High quality postgraduate education is integral to the creation of an even more highly skilled workforce that will enable the country to maintain its competitive edge in an increasingly competitive world.
Research is the cornerstone of most postgraduate studies and the supervisory relationship between the doctoral student and supervisor is crucial to the success of the research project.
Chapman and Sork (2001) observe that the supervisory relationship is “at the heart of the institutional and interpersonal structures that make up graduate education” (p.94).
Through effective supervision, the postgraduate student is able to come up with good research that adds to the knowledge base in the discipline and also offers practical solutions.
A major issue raised concerning the quality and standards in postgraduate education is with regard to supervision of postgraduate research students.
The paper engages with ethical issues relating to the research environment in which postgraduate students operate. It then proceeds to offer solutions to resolve these issues or limit their impact.
There are a number of inherent ethical issues in the supervision of postgraduate research student. Many candidates have one individual supervisor with whom they predominantly interact during the course of their research.
The intense intellectual connection and partnership between the two as they work through the research becomes an intensely personal one.
Manathunga and Justine (2007) observe that supervisors take an active mentoring role and they provide technical as well as emotional support for the student.
Brew and Tai (2004) contend that such a close relationship might compromise the professional nature of the ideal student-supervisor relationship.
The situation is complicated by the fact that a good personal relationship between the research student and the supervisor is desirable since it leads to an increased productivity of the project.
The issue, therefore, is how to maintain a good relationship for the sake of productivity without compromising the professional integrity of the supervisor-student connection.
A deep friendship might constitute a conflict of interest since the supervisor will not be able to maintain the professional distance that is necessary to ensure that the student carries out the research on his or her own with the guidance of the supervisor.
The student might become too reliant on the supervisor that they do not exhibit their own creativity or thought through the research work. In such a case, the student will emerge from the research process with little self-efficacy (Manathunga & Justine 2007).
While most institutes have measures put in place to ensure that the student maintains autonomy, the contribution of the supervisor to the student cannot be assessed.
This is because what takes place between the student and the supervisor is a private, almost hidden communication and calling for accountability might be considered intrusive by the supervisor and student concerned.
While the increase in the use of teams for doctoral supervision has been praised as a positive practice since it results in greater accountability and reduces the risk of incompetence and therefore increasing the likelihood of successful completion of the research process, it also raises some ethical issues.
Watts (2010) notes that the presence of a team of supervisors will lead to problems arising when individual supervisors have intellectual and personal divisions. In such a case, the supervisors will use the students in their own power struggles with each other.
The postgraduate student may end up being used by respective supervisors to score points off each other. Watts (2010) reveals that because of this misconduct by the supervisors, the student will end up being confused due to the lack of accord of the ideas proposed by the different supervisors.
When a student is issued with conflicting advice, he/she will be increasingly frustrated and uncertain as to what course of action to take.
The supervisor is in many cases, an expert in the field of research and he/she might have great enthusiasm in the project. This might lead to some vested interest since the supervisor might view his/her role as contributing positively to the field of research.
While the vested interest that the supervisor has in the success of the progress might serve as motivation to guide the student to come up with the best research possible, it might also have some downsides.
The supervisor can offer explicit assistance as a result of the great interest and the need to ensure that the project is a success. The integrity of the research work will, therefore, not be guaranteed since it will not be the work of the postgraduate student.
The temptation to actively assist the student in their research can also stem from the realization by most supervisors that the work of the postgraduate student is a reflection on the supervisor (Baldwin & James 2000).
If the student’s work is exemplary, some of the credit for it will go to the supervisor.
The supervisor might fail to provide the student with the needed support either due to lack of expertise in the area of lack of time. This is because supervisors often have to balance a number of obligations ranging from teaching to research.
Due to this extended workload, the supervisors may be unable to give their full attention to the student’s research. Michaud (2010) observes that Postgraduate students put their faith and trust in the capability of the supervisor to lead them through a meaningful and rewarding graduate experience.
This experience is supposed to culminate in the positive outcome with the successful completion of the program. It is unethical for the supervisor to have limited knowledge of the subject in question and therefore prove unhelpful to the student.
In most cases, the supervisor will be an expert in the specific subject. He/she might end up providing very specific guidance to help the student complete the research project itself.
The end project might, therefore, be the words and ideas of the supervisor, only expressed through the student. The supervisor in such a case might end up actually doing the research project for the candidate instead of simply coaching the student through the process.
Another albeit less pervasive instance of too much supervisor input is in the form of editing which is defined as “the detailed and extensive correction of problems in writing styles and of mechanical inaccuracy” (Baldwin & James 2000, p.42).
The supervisor might perform very intense editing tasks that will result in an overhaul of the material. This kind of editing entails rephrasing of entire paragraphs, insertion of additional points, and suggestion of amendments.
Both of these scenarios will compromise the integrity of the research work since it will not reflection on the intellection capability of the student but rather that of the supervisor. The postgraduate research student will, therefore, end up receiving credit for a project that is not theirs.
How to Resolve the Ethical Issues
If not dealt with, ethical issues might cause the degeneration of the student-supervisor relationship with dire consequences for the research progress.
Addressing the ethical issues in the supervision of postgraduate research students is essential to ensure that the research work is completed successfully. The following means might be used to address some of the ethical issues raised in this paper.
The competence of the supervisor in a given area of study should be accessed before they are allowed to take on postgraduate candidates. The responsibility to ensure that the supervisor is competent and possess appropriate knowledge and skills for the role lies with the University.
