Managing Expectations in the Transition to Postgraduate Research

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Two men engaged in conversation while seated in an office.

On January 30th 2024, we welcomed Dr Clive Palmer (University of Central Lancashire) and Dr Chris Hughes (Edge Hill University) who led an online discussion around establishing good supervisory relationships in the early stages of the transition from taught to research-led education.

The session began with a brief introduction to their research, which has involved redeploying a classic questionnaire (the Brown/​Atkins Role Perception Scale, 1988). As Dr Palmer explained, these time-honoured questions had revealed new insights about student-supervisor dynamics. The questionnaire has been given to undergraduates, postgraduate taught candidates, research students and supervisors and the response rate has been excellent.

Before findings were revealed, participants were asked to join breakout rooms to consider the question: What kind of impact might managing expectations have on the learning experience for the student researcher and the supervisor?”

After the breakout session, Dr Hughes delved deeper into the question of whether framing supervision as managing expectations” gets people off on the right or the wrong foot. 

Dr Palmer then revealed their initial data findings. The emerging picture was that, in the main, supervisors believed that students should take either sole or the majority share of responsibility for managing their doctoral research project (and the learning relationship) and, in the main, students agreed with this. This suggests that a more proactive stance to managing learning relationships earlier in the process would be a good tactic in supervision. 

Dr Hughes then talked more about the kinds of narrative voices that the data has revealed, such as an expectant voice’ amongst students: Tell me what to think”. He also noted narrative voices amongst supervisors, such as the worthiness voice’ (“Give me something worth looking at and we’ll meet”). He also added thoughts on how consistency in supervisory practice does not mean standardisation: If we trick ourselves into thinking that good supervision is about ticking boxes we won’t end up with good supervision. Good relationships are not about that.”

Summing up, Dr Palmer recapped on the motives behind their research, explaining that in the post-Covid environment, learner expectations seem to have sharpened: We’re in a much more fee-driven culture — there’s this sense of value for money.” He added that supervisors are also being held to account more frequently, closing with the following observation: We’re the ones with the majority share in the power relationship – the onus is on the supervisor to act proactively and to set up milestones for more effective learning.”

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