Working with your thesis supervisor

The UofLiverpool online EdD programme makes serious attempts to cover both the intellectual development requirements of students and deal with their practical needs. These so-called ‘masterclasses’ often try to encompass both aspects simultaneously. This is done by selecting a topic that is of immense practical benefit, in this case how to work with a supervisor, and tie that into a more theoretical discussion about the nature of development, the role of others in an individual’s journey and so on.

I opened the discussion by focusing on the irony inherent in the ‘becoming’ a doctor, i.e. a fully autonomous researcher, when that progress necessarily includes another.

Coming from a similar English language background and cultural background as the physical University of Liverpool, I do not have many of the power distance (Hofstede, Hofstede, & Minkov, 2010), monochronic/ polychronic time (Hall, 1990), or other culturally based issues shared by the panellists on the resource video (Laureate Education, 2012). Furthermore, my abhorrence of deadlines pushes me to complete tasks well ahead and thereby reduce conflict that may result from what may be called systems obligations. However, Kazim’s (Laureate Education, 2012) topic of self-determinacy resonated strongly with me, and I would like to investigate that issue here. To recap, Kazim said;

“I think for having the perfect mentor in my point of view would be someone who can assist me in what I’m doing currently as well as what my future goals are” (Laureate Education, 2012, p. 11).

The thesis supervisor may be the “the ‘significant other’ for the student’s journey” (Paglis, Green, & Bauer, 2006, p. 452), but to annul this matrimonial metaphor, Finn (2005) listed fifteen possible relationship types that characterise the interaction between supervisor and student, thirteen of which clearly indicate the intrinsic power imbalance. The Japanese term, ‘sensei’, for ‘teacher’ literally means ‘before-life’, i.e. a teacher is someone who traversed the path that the student is following. This notion lies at the heart of Finn’s discussion; having been through the process of obtaining a doctorate, the supervisor is (more likely) able to help the student avoid some potholes on the road.

A major aim of doctoral studies is the development of the independent researcher (Baker & Pifer, 2011). Inherent in this objective is fundamental contradiction of aiding the emergence of independency through modes of instruction that promote dependency, especially in the early stages of doctoral study (Baker & Pifer, 2011). Lovitts (2005) notes that the skills necessary for different stages within the degree are different; at the course stage, students are “consumers of knowledge” (p. 138), but being a course-taker is necessarily limiting at the thesis stage. The construct critical to bridging this gap, according to Lovitts (2005) is creativity. She (2005) presents a theoretical analysis of components of creativity in relation to the necessary development in a student traversing the dependent—independent continuum, isolating six components: intelligence, thinking style, knowledge, personality, motivation and the environment.

Creativity forms at the intersection of the individual, the subject domain and the gatekeeper (Lovitts, 2005). And it is in this interstitial space where my biggest fear lies—and hence the most pressing need for a supervisor. I have noticed a tendency to question if my;

“doctoral research [should be] a vehicle in which to explore fascinating topics and newly developing interests—or whether it might be better stay within a more limited framework and revisit them after you have submitted your thesis” (Wellington, Bathmaker, Hunt, McCulloch, & Sikes, 2005, p. 121).

The pitfalls in the former mindset are clear: down the rabbit-hole scurrying leading to time-wasting and inefficiency. But without some freedom for self-investigation, the ‘limited framework’ may serve to limit my development. A double dialectic, then, can be distinguished: how to manage the dependent-independent continuum while allowing for appropriate creativity within a doctoral course structure. My ideal supervisor would be an individual who understands Bernstein’s (2003) notion of visible and invisible pedagogy in which the teacher judges the pupil’s developmental state and decides actions on the basis of readiness, where the visible is present in the research and the invisible resides in the sensitivity of the supervisor’s judgement.


[I’m over the word limit, but I’d like to make a comment about the above studies, including the Laureate video.]

Research into doctoral development typically assumes that the goal is the Ph.D. and that the mode of instruction is largely face-to-face. Furthermore, studies into Ed.D. programmes often focus on the development not only of researchers but of “stewards of practice” (Zambo & Zambo, 2016, p. 18), a focus that carries assumptions regarding the positionalityof Ed.D. candidates and their future intended careers. This fails to represent a much wider potential of the Ed.D. degree in higher education worldwide. A study into doctoral becoming, or identity, or the efficacy of instructors/ supervisors of online and Ed.D. courses would be a rewarding one.


Baker, V. L., & Pifer, M. J. (2011). The role of relationships in the transition from doctoral student to independent scholar. Studies in Continuing Education, 33(1), 5–17.

Bernstein, B. (2003). Class, Codes and Control; Volume 3: Towards a Theory of Educational Transmissions. London and New York: Routledge.

Finn, J. A. (2005). Getting a PhD: An action plan to help manage your research, your supervisor and your project. Milton Park: Routledge.

Hall, E. T. (1990). The hidden dimension. New York: Anchor Books.

Hofstede, G., Hofstede, G. J., & Minkov, M. (2010). Cultures and organisations: Software of the mind. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Laureate Education, Inc. (Executive Producer). (2012). Bridging the cultural divide: Effective work strategies for students and supervisors. Baltimore, MD: Laureate Inc.

Lovitts, B. E. (2005). Being a good course-taker is not enough: a theoretical perspective on the transition to independent research. Studies in Higher Education, 30(2), 137–154.

Paglis, L. L., Green, S. G., & Bauer, T. N. (2006). Does adviser mentoring add value? A longitudinal study of mentoring and doctoral student outcomes. Research in Higher Education, 47(4), 451–476.

Wellington, J., Bathmaker, A. M., Hunt, C., McCulloch, G., & Sikes, P. (2005). Succeeding with your doctorate. London: Sage.

Zambo, D. & Zambo, R. (2016). The role of theory in EdD programs and dissertations in practice. In In V. A. Storey, & K. A. Hesbol (Eds.), Contemporary Approaches to Dissertation Development and Research Methods (pp. 17-28). Hershey, USA: Information Science Reference (IGI Global).

About theCaledonian

Scot living in north Japan teaching at a national university.
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