The institute should also ensure that the supervisor has appropriate experience to provide the student with support. Brew and Tai (2004) propose that the supervisor should undergo a particular training course and meet certain criteria before they can become supervisors.
This will avoid the problem of having a supervisor who has little acquaintance with a subject undertaking long-term research work with a candidate.
The issue of lack of in-depth knowledge in the subject matter can be addressed by having a joint supervisory team where at least one of the supervisors is well versed with the research field.
A team of supervisors will also be advantageous since it might be unlikely that a single supervisor will have the full range of knowledge and skills to support the research efforts of the student.
By having a supervision team, the student will be exposed to wider research perspectives and ideas as opposed to the narrow perspective that might be offered by a single supervisor in some cases.
Such an arrangement would, therefore, ensure that the postgraduate candidate receives the best guidance throughout their research.
As has been noted, the relationship between the supervisor and the student will be a professional and personal one. It would, therefore, be helpful if the two parties were able to form a cordial relationship.
If a strictly professional and formal relationship is adopted, the interaction between the supervisor and student will become dishonest with little honest exchange of ideas and opinions.
The supervisor should be able to separate their professional issues from personal issues in order to be of greatest assistance to the student.
Nulty and Meyers (2009) state that the supervisor should be able to assist the student to develop their research expertise without actually doing their research project for them.
Even so, the relationship between the supervisor and the student should be cordial and the supervisor should be keen to guide the student through their research.
Nulty and Meyers (2009) state that the effective supervisor will be vigilant for any signs indicating that the student is experiencing some difficulty and proceed to help the student make meaningful progress.
Such attentiveness will ensure that the supervisor is playing the crucial role of supporting the student to make progress through their learning journey.
As has been noted, the power dynamics between the student and the supervisor might have some ethical consequences. Supervision should be a collegiate two-way learning process rather than a hierarchical relationship between supervisor and student.
To help overcome the dynamic power issues that might arise, the relationship between supervisors and their students can be managed. This will result in clarity about the nature and extent of the contribution that each party expects from the other.
In such a scenario, the supervisory experience will be a two-way exchange of learning and ideas as opposed to having the supervisor as the informational powerhouse. The supervisor should not adopt the position of authoritarian purveyor of information while the student is the docile recipient.
The supervisor should also refrain from dictating meetings dates to the student. Instead, mutually negotiated meetings should be implemented and feedback should be provided in a mutually acceptable timeframe.
The use of an independent third party can help mitigate the problem that arises when the members of a supervisory team have intellectual and personal divisions that are affecting the student.
Such a party will be confidential, and they will only bring the matter to the attention of the supervisors at the student’s explicit request. The independent third party will also help the student to develop strategies to deal with the tensions among the supervisors.
By doing this, the negative outcomes that may erupt from direct confrontation between student and supervisor will be avoided.
Disagreement between the team of supervisors will have a negative impact on the research process. This issue can be resolved by adopting open communication between the supervisors.
The various supervisors can also engage in communications with each other to agree on the approach that the student should take and resolve any differences of opinion that might exist between them beforehand.
By doing this, they will before they are able to present a unified message to the student. This cooperative approach will ensure that the best interests of the student are the driving force for the supervision team.
This will be beneficial to the student who will be more confident of the opinions offered by the supervisors. In some cases, it might be impossible for the student and the supervisor to amicably resolve some of the ethical issues that arise between them.
Such a case might necessitate the involvement of a higher body within the educational institute.
This body, such as a departmental ethics committee, will investigate the problem and help the student and supervisor to resolve their issue while still maintaining the professional relationship required to ensure the success of the research project.
This paper set out to highlight the ethical issues that are inherent in the supervision of postgraduate research students and offer ways of resolving these issues or limiting their impacts.
To this end, the paper has discussed how the relationship between the supervisor and the student might cause some ethical concerns. The paper has also recognized that the competence of the supervisor might result in some ethical issues.
The presence of vested interests in the project may also lead to too much assistance that will compromise the integrity of the research. A number of solutions have been proposed to deal with these issues.
The paper has suggested that use of a supervisory team will result in an enriched supervisory experience, which will be very beneficial to the candidate.
By resolving the ethical issues or at least limiting their impacts, the postgraduate research efforts will continue to yield the positive outcomes and therefore help in ensuring our country’s future global competitiveness.
Baldwin, G & James, R 2000, Eleven practices of effective postgraduate supervisors, The University of Melbourne, Parkville, Victoria.
Brew, A & Tai, P 2004, ‘Changing postgraduate supervision practice: a programme to encourage learning through reflection and feedback’, Innovations in Education and Teaching International, vol. 41 no. 1, pp. 5-22.
Manathunga, C & Justine, G 2007, ‘Challenging the dual assumption of the “always/already” autonomous student and effective supervisor’, Teaching in Higher Education, vol. 12 no. 3, pp. 309-322.
Michaud, J 2010, ‘Research Note: Fieldwork, supervision and trust’, Asia Pacific Viewpoint, vol. 51 no. 2, pp220–225.
Nulty, D & Meyers, N 2009, ‘Promoting and recognising excellence in the supervision of research students: an evidence-based framework’, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, vol. 34 no. 6, pp. 693–707
Watts, J 2010, ‘Team supervision of the doctorate: managing roles, relationships and contradictions’, Teaching in Higher Education, vol. 15 no. 3, pp. 335-339.