CYGNA: Supervising and being supervised

Our 46th CYGNA meeting discussing our experiences of PhD supervision, both from a student and from a supervisor perspective

Since founding CYGNA in 2014 we had 30 physical meetings in London-based universities. When COVID-19 hit, we moved meetings online. Our 46th meeting focused on supervising PhD students. It was superbly organised by Judie Gannon (top row, 5th from left), Viviana Meschitti (second row, third from left), and Ciara O'Higgins (top row, 4th from left).

We had 34 attendees attending (part of) the 2-hour meeting, 32 of which can be seen above. We had many international members joining us, including from Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and the USA. Nearly two thirds of the participants were from outside the UK. A record! We also welcomed one new attendee: Iman Hadya Niazi Khan, PhD student at Loughborough University London (second row, 1st from right).

Reflecting the topic of the meeting, a quarter of our attendees were PhD students and one third were academics with very little supervision experience. Most of the remaining participants had completed 3 or fewer PhD students. This made for a perfect audience for our meeting and resulted in a lively chat overflowing with questions (and answers).

The organizers had come up with a novel format. In the first hour they interviewed each other. In the second hour an expert in the topic pulled everything together. It worked very well indeed. Below they provide a summary of the key lessons from our meeting.


The interviews were intended to shine a light on doctoral supervision from different angles, and for this different perspectives were presented: Judie is a highly experienced supervisor, Viviana is at a more junior level (having one PhD completion), and Ciara recently submitted her PhD dissertation.

Interview with a PhD student

First Viviana interviewed Ciara, who reflected on how difficult she had found the PhD journey. While the intellectual challenge of a PhD dissertation had been expected, the psychological test of endurance and resilience had been a big surprise, given a prior 20-year career in industry.

She recalled the caring support and guidance of her supervisors throughout the process (made all the more difficult by the need to publish before submitting the dissertation) and the many networking opportunities that allowed for interaction with both peers and senior scholars (e.g. mentoring sessions, doctoral consortia at conferences such as AIB or EIBA, and networks such as CYGNA); yet she was still left with the question “to what extent does the PhD journey need to be so difficult?”.

Interview with a junior supervisor

Then, Judie interviewed Viviana as a more junior supervisor to find out what her experience had been, how she had started out as a supervisor. Vivana recalled that she started out as a supervisor with only very basic training and very little to no mentorship. The challenge was to work on setting up clear expectations with the students, learn how to listen and learn also about how to manage emotions.

She realised that having an initial conversation with students about reciprocal expectations and golden rules is highly important, but also that frequent check-in points are needed since the doctorate is a long and complex journey and students' priorities might change (and environmental conditions as well).

Interview with a highly experienced supervisor

Finally, Ciara interviewed Judie, in search for answers on whether the process is always so difficult for everyone, and what tricks experienced supervisors might have up their sleeve. Unfortunately for her, Judie confirmed that each process is different, and the role of supervisors is to take the “whole person” into consideration while guiding them through the process.

Judie also talked about how supervisors have to mediate between the academic dimension of the student’s doctoral work, the University’s processes and demands for ‘timely completions’, whilst also being mindful of the student’s own learning needs and aspirations.

Judie also reflected on how much she had learnt from sharing the doctoral supervision space with other members of staff. She suggested that it was always important to frame different perspectives between supervisors for students, so they could learn to navigate their work between differing views, which is healthy practice for the viva and responding to article reviewers’ comments.


In the second part of the presentation the organizers had invited Dr Anne Lee, who is a consultant on academic and educational development, leadership, coaching and mentoring, and developing effective doctoral supervisors.

She presented her framework for concepts of research supervision with five aspects of the supervisory relationship. This model is based on her own research and was also published in Studies of Higher Education and discussed in detail in her practical guide on Successful Research Supervision. At the same time she also published a companion book for postgraduate research students Successful Research Projects.

The slides of Anne's presentation can be downloaded here. She also presented us with a very useful overview of the different approaches towards providing feedback that are reflective of the different elements of the supervisory relationship. Her website includes a large range of materials that are helpful for those involved in PhD supervision.


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