Symposium 6 Use of innovative qualitative methods to explore doctoral supervision

Symposium lead and chair:
Fiona Irvine, Professor of Nursing, School of Nursing and Primary Care Practice, Liverpool John Moores University, Liverpool, United Kingdom

Symposia focus:

In this symposium we will focus on different research methods that we have used to explore the complex process of doctoral supervision. In the presentations we will move through a continuum of analysis, from a reflexive and individual perspective, using Peshkin’s Is to a dual account of the tensions of doctoral supervision in a study employing autoethnography, through to a discourse analysis of collective perspectives of the supervisory process by the analysis of email correspondence. A tripartite exploration of the journey through the PhD is offered in this symposium, weaving the perspectives of the PhD candidate, the PhD graduate and the PhD supervisor through the accounts. In addition to sharing our actual experiences of doctoral supervision, we also introduce what might be considered three innovative ways of researching these experiences. The doctoral studies were undertaken in the UK but the issues addressed in this symposium are of international relevance since they explore the complexities of the development of relationships between PhD students and supervisors; and they examine the journey that both candidate and supervisors make through the life of the candidature, issues that are common globally. They also raise awareness of some of the problems and tensions in attempting to conduct and write nursing research from more subjective and authentic perspectives. We argue that the use of multiple methods to collect and interpret data about the phenomenon produces a more authentic representation of the reality of doctoral supervision, providing insight both for candidates and supervisors, which will ultimately lead to an enhancement of the supervisory process. We hope that the symposium will stimulate discussion of delegates' experiences of doctoral supervision.

Abstract 1: Exploring research supervision in nursing through Peshkin’s I’s: The yellow brick road

Caroline Bradbury-Jones, Lecurer in Adult Nursing & PhD Candidate Organisation: University of Wales, Bangor Peshkin

This presentation develops my recent interpretation of how his ideas can be used within nursing and healthcare to enhance rigour in research (Bradbury-Jones 2007). Peshkin (1988) was an anthropologist, who became aware of how his own subjectivity had potential to influence his research. He articulated the need for researchers to systematically identify their subjectivity throughout their research. The means by which he achieved this in his research was to search for different aspects of his subjectivity by keeping a journal and noting when his feelings were aroused and thus when his subjectivity was evoked.

This paper demonstrates how this systematic approach to exploring subjectivity as a research student can enhance the quality of the research experience. I explain how I used a reflexive, research journal as an integral part of my doctoral studies. I use the analogy of the ‘Yellow Brick Road’ to represent my experience of being a doctoral student and draw comparisons between my subjectivity and characters in the story. I demonstrate how my subjectivity had potential for influence throughout the entirety of my experience and argue that cognisance of my subjective I’s improved the quality of my research endeavour. This innovative approach is new to nursing and I plan to promote its use with other delegates, who like me, are currently undertaking research at post-graduate level.

The presentation should also appeal to research supervisors and other stakeholders in doctoral education in nursing. This approach can be undertaken in any language and should appeal to the international conference audience. Overall I aim to generate discussion and debate in terms of how keeping a reflexive journal and the associated search for subjectivity can improve the doctoral experience in nursing and healthcare.


  • Bradbury-Jones (2007) Enhancing rigour in qualitative health research: exploring researcher subjectivity through Peshkin’s I’s. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 59(3), 290-298
  • Peshkin A. (1988) In search of subjectivity – one’s own. Educational Researcher, 17(7)

Abstract 2: Supervising doctoral research employing autoethnography: Is an autoethnographic thesis an oxymoron?

Dr Clair Hannah Roberts & Professor Sally Sambrook Presenting Author: Professor Sally Sambrook Director Postgraduate Studies (Business & Management) Deputy Head of School Organisation: University of Wales Bangor

The traditional PhD thesis is presented as reconstructed logic (Sambrook, 1998) suggesting the process is neat and linear. We present the experiences of a doctoral student and her supervisor, highlighting that the reality experienced was very different. The study explored corporate entrepreneurship within two Welsh NHS Trusts and identified how nurses engaged in entrepreneurial activities, either enforced or empowered, to develop nursing practice. As student, Clair searched the methodology literature for an approach for the thesis that reflected her logic-in-use (Kaplan, 1964). Clair sought to communicate the complex, dynamic nature of the process whilst critiquing the organisational culture studied, both of which are inextricably intertwined and important. As supervisor, Sally suggested autoethnography and this provided Clair with an authentic way of presenting her experiences of the doctoral journey. During the viva voce examination, however, a tension emerged between Clair’s desire to provide an authentically generated account of her ‘self’ and ‘culture’; and the production of a polished (linear) report of the study.

This paper explores this seeming oxymoron from a critical perspective, acknowledging the political issues associated with judging the quality of research writing. We suggest autoethnography fits with a holistic and humanistic philosophy of nursing. As nurses pursue more empowering ways of conducting and presenting their doctoral studies, autoethnography represents a genuine way of connecting the researcher with the researched. However, we demonstrate that the dominant logic of presenting doctoral research may constrain autoethnographers, who seek to present their authentic story. This issue of ‘writing’ the research also extends into publication (Holt 2002). We argue that understanding these issues within doctoral supervision alerts both supervisor and student to the problematic nature of adopting autoethnography within the constraints of an academic culture which privileges writing and defending a traditional thesis.


  • Holt NL (2003) ‘Representation, Legitimation, and Autoethnography: An Autoethnographic Writing Story’ International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 2 (1), Winter, Article 2, Retrieved from http://www.ualberta.ca/~iiqm/backissues/2_1final/html/holt.html Kaplan A (1964) ‘Power in Perspective’ in RL Kahn & E Boulding (Eds) Power and Conflict in Organizations, London
  • Tavistock, 11-32 Sambrook S (1998) Models and Concepts of Human Resource Development; Academic and Practitioner Perspectives: an ethnographic case study in the British NHS, unpublished doctoral thesis, Nottingham Business School, UK

Abstract 3: A Discourse analysis of doctoral supervision using E-mail correspondence as data authors: Caroline Bradbury Jones*,

Lecturer and PhD Candidate Fiona Irvine¹ Professor of Nursing Professor Sally Sambrook* Director Postgraduate Studies (Business & Management) Deputy Head of School *Organisation: University of Wales Bangor ¹ Organisation: Liverpool John Moores University


Although research supervision has been discussed by some scholars, empirical research on the subject is limited. There is no evidence in the literature of attempts to explore doctoral supervision through the analysis of email communication.


The study was undertaken to enhance our understanding of the dynamics of doctoral supervision in order to share the insight gained and extend the existing knowledge base.


A post-structural approach underpinned the study, drawing on the work of Michel Foucault. Data in the innovative form of e-mail communication between one doctoral student and two supervisors, collected between 2004 and 2007 were analysed using discourse analysis.


The dominant discourses of unