Working with your supervisor: follow-up 1

Thanks for introducing me to Styles and Radloff’s (2001) synergistic thesis of supervisor-student relations. Their work fits within the tradition of reflection and mirrors much of the literature into reflexive practices in adult learning. At the core of Styles and Radloff’s (2001) reflexive article that outlined their personal journey as student and supervisor is the idea that interpersonal synergies exist between the experience supervisor and the doctoral candidate1 and between each individual intrapersonally (see figure 1.)

Figure 1. Dimensions of reflexivity in the student/ supervisor relationship

More precisely, Styles and Radloff’s (2001) thesis belongs to the ‘outside-in’ theory of reflexivity that posits that individuals can only develop their reflexive abilities with the aid of an outsider, that self-introspection without this mechanism of pointing out an individual’s “tendency to self-deceive, collude and be unaware” (Brockbank & McGill, 2007, p. 5) is necessarily limiting (Fisher, 2003; Loughran, 2002; Pee, Woodman, Fry, & Davenport, 2002). This contrasts with the ‘inside-only’ position that accepts that reflexive abilities can develop without such an outsider’s input (Archer, 2007; Fook & Gardner, 2007). In Styles and Radloff, the synergistic positionality of each participant acts as the impetus for deeper reflection.

Broadly speaking, I concur with Styles and Radloff (2001) for the statistically simplistic reason that two heads are usually better than one. Beeler (1991) theorised four stages of competence: unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, conscious competence and unconscious competence. A doctoral candidate probably has a high degree of unconscious incompetence in relation to the vast unknowns that lie ahead of them in their doctoral studies. Reflection becomes possible only when they recognise their ignorance. Being self-aware of one’s knowledge and the associated requirement for demonstration of that knowledge are vital aspects in doctoral training (Parry, 2007). Polanyi (1962) distinguished between tacit and explicit knowledge, a distinction taken up by Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995) who argue for a systematic exploration of tacit knowledge and its subsequent conversion into explicit knowledge as a prime component in organisational development. Briefly stated, during self-regulation aided by supervisory input, the likelihood of incompetence being avoided is higher with more people involved.

To return to the point I made in my own initial post—and my own personal fear—is perhaps best described by Barnacle (2005) who states that; “knowledge obtained by the philosopher will always remain partial: just as glimpses of knowledge will be revealed so too will ignorance remain at the door” (p. 184), pointing to a view of the knowledge journey as ‘erotic’, tantalisingly within reach yet always eluding the grasp. How much I do not know and how much I do not need to know are quantifications best reached at with the help of a supervisor, or I will be forever plagued with reflections on the intrapersonal dimension.


1Is this term appropriate for a course that does not have candidacy exams? If not, how should students best style themselves?

Archer, M. S. (2007). Making our way through the world: Human reflexivity and social mobility. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Barnacle, R. (2005). Research education ontologies: exploring doctoral becoming. Higher Education Research & Development, 24(2), 179–188.

Beeler, K. D. (1991). Graduate Student Adjustment to Academic Life: A Four-Stage Framework. NASPA Journal, 28(2), 163–71.

Brockbank, A., & McGill, I. (2007). Facilitating reflective learning in higher education (2nd ed.). Buckingham, PA: SRHE and Open University Press.

Fisher, K. (2003). Demystifying Critical Reflection: Defining criteria for assessment. Higher Education Research & Development, 22(3), 1–1.

Fook, J., & Gardner, F. (2007). Practising Critical reflection. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Loughran, J. J. (2002). Effective Reflective Practice: In Search of Meaning in Learning about Teaching. Journal of Teacher Education, 53(1), 33–43.

Nonaka, I., & Takeuchi, H. (1995). The Knowledge-Creating Company: How Japanese Companies Create the Dynamics of Innovation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Parry, S. (2007). Disciplines and doctorates. Dordrecht: Springer.

Pee, B., Woodman, T., Fry, H., & Davenport, E. S. (2002). Appraising and assessing reflection in students’ writing on a structured worksheet. Medical Education, 36(6), 575–585.

Polanyi, M. (1962). Personal knowledge: Towards a post-critical philosophy. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Radloff, I. S. A. (2001). The Synergistic Thesis: student and supervisor perspectives. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 25(1), 97–106.

About theCaledonian

Scot living in north Japan teaching at a national university.
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