Supervisors and other university staff have been working for many years to improve the quality of postgraduate research education. While most universities offer some resources for enhancing the quality of supervision, funding limitations and development costs make it prohibitively expensive for a single institution to create a full range of materials.
In 2000, four Australian universities (the Australian National University, the Queensland University of Technology, the University of Sydney and the University of Technology, Sydney) collaborated to form a Consortium for Supervision Development. At one stage over 35 Australian, New Zealand and European higher education institutions were members. Now the site is provided by the Australian Council of Graduate Research and is open for all to use.
The rationale for the development of fIRST resources is that effective supervision must now focus on broader skills development, timely completion, student satisfaction, adequate resources and employment outcomes. This rationale is based on the work of Margot Pearson and Angela Brew.
Broadening the focus of research education
Traditionally, supervision was an informal process of induction and socialisation into a research community.
The new focus heralds the professionalisation of research education, as well as of supervision development. Thus supervision development must now:
- help research students build relevant skills and strategies, and
- broaden supervisors’ and coordinators’ awareness of critical issues and practices
Students as skilful performers
With the professionalisation of research education, there is a danger that students will end up with a long list of ‘extra’ activities to complete and less time for their actual research.
To prevent this, fIRST resources are based on an integrated approach to student skills development – one that aims to produce a ‘skilful performer’. A skilful performer is someone who:
- is an expert in their field
- is resourceful
- can separate out what they need to know and use
- understands the bigger picture (so they know what’s relevant)
- is adaptable or prepared to change techniques and/or research areas
Research supervisors are educators, motivators and leaders. They need to be flexible, adaptable and comfortable with diversity in their students’ learning needs and career goals.
As Brew notes in her research, experienced researchers differ in their conceptions of research and scholarship. Supervisors need to become aware of their own conceptions, and also of the range of conceptions of their students and other research community members.
Pearson and Brew (2001) describe supervision as situated in communities of research practice. They introduce a cognitive apprenticeship model as a way of understanding postgraduate research. Within this model, supervision includes negotiation, coaching, mentoring and encouraging critical reflection while students engage in the productive practise of their research.
The fIRST resources can help to expand research supervisors’ skills by providing them with opportunities to:
- engage in personal and critical reflection
- learn more about managing themselves, so they can manage others better
- receive feedback on their performance, interaction and communication skills
- reflect on conceptions of research practice, so they can critically question their own preferred approach to research