ASET-HERDSA 2000 Main Page
[ Proceedings ] [ Abstracts ] [ ASET-HERDSA 2000 Main ]

A case study approach to supporting change in postgraduate supervision

Peter Kandlbinder
Institute for Teaching and Learning, University of Sydney
The majority of postgraduate supervisors learn the importance of the supervisory relationship by reflecting on their own, sometimes disappointing, experiences of supervision. The Postgraduate Supervisors' Development Program undertook to interview 30 supervisors at the University of Sydney to provide case studies of good practice for beginning supervisors. This project discovered that the most important ingredient in successful postgraduate supervision was not being a scholar in the field but building an effective professional relationship with the candidate. In many cases this involved modelling good research practices, but in just as many cases it required encouraging the candidate regardless of the supervisor's personal opinions of their work. This paper discusses a project to integrate these case studies into a flexible learning program for postgraduate supervisors. It highlights a number of short case studies of personal experiences with postgraduate supervision.


The development of postgraduate supervisors generally involves a workshop program dedicated to describing the university's regulations along with the various tasks undertaken by supervisors. The Postgraduate Supervisors' Development Program would have been described as a typical example before it shifted to flexible learning (Kandlbinder, 2000). The purpose of re-designing the Postgraduate Supervisors' Development program was to remove the barriers to participation reported in evaluations of the face-to-face workshop format. In particular, the unsystematic nature of starting to supervise their first candidates made supervisor development seem compatible with the principles of flexible learning. Evaluations of the new program have indicated that the web-based resources allow supervisors to complete the program in their own time addressing their immediate learning goals.

Much of the success of the Postgraduate Supervisors' Development Program rests on the involvement of experienced supervisors. Program evaluations consistently report that participants enjoy hearing from successful supervisors and being able to explore a range of supervisory situations and expectations of supervisors. While supervisors obviously appreciate these narratives, our experience with the Postgraduate Supervisors' Development Program revealed that the process by which supervisors learn to become successful was often not well thought through. Research in the area rarely provides guidance as it concentrates on the research student and how they can maximise their efforts in acquiring a research degree. Advice to supervisors involves checklists of tools and strategies considered likely to support a student through this process.

In an effort to guide a more rigorous reflection leading to improved supervisory practice, the project team formulated a model of supervisor development based on the lived experiences collected from successful supervisors. Individual supervisors were asked to contribute their personal narrative as a resource for colleagues new to supervision. As a consequence of this process, experienced supervisors were facilitated through critically examining their practice and then explaining how they came to understand the best approach to take with their students. This paper represents the observations developed as the result of successful supervisors engaging in this process of self-evaluation and its stimulus as a model of supervision for supervisors engaged in a program of improvement.

Case studies in supervision practices

Realising the goal of understanding supervisor development began with the collection of descriptive case studies in supervision practices. Thirty experienced supervisors at the University of Sydney were nominated by peers or by the postgraduate students' association as successful in their approach to supervision. Of the twenty-seven who agreed to participate in the project, ten were at the Associate Professor and three at full Professorial level. There was a strong female representation (n=10) given the traditional male dominance at these levels. Each of the nominated supervisors began the process of considering how they became good supervisors by constructing a short reflective statement. The reflective statement was designed to prepare the supervisors for an interview by prompting them to reflect on how their own goals matched the general aims of effective supervision. Many commented that it was the first time they had had to describe the characteristics of a good supervisor. Questions in the interview focused on issues identified in the reflective statement, with additional questions designed to draw out their understanding of high quality postgraduate supervision.

Interviews were transcribed and then sorted into subsections according to themes. Relevant excerpts from the student's perspective were sought to illustrate, reinforce or provide a different perspective on particular issues arising from their supervisory relationships. These views were collected through open-ended questionnaires in which two of the supervisor;s students were asked what they remember about the supervision, how it compared with other teaching they had experienced at university and what they saw as the strengths and weaknesses of their supervisor's approach. Despite reassurances regarding confidentiality, a number of ex-students declined to be involved in the process. They felt they should not jeopardise their relationship with their supervisors by offering anything less than enthusiastic comments. In each case their research field was quite small and it would be virtually impossible not to be able to attribute comments that might be construed as non-supportive.

Characteristics of successful supervisor

Personal recollections remain the primary source of what we know about being a good supervisor. Overwhelmingly, supervisors describe that their approach to supervision was developed as the result of experimentation, until they formulated a method that worked. In discussing their motivations for becoming a better supervisor, it was clear that experienced supervisors had been reacting to their own experiences of being a PhD student. Whether their own relationship with their supervisor was a productive experience which they sought to emulate or, more commonly, as a negative experience they wished to avoid, it is clear that a successful supervisor is typically thoughtful about how they supervise and draws on a range of approaches to suit the student's individual circumstances. As one department co-ordinator described it,
"When I was post-graduate co-ordinator, I guess I did become more aware of the sorts of problems that can crop up from the students' point of view, and that's why I tried to make more of an effort on my own part to anticipate some of those problems and in my own supervision to try and bring in practices that would head off these problems, deal with them before they occurred." (Senior Lecturer, Psychology)
Stories abound that demonstrate that poor supervision is non-reflective and non-responsive to the students' circumstances. Typical was,
"My supervisor was one of the most appalling supervisors I have ever come across, right? The only thing he wanted was publications, results. He was not interested in his students at all". (Research Affiliate, Science)
This lack of self-reflection appears to be sustained by the lack of clarity about what constitutes a higher degree. Regulations rarely provide sufficient detail to serve as a guide to effective supervision. Attitudes still persist that the supervisor "will know a PhD when they see it!" Without institutional guidance the determining principle for an ineffective supervisor becomes the belief that the only worthy PhD is one that has to be struggled over. This manifests itself in two related behaviours. Firstly, as clever people, PhD candidates can work it out for themselves, therefore supervisors only offer assistance when students ask for it. Secondly as the PhD is a rite of passage, any supervisor who makes it easier for a student is undermining the very process that gives the degree its meaning.

