Reflecting on Supervisory Practice with Professor Camilla Gilmore

Elizabeth Peel

Professor of Communication and Social Interaction, Loughborough University

Camilla Gilmore

Professor of Mathematical Cognition, Loughborough University

In this Q&A Professor Camilla Gilmore, of the Mathematics Education Centre at Loughborough University and a nominee in the Outstanding Research Supervisor of the Year category at the 2020 THE Awards, talks to Professor Elizabeth Peel, a UKCGE Recognised Research Supervisor, about the influences on Professor Gilmore’s supervisory practice, working with co-supervisors and how her practice has developed over time.

Q&A Transcript

Elizabeth Peel: Right, well, I’m in conversation with Professor Camilla Gilmore. My name’s Liz Peel. I’m Associate Pro-Vice Chancellor for the Doctoral College, and I’m really delighted to be talking to Camilla about her supervisory practice, considering that she’s been nominated for the Times Higher Education Award for Supervisor of the Year. So, Camilla, I guess the first question to ask you is, obviously, you’re a very successful supervisor: What would you say is the main influences on how you go about supervising PhD students?

Camilla Gilmore: I think there’s quite a few. I think most academics would probably say that their own experience of being a PhD student has a major impact on how they go about doing it. And I think that’s both in terms of the things and opportunities and what you find worked for you, but also what you found you maybe didn’t have an opportunity you didn’t you missed out on. And that definitely influences me. I had a good PhD experience, but there were things that I felt that I would have benefited from and I try and offer those to my students.

But of course, it’s really important to remember that we’re all different. And what works for me isn’t necessarily the case for everyone. So, you do need to think about your students as individuals and think about what they need.

And another sort of influence on me, I think, is my own research, in fact. My research is around learning, children’s development and learning. So I spend a lot of time reading papers about learning about how to support learning. And that definitely influences me.

So thinking about things like scaffolding and supporting students at the beginning of the PhD and then letting them develop and take on some of the decision making and driving their own projects, I think is influenced by the research on how we help students and children learn. So those are probably the main ones for me.

EP: Yeah, and thinking back to before you have the student in post, are there things particularly that you that you’re looking out for when you are interviewing potential doctoral candidates? Thinking actually, you know, this type of person will make a really excellent student.

CG: I think I’ve been really lucky. So quite a lot of my students I’ve known before, they began the PhD with me. So either I’ve supervised projects with them or they’ve worked for me as a research assistant. And obviously that makes the process and the decision making very easy because you know the student very well and you know what they’re capable of.

When you’re interviewing students for a Ph.D., it’s more difficult. You have a short space of time. And I think anything that you can do to spend more time with the students, get into more discussions with them is helpful because really what you want to do is lots of opportunities to talk to them. And what I’m looking for, I think, above anything is enthusiasm and drive and that sense that this is someone that can really work at a project for an extended period of time, can get through the difficult patches because all PhDs have difficult patches. And someone who I think can cope with the difficult times and can shows me that they really want to do a PhD.

So sometimes, for example, we’ve had the chance to invite potential PhD students to come along to one of our research group meetings or things like that. We have very open research group meetings that we welcome anyone who can come along to those, particularly now that one line, in fact, and that’s another chance to actually see the student and have a chance to talk to them and understand what’s driving them, what’s making them want to do a PhD.

EP: Yeah, I would agree entirely. It’s kind of enthusiasm and tenacity. And how do you get to tenacity within those sorts of contexts? So that I mean, I think that’s a wonderful idea about inviting potential students into the research environment that you’re working in to see what they think and how they engage with it alongside the standard interview. Yeah, that’s really interesting.

You’ve talked a little bit about kind of learning styles and learning approaches. Do you personally have a favourite model or is it really about, you know, applying a wide range of different tools that you’ve developed over the years in terms of supervision?

CG: Yes. So I think it’s each supervision situation is different. So I will have my own style to some extent, but that’s going to be completely affected by the student and what I think they need. So, you know, the first few months of a new PhD student, it’s all about getting to know them and getting to understand them, getting to work out what makes them tick and what they particularly need.

So some students maybe come in with lots of research experience and they’re really good on the sort of basic technical skills. And all they need is someone to sort of step back a bit and guide and ask the right questions at the right time. Whereas other students might come in and need actually support more hands on support, gaining the skills they need, and most students will need the more kinds of encouragement and developments and personal support, at least at some point. For some students, that might be at the beginning of the Ph.D. others that will be later on. But it’s working out what a student needs, what you can offer them. And of course, I’m never the only supervisor of the student, at Loughborough we have always have at least two supervisors. And so that’s great because it means that we can both bring different things. And in some situations, I might be helping with the technical skills and the other supervisor can stand back and look at the sort of big questions. And in other times it’s the other way around.

But I think I am certainly a supervisor that tries to support the whole students like them as a person, not to see them as someone who’s coming in and doing some research. And so often the things that they need someone to talk over with might not be directly related to their research at all. But if you don’t help them with whatever they’re struggling with or help them to find the right sources of help for these issues, then they’re never going to be able to focus on them.

