means anything to anyone. They don’t care if there are inequalities in pay or reward or if they break a psychological contract – if they’re even aware that there is such a thing. In the end, unhappy employees move on and are replaced by new staff who take a few years to reach a stage where they are unhappy enough to move on.’ I was talking in generalities – of course there are employers out there that do care about their staff and want them to stay and be productive and happy, rather than be miserable and leave.

‘Well, that’s probably true in many cases, yes.’

‘So my research will add nothing and will not be of any use to anyone either academically or professionally. I’ll just prove that what’s already in the literature is true of the publishing profession as well as of others.’

There was a pause. Then my supervisor said, ‘Well, I’m glad you said it and not me. What do you want to do instead?’ This was a turning point in my PhD journey.

One of the articles I’d read about motivation was in the same contents list as one about the impact of simple technology on the animation industry, many years ago. It was nothing to do with motivation, but I’d read it because it sounded interesting. And it was like a light going on. Disruptive technologies were having (and continue to have) a massive effect on the UK book publishing industry. Print on demand, digital printing and e-books were all in their infancy and were hovering like three of the four horsemen on the publishing horizon. Many commentators were predicting the death of the printed book and of the printing industry and high-street booksellers in general. Now, in 2020, we can look back and know that the book is not dead and that printing and bookselling did change, but are still going. At the time, though, the industry was bracing itself for change and working out what to do in the face of these new developments. Join the bandwagon early and risk the investment? Wait to see what happens and risk missing the boat? Many publishers at the time barely had a website, let alone an e-commerce site. These sorts of technologies were quite beyond their experience. Publishers were generally employing graduates from arts and humanities and didn’t have the technological skills to respond to the challenges. This subject grasped my imagination and shook motivation out of my system. I was hooked. And my supervisor could stop sighing and snoring.

The effects of technological disruption in the industry were far-reaching – roles and processes changed, the skills needed to do the job changed so recruitment and training had to change, and as technology became an essential part of the publishing process and part of the way that a publisher works, management structures had to change. It wasn’t only publishers, but printers, booksellers, packagers, authors, freelance editors and designers… the industry saw monumental change and is still grappling with change now. Change is the only constant. And it is not the technology that is the problem; it’s the way humans interact with technology and the way that technology affects human work, so even a study of technology is really a study of humans.

My PhD was a long time ago, but I haven’t forgotten that supervision experience and it’s that realisation that my subject was dull and was going nowhere and that I needed to find something  more interesting, that helps me understand when students come to me with their unsurprising topics for their dissertations. I can guide them gently to find new angles for their research, new avenues of discovery and, where necessary, talk to them just about what they are interested in right now to find a new topic that will eclipse the dull one without hurting their feelings or making them feel silly. Just as my supervisor did for me.

For those interested in the article about cel animation that changed my research direction, see:

Callahan, D. (1988) Cel animation: mass production and marginalization in the animated film industry, Film History, 2(3), 223–8.

4 thoughts on “Musings on research supervision

  1. Amanda Brown

    There are many ‘blinking words’ in this lovely and thoughtful piece: words which attract and hold the attention, spotlighting the central premise that good supervision, and indeed good teaching more broadly, depends on assisting the student to find her or his own way and for that way to be purposeful, interesting and new. ‘Uniqueness,’ ‘guidance’ and ‘imagination’ are key nouns here. And that the guidance should be ‘gentle’ is the ultra skilful part. Your discussion with your own supervisor illustrates this perfectly. I look forward to more musings!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Barbara

    This is an excellent piece, it sounds a lot like coaching and leaving to the student the reflective space to find the balance between passion and gap in knowledge

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Nyder

    This article reminds me of the guidance my psychology lecturer gave me in university many years ago. I was trying to shoehorn together the two streams of my joint honours: psychology and marketing, and came up with a dissertation about how companies play to people’s heartstrings within their marketing… Could you extend this to market to their inner insecurities?

    “Psychosis marketing? Where are you taking this!”, came the reply from my dissertation tutor. “You’ll be spending a long time on this dissertation, why not pick something you’re going to actually enjoy doing..?”

    Sound advice, which I took. I ended up writing about beer.

    Liked by 1 person

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