Mindfulness traits could help supervisors tackle PhD anxiety and improve supervisory relationships

Published 6 May 2021
Two students sitting in front of computers Postdoctoral students attending a Southern Cross Postgraduate Association workshop at Lismore.

New research from Southern Cross University takes a different approach to supporting doctoral supervisors. The emphasis is not on what they should do, but the ‘ways’ they should be doing it.

Published in the peer-reviewed journal Higher Education Research & Development the study, by Dr Nicolette Buirski, is the first to provide empirical evidence that the dispositional traits of well-regarded supervisors, in highly valued doctoral supervisory relationships, are the same as those identified by psychologists as ‘mindfulness traits.’

Although the life experiences of students are embedded in the PhD experience, few supervisors are skilled in dealing with the emotional or affective issues – something this new study looks to tackle head-on.​

“We want to see supervisors develop mindfulness traits that are not only techniques but become ‘ways of being’ in the supervisory relationship and change the culture of supervision to one of support and of uniformly high quality,” Dr Buirski said.

‘Ways of being’, coined by higher education and psychotherapy scholars to describe values, beliefs and attitudes are, according to Buirski, “important factors in mitigating PhD candidate anxiety and lack of confidence. We want to see support for supervisors to develop these essential traits that are highly influential in positive relationships.”

The PhD supervisory relationship is typically long (median completion is five years) and previous research shows effective supervision can significantly influence the quality of the PhD and its success or failure. ‘Doctoral candidates rely heavily on the communication skills of their supervisors’.

Yet despite this, Dr Buirski says: ”Our doctoral supervisors are not currently trained in interpersonal communication."

‘Supervisors’ practices are embedded in an academic culture that traditionally does not support or reward teaching and mentoring. There are challenges in delivering supportive and highly valued supervision in an academic culture of individuality, competitiveness, and excessive workloads.’

“Universities should be commited to helping academics develop as supervisors through ongoing training and coaching,” said Dr Buirski.

Research has shown that ‘most supervisory relationships contain some aspect of the counsellor or mentor, but there is little training or desire to develop the role and it is often dismissed as pastoral care.’

‘Ways of being’, identified by Buirski as contributing to successful supervisory relationships, include, ‘the ability to intentionally empathise with students, to be consistently available, to support and mentor the student through the frustrations and uncertainties of writing a thesis, to help students adjust to the world of academia and to treat the relationship as a journey between equals.’

‘The most common way academics learn to supervise is through how they were supervised yet research on supervisors’ values, beliefs and attitudes to the supervisory relationship have been neglected because these qualities are difficult to describe and measure.’

Dr Buirski says: “A supervisor’s non-verbal way of being supportive in the supervisory relationship can, to a degree, be distinguished into explicit qualities and may provide a framework in order to practice/implement these important qualities.”

The ‘ways of being’ model was built on in-depth interviews with eight PhD candidates and their supervisors from four different disciplines. The model was developed as, ‘a tool to inform and support supervisor development activities which could lead to better experience of the relationship and potentially lead to lower attrition rates.’

According to a National Tertiary Education Union report (NTEU, 2019) PhD attrition rates are high, ‘and poor completion rates and times may damage the reputation of institutions and their capacity to attract promising students as well as funding.’

In Australia, the common length for completion of a PhD is around 3.5 to four years and part-time PhDs can take up to six years. The Research Training Program (RTP), administered by universities on behalf of the Department of Education, awards scholarships for a minimum of three years and up to a maximum of four years. The base RTP stipend rate, as of 2021, is $28,597 a year.

According to Dr Buirski: “The taxpayer contributes many millions of dollars to RTP’s and yet there is little supportive training given to the supervisors.”

‘Training would make the supervisors more proficient, public monies would be accountable and students would finish PhDs and contribute to society. RTPs are being awarded without supervisory accountability, there is not a huge duty of care in the supervisory relationship.’

Dr Buirski says:  “The ways of being’ model gives direction on how dialogue about supervisory practices can be encouraged in universities and research institutes.  Currently dialogue on doctoral supervision mainly concerns what supervisors ought to know and should do – this doesn’t address how supervisor mindfulness traits may impact and build rapport. “

‘Universities need to release time and money for academic development for supervisors and reward supervisors for this important work of supervision to protect their investment in doctoral education.’

Study details

Buirski. N. (2021). ‘Ways of being’: A model for supportive doctoral supervisory relationships and supervision. Journal. DOI: 10.1080/07294360.2021.1910209

Reproduced with permission from an original media release by MCERA, Media Centre for Education Research Australia.

Media contact: Sharlene King, media officer at Southern Cross University +61 429 661 349 or scumedia@scu.edu.au