EP: No, indeed. How do you find some of the tools that we have in place at the university? So we have things like the supervisory expectations form, which is something that really is a tool to enable some of that early conversation around skills development, but also about managing expectations, train the student, the primary supervisor and the secondary supervisor. I mean, how do you find that those kinds of frameworks work in practice for you?

CG: Well, I think those initial discussions about being really open about everyone’s expectations are absolutely critical. And I’ve always done this. One of the things that I’ve done in the past is we might read a book together. So there’s quite a lot of books around PhD supervision, and we might discuss those, not necessarily because we agree with them, but just because it gives us something to discuss to bring these ideas out into the open. And these frameworks that we have now actually really make that process very straightforward and easy because they require us to sit down and have those conversations. Because I think it’s easy to assume that everyone’s coming in with the same idea of how the supervision process will happen and what’s expected of the student and what’s expected of the supervisor. Unless you actually have those conversations, you don’t really establish what it is, how you’re going to work together.

And I also think those open discussions at the start set a tone for having an open and having good communication so this can come back to you at any point and say who I feel I need a bit more help with this. So I’m not sure where I’m going. I don’t know what’s needed here. And if you haven’t set the tone that those kinds of conversations are OK, then it might be difficult for students to do that.

EP: Indeed. And how have you found things? You know, I mean, given that we’ve that that we’re in a pandemic scenario and those kind of, you know, the ways of working invariably have had to change a little bit. And, you know, in ordinary times, we would be in the same room having this conversation. But, hey, we are on our own little blobs on screens. I mean, have you found that both with students, that you’ve got an ongoing relationship with that, but also new students and also working in concert with co supervisors?

CG: I think it’s been really challenging. I think there’s two things. So obviously there’s understanding that all of us are having a challenging time for different reasons. And anyway, so students are under additional pressure. Some of them might be feeling quite isolated away from family and friends. I’m worried about their future opportunities, worried about their research and finishing on time.

And then as academics and supervisors, we’ve got our own challenges. I had children home for months through the summer when I was trying to work and balance that childcare needs. So we all had those difficulties.

And then on top of that, some of the most important aspects of what I think we can offer for students were made more difficult. So we have a great research group community. We have a great culture of research seminars, of informal discussions, and we have a great lunch culture where everyone sits down together and has those informal chats. And all of those things are so important to help students because they give them opportunities to talk about their research in more informal settings, talk about their research to more different people, and just listen to all the conversations going on. And most of those have just gone away for the last few months. So we would as much as we can, online and visions online mapping research group meetings online. But they don’t replace that informal chit chat that I think that I think is really important.

And particularly, I think, for our new students coming in this autumn, where they’re just going straight into the online experience without having a chance to meet the other PhD students, to meet academics more broadly than their supervisors, and it’s really, really hard. So I think we need to take any little opportunities we have to replace that. I managed to have an outdoor socially distanced sitting on a bench supervision with one student a couple of weeks ago. And it was so wonderful. It really reinforced to me how different it feels when you’re with someone compared to doing over a screen.

And so we just have to do our best until we can do that again routinely.

EP: Yeah. I mean, we’ve worked very hard to get graduate house open again as a physical space at the university. And we’re kind of in a sort of a hybrid model. We you know, we did a face-to-face induction alongside some online ones and, you know, very cognizant as you’ve expressed about the fact that, you know, yes, you can put a lot of things online, but there’s no real fundamental replacement for those incidental in-person interaction, which has got something, it’s got a quality to it quite different from this. And I think probably it’s only now that is a is a human collective with perhaps really realize that, you know, that what we took for granted in relation to that.

CG: And I think it is important to just keep having those conversations and actually saying to students, I know that your experience isn’t great, I know that you’re missing out and we appreciate that. And so if that feeling like lost or a bit confused or unsure about whether they’ve made the right decision, to actually reinforce that what they’re experiencing is not what it should be, and it will get better and we will find those things.

EP: Yes, absolutely.

We’ve touched a little bit on relationships with supervisors. And, you know, sometimes you might be the technical expertise and they might be more holistic or indeed vice versa. How have you found that those relationships change over the course of a PhD project between supervisors?

CG: Yeah, well, I mean, it does change, obviously. I think for some students, the change is huge. For other students, not so much. So some students will come in and be quite independent and the supervisor roles might be quite clearly defined from the start. And you carry on like that throughout the PhD, perhaps just stepping back a little bit.

But other students, you have this enormous transformation. And I think that’s one of the things that is brilliant as a supervisor, where you have a student that came in perhaps didn’t have a great deal of confidence or had skills with very capable but didn’t recognize it. And you work with them to help them recognize. And then suddenly this point happens where they suddenly realize that they can do it and they take it on for themselves. They turn around and they send you sort of an amazing draft of a paper or something like that. And it’s so brilliant. It’s so rewarding to see this this journey that they’ve gone on.

And, you know, some people that will happen early and some people it might not happen right up until the end. But students do get there. They do get that moment where they suddenly own their PhD for themselves. And that’s pretty. You know, it’s really hard as a supervisor to know if you what if anything, you’ve done to help that process happen because, you know, it does seem so much driven from the students. And hopefully we have in the way we’ve been supporting them, we have helped them along that way.

EP: Yes. So, I mean, do you feel that there’s a kind of a coaching role in relation to that? Or is it really, you know, individual differences in terms of the, you know, whether a student will get the… sort of I mean, sometimes for some I think it is an epiphany, actually, where all of a sudden the pieces of the puzzle fall into place. And I think from having that, they get that sense of ownership and control over the project, you know, the things that you know, that we can do as supervisors to coach or support or nurture that?

CG: Actually, I think one of the things is being open about our own research and the process of doing research for anyone who’s running research projects.

So I think some students. Feel that everyone else has it figured out and they’re the ones that work out how things fit together or how you could write this up or whatever, and actually if we talk openly about our own research projects, particularly where things have gone wrong, know rejections of papers, things like that, if we normalize all that discussion, then students can say, well, actually, I’m just, you know, I can do this just as well as anyone else. And so I think that can help with the confidence as well.

And we try and do that through lots of we have lots of research group talks where academics might talk about projects and process. They might be asking the wider research group for input to a project or talking about some terrible reviews they’ve had. And I think helping students to understand the process of how research is done in reality is really helpful.

EP: Yes. Because, of course, you know, in terms of the consumption of other people’s research, it’s the published article. It’s got all the mess and all the dead-ends, and all the the false starts stripped away typically. So, you know, I think you’re absolutely right in saying, you know, you have to normalize all of the elements of the research process to really mitigate against any sense that the students are imposters, that you hear that a lot around imposter syndrome and so forth. And actually, you know, there are ups and downs and, you know, and part of the journey, I mean, we’re all still on journeys. And I think sometimes for students coming in when they’re working with very experienced supervisors, there’s this idea that, you know, the supervisor always has it all worked out. And I really like what you’re saying around, you know, you know, just demystifying some of those things.

CG: I think another thing is that we in our research group and, you know, is moving in this way very much as well, I know is towards more open research processes and changing the way we do research and being more open with research and sharing on message and sharing our data. And I think that helps to demystify the process of research for everyone, which is a good thing.

But also it sometimes means the more experienced academics and early career researchers might be working together to understand new ways of doing research. And that can shift the balance slightly in a really positive way where you’re learning alongside students. And it’s not that you’re the expert that knows everything and you’re telling them about it.

EP: Absolutely. So thinking back on when you first started out supervising and where you when where you’re at now, what would you say has changed in relation to your own supervisory practice?

CG: Well, that’s a really good question. I haven’t really thought about it. I hope that in many ways I still do it the same way, because the first few students it’s really exciting and it really is a sense of working alongside them. And I really hope that my students still feel that way, that I approach it. I think I now have I can probably now step back and take a broader view to be, perhaps be able to talk more confidently when times are going more with students having difficult times, I’ve supervised students through difficult times, I can talk authentically about how students will go through this and can still come out and everything can be fine at the end. I think that probably helps. Just a broader perspective, really.

EP: Yeah, I think I share a similar view. I think what I know now that perhaps I didn’t when I first started supervising is the arc and the shape of the thing, the journey that they’re on. In a much broader way than just reflecting on my own experience, because that’s, you know, that’s part of the story. But you don’t want to necessarily overlay your experience on the experience of your PhD students. And I think you’re absolutely right to be able to, I guess, support and coach students through the dark times, because I think that they’re inevitable and even for the best and most capable students.

And I think particularly at the moment, with the context that we’re all living in those well-being issues and so forth, you know, really coming to the fore. And I think, you know, having the confidence to be able to, if not directly to support, to signpost is really important part of what a supervisor is right now.

CG: And also, I think having the flexibility, being able to see how you can you can shift the direction of a PhD, which this year lots of people have had to suddenly think like the studies that I thought I was going to do this one. And it’s down to us as supervisors to help students see how we can redirect. Can we move something online? Can we move to a secondary data analysis? And what are the opportunities and being able to help students see that it’s OK. We can still get your research done. It might not be exactly what we were planning to start with, but we can still get this done. And, you know, a bit of experience of supervising helps to do that, I think.

EP: Yeah, absolutely. I couldn’t agree more. I’m conscious of time. Is there anything that you want to add or anything that we’ve not covered that you would like to share with the wider academic community in relation to supervision?

CG: Oh, I don’t know. I think I find it one of the most enjoyable parts of my job supervising these students. And I think I would just encourage all supervisors to think about what they can learn from their PhD students, because, you know, process is changing so fast in research at the moment with technology and with new research practices and new ideas.

And I think it’s often the PhD students that come in and might be more expert in some of those things than the supervisors. Supervisors shouldn’t be shouldn’t find that intimidating and actually should be really open to learning from their students, as well as helping the students learn and seeing it really as a collaboration.

EP: Yeah, I think that’s a wonderful note to end on the idea of a more reciprocal relationship in relation to supervision. And I think in terms of kind of the lifeblood of academia and research, that that’s something that for those of us who were very excited about the research that we do, you know, makes it even more so.

So, thank you, Camilla. And I wish you all the very best of luck when it comes to the Times Higher Education Awards.

CG: Thank you very much.