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Stanley E. Porter

Is there a secret to successful doctoral supervision? Probably not, but for seven years I was a professor in a British institution (and continue there in an adjunctive role), where I had the opportunity and privilege of working with a number of different doctoral students. Some were British students, while others were from other English-speaking countries, and still others were from other places where English was not the first language. They all came with different kinds of preparation that qualified them to undertake doctoral research. As most will know, the doctoral program in a British university is centered upon the doctoral thesis, with coursework and the like either not required or not considered essential. As a result, the process can become an intensely personal one, in which the supervisor and student become mutual collaborators and explorers of the student's topic.

In the course of working with doctoral students, there were a number of things that I learned and tried to do to guarantee what, in the British system, is not a foregone conclusion — a successful doctoral program. Now that my current institution is on the brink of inaugurating a new Ph.D. program, I have found it useful to reflect again on what I think it takes to be a successful doctoral supervisor.

The first step is that I encourage students to select topics that are not necessarily my areas of focused interest or current research. I think that students are well served to find, first, qualified, experienced and, above all, interested supervisors, and, only secondarily, those in exactly the same subject area. One of the potential, and perhaps hidden, dangers of working with a supervisor who has invested his or her career in a particular topic is that this situation may harmfully constrict the student's work. The student may run the risk of having to unnecessarily qualify his or her results for fear of contradicting or offending the supervisor, or, worse yet, simply producing something that merely complements the supervisor's previous work. If a student did do work in an area of direct interest, I tried to wear my conclusions lightly (I cannot guarantee that I was always successful). Students need to have the freedom to arrive at their own conclusions, without needing always to look over their shoulder to see if their supervisor is critically stalking them. I also encourage my students to focus on one major area of New Testament study as their broad area of expertise (e.g. Paul or the Gospels or the like) and then to have some approach or perspective that makes their work unique (e.g. social-scientific criticism, linguistic analysis, etc.). I equate this with sending out their c.v. on colored paper — it is a c.v., but it stands out in a crowd of otherwise white ones.

The second thing that I try to do is encourage my students to take genuine ownership of their particular topic of research. In some academic traditions, it has been known that students engage in research that is prescribed for them or that is in support of their supervisor's research. I can think of few things worse for the student — no matter how much benefit it may have for the research program of the supervisor. The writing of a significant and sizable thesis is the work of a marathon runner, not that of a sprinter, and so students need to be personally invigorated and interested in what they are doing because they think that it makes a contribution to knowledge — not because I as their supervisor think that it will.

The third element is that I let them set their own pace for completion. I realize that this is probably a contentious point. The pace of research work is a very difficult thing to determine. In fact, I think that the failure to be able to discipline oneself to write is probably the major pitfall in doctoral research. Some supervisors want their students to do all of their reading before they begin their writing, or to do small writing projects unrelated to their actual thesis, but I like my students to read and then write on a chapter-by-chapter basis. This helps them to keep an eye on their progress in terms of the shape of the thesis and helps them to get manageable chunks done. They don't need to write the chapters in order (e.g. I often encourage them to start on the literature survey), but they need to follow some outline, and that of the thesis is probably the best. One of the reasons for them to set their own pace and follow it is that the life of a scholar is one of needing to carve out time for research in a busy teaching and administrative schedule that is not conducive to research. This is one of the skills that doctoral students should master — besides their subject. I also try to be candid in my response to their work, taking it seriously and giving it the attention that it deserves, but I must also recognize that, at the end of the day, the work is theirs and they must learn to stand by it.

The fourth thing is that I try to demand that the student become the expert in the field. I often tell my students that if they do not know far more about their thesis topic at the end than I do, then they probably don't deserve to pass. There is no point in simply reinventing the proverbial wheel. I believe that I can honestly say that I have learned something significant from each and every thesis that I have supervised — and that is the way that it should be. The student, I believe, needs to become the recognized expert in the field, not just within my institution but worldwide. This will require that they find some new area or new approach or body of data to bring to the discussion, and to analyze it in such a way that there is something genuinely new about what they do. If I already know it, then it can hardly be new or worth saying again.

The fifth thing is that I try to provide opportunities for collaborative work to develop my students as fellow scholars. Doctoral students are, I believe, emerging scholars, and should be viewed and treated that way. They are scholars on the first rung of a scholarly career and need to be encouraged. Their doctoral thesis is merely their ticket for admission to the guild — not their magnum opus and final significant research (though it often becomes that, especially if they have not learned how to be independent scholars along the way). I find it ridiculous that some of my fellow mentors say that one should not publish doctoral research for 10 or 15 years after completion. If students do not learn early on the value of their ideas and how to get them out for consideration by others, they run a serious risk of never learning how to do that and, consequently, getting stale before they get started. I like to try to create and develop projects for my students to be involved in, such as research seminars, conferences, collaborative research projects, collections of essays, and the like, so that they can learn first-hand what the continuing life of a scholar is about. Included in this is often the opportunity to explore other areas of the discipline not directly related to their doctoral research. They learn that one often does not have the luxury of several years of uninterrupted research, that one has to work to time and length constraints, that one has to learn to work well with others, and that there is an entire world of publishing to master as well, which involves proofreading, attention to style and format, and similar things. As a result, and as a very pleasurable extra, I have developed some very important on-going collaborative professional relationships with former students and now full colleagues. These continue to be some of my most rewarding research opportunities.

I am sure that there are other things that I should have learned about doctoral supervising but that I did not or failed to realize. My students probably learned a number of other things that I wish they had told me. Nevertheless, my work with doctoral students has certainly been some of the most satisfying of my academic career. In fact, many of the lessons learned from them have helped me, I believe, to be a much better teacher and scholar all the way around.

Stanley E. Porter is President, Dean, and Professor of New Testament, McMaster Divinity College, and serves as Adjunct Professor, University of Surrey, Roehampton.

Citation: Stanley E. Porter, " Is There a Secret to Supervising Doctoral Students?," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited June 2004]. Online:


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