PhD students regularly raise concerns that the open nature of their candidature does not always deliver a quality experience. As constraints are increasingly put on higher degrees, there will be little alternative for students but to adopt a pragmatic position and to ask to have the process much more structured. Given the time pressures facing most of our supervisors it is not surprising that many were also enthusiastic about a structured PhD. This was sometimes referred to as the "US model", which was seen as providing a more balanced research program by those commenting from first hand experience.

"I'd say I would be influenced by the kind of training that I had, which was in the United States, where it's a totally different kind of postgraduate programme. Where the emphasis is first of all on some coursework, then you pass exams and then you are qualified to start on your dissertation. If I don't feel that a student is quite qualified, or trained, then I usually have them informally sit in on fourth year and coursework seminars that I run". (Senior Lecturer, Asian Studies)

A model for postgraduate supervisor development

While the characteristics of unclear goals, inadequate feedback and a lack of assessment criteria have all been shown to lead to poor quality student learning in undergraduate teaching, few similar principles exist for postgraduate supervision. The individualised, negotiated nature of supervision, is in essence the student-centred, problem-based learning used as the model for good teaching. The uniqueness of each candidature makes it difficult to see the applicability of generic principles of good teaching to higher degrees. Instead of principles of teaching, supervision is better understood as a series of social interactions whose goal is to permit the student to become an independent member of a community of scholars.
"It's not just developing people with really good analytical skills who can write well. It's much more than that, because they have to take their role as either future academics or researchers within the research community. They have to be able to communicate their ideas, they have to have some idea about commercial aspects and they have to be strong people, trusted people". (Associate Professor, Education)
'Successful' supervisors continually stressed the interpersonal nature of the process, describing their role as providing support in the form of encouragement. Heron has described facilitating this move to student independence as a gradual shift in power signalled by the quality of the teacher's interventions (Heron, 1989:17). He suggests the politics of learning rests with who makes the choices; in this case, the supervisor, the candidate or both together co-operatively. While supervision may start with autocratic interactions in which the supervisor makes the majority of the decisions, as the relationship develops it moves into more co-operative modes of co-learning and ends with the autonomous student making most decisions on their own behalf.

Similarly, we found successful supervisors tended to focus on one of three relationships central in any postgraduate candidature. This is between the supervisor and student, between the student and the thesis or between the supervisor and the thesis. By locating these relationships within Heron's modes of intervention we uncover three primary roles for the supervisor, characterised here as mentor, facilitator or manager respectively.

When the candidature begins there is little doubt that the candidate is dependent on the supervisor. Instead of dealing with the specifics of the research project, successful supervisors described their early role as being both a role model and adviser. Without a clear project in mind the focus can only be on the student, The goal in the early stages is to socialise the student into effective ways of thinking. The aim appears to be to increase the candidate's self-confidence and point them towards important issues in the discipline.

"There used to be this idea that you sent a student away for 12 months to study the background of the subject, and they would then do this great review and out of that they would come back and decide what they were going to do. That's an absolute disaster, because students get overwhelmed by the sheer volume of material and they're not using their supervisor's experience to know what needs to be researched. Research is the cutting edge of knowledge, somebody's got to show them where the cutting edge is". (Professor, Engineering)
At some stage the focus needs to move to the thesis otherwise the student spends all their time surveying the field and never gets on with the research. Moving to this stage involves a complex series of negotiations in which the student and supervisor begin to work together. Successful supervisors talk about this as co-learning or collaborating on a project. For example,
"So it's becoming more of a collaboration than merely just me telling somebody what to do at each step. It's more satisfying, certainly, because I learn quite a lot now, whereas that doesn't happen in the earlier stages of supervision. I mean I'm learning from what students are discovering, and it's more satisfying in that it's more interactive. It's not just a question of me trying to impart some type of knowledge or some type of understanding to the students. It's more a two-way process". (Senior Lecturer, Mathematics)
As a facilitator the supervisor continuously negotiates with the candidate what tasks need to be undertaken but they are clear that the thesis always remains the student's work. From the supervisor's perspective all the student requires is the resources and skills to complete their project. Supervisors' facilitate the student's work on the thesis by ensuring they have access to the university's resources, support them when they take a risk, and perhaps intervene in some matter on their behalf.

During the final stage the supervisor cedes control to the student and concentrates their supervision on getting the thesis completed. They function as a critical but supportive audience structured around editing the thesis. Supervisors' perform routine management tasks like keep track of what is going on, gauge progress, develop checkpoints and measures for regular reviews.

"I think it's a hard slog for PhD students, there's no two ways about it, and it's very demanding, particularly the last part of their candidature and the thesis writing and submission. There's a lot of pressures on them and I feel very much the most important job of the supervisor is to be available and to honestly advise them at every stage about how they're going." (Associate Professor, Chemistry)
As we were regularly reminded, there is no one way to supervise. Each student has unique skills and attributes. It is the supervisor's task to analyse the needs of the student at a particular time and to use the style of supervision that is most productive in meeting these needs. Problems arise when supervisors do not accurately diagnose what the student needs by way of direction. The sense of abandonment that some candidates describe occurs when there is a jump from Stage 1 to Stage 3 without the intervening facilitation of skills to cope. Relying solely on their own experiences as a guide can create a situation where decisions are based more on how the supervisor liked to be supervised than on the student's requirements. One supervisor described his struggle to find the balance as an over-reaction to their own supervision.
"I had trouble actually finding my supervisor, and if you talked to them about it they'd say, 'Work it out for yourself, get back to him later,' so I didn't think that was a really great situation for a student. So I think I over-reacted maybe against that practice, and tended to maybe try and provide students with too much detail". (Senior Lecturer, Architecture)

Towards a postgraduate supervisors' development pedagogy

Insights constructed from these interviews with successful supervisors led us to propose a process of postgraduate supervisor development that is similarly characterised by a three-step process. As a situational model, it aims to provide both an example of good practice and guidance in appropriate interventions for the candidate. The guiding principle of the process is to turn the obvious research abilities of supervisors towards researching their own practice. The role of the program is to mirror the processes of successful supervisors by mentoring, facilitating and monitoring a process of self-evaluation on the appropriateness of supervisor interventions.

The program similarly has three changing focal points beginning with models of successful practice. This takes the form of analysing the written case studies available either online or in workshops. The aim is to explore the boundaries of supervision by discussing the beliefs and values that lie behind different supervisory approaches. The University's policies and codes of practice are introduced into these discussions to round out the context of decision-making. The second stage involves identifying the skills needed by supervisors and to facilitate their development. Currently this is managed through a series of online learning materials with activities that focus on interpersonal skills. What the interviews with successful supervisors made clear, is the need for this to take place in an environment of co-learning where supervisors are not left to develop these skills in isolation. The final stage of the process involves a shift away from evaluating the impact of the program to monitoring individual supervisor's participation and assisting them in making decisions about their own progress in the program.


Interviews with successful supervisors have highlighted the personal commitment required to become a better supervision. Much of what supervisors do takes place behind closed doors and it is perhaps in respect of this privacy that there is little discussion of a pedagogy of supervisor development. Without such a discussion, supervisor development is left to focus on the concrete elements of constructing a thesis. It relies on principles drawn from generic skills movement that see time management, problem definition, research skills, presentation skills and report writing as key postgraduate skills and therefore the appropriate focus for supervisors.

Asking successful supervisors what has led them to improve has confirmed our belief in a program of flexible learning that advocates scholarship in postgraduate supervision. The modules and supporting resources of the Postgraduate Supervisors' Development Program provide a range of supervision tools that are migrating into the University's supervisory practices. By offering these within a framework that is situated in the real experiences of supervisors, participants are also provided with a model of supervisor development that reflects the appropriate educational interventions. As a result of participating in the Postgraduate Supervisors' Development Program supervisors have reported that they now make an effort to see students more regularly, offer clearer documentation of meetings with students, and perhaps most importantly, listen more to what students are saying.


All quotes are from interviews with thirty supervisors at the University of Sydney conducted in the second half of 1999. Edited case studies are available at This project was funded by the Office of the Pro-Vice Chancellor (Research) at the University of Sydney. I would like to acknowledge the contribution of Tai Peseta in developing the supervisor case studies, collecting all the evaluative data and supporting the program.


Heron, J. (1989). The Facilitator's' Handbook. Kogan Page: London.

Kandlbinder, P. (2000). Networked Learning for Post-graduate Supervisors. A paper presented at Networked Learning 2000, University of Lancaster, 17-19 April.

Author: Peter Kandbinder, Institute for Teaching and Learning, University of Sydney
Phone (02) 9351 4872 Fax (02) 9351 4331 Email

Please cite as: Kandlbinder, P. (2001). A case study approach to supporting change in postgraduate supervision. In L. Richardson and J. Lidstone (Eds), Flexible Learning for a Flexible Society, 366-371. Proceedings of ASET-HERDSA 2000 Conference, Toowoomba, Qld, 2-5 July 2000. ASET and HERDSA.

[ Pre-conference abstract ] [ Proceedings ] [ Abstracts ] [ Program ] [ ASET-HERDSA 2000 Main ]
Created 10 Oct 2001. Last revised: 29 Mar 2003. HTML: Roger Atkinson
This URL:
Previous URL 10 Oct 2001 to 30 Sep 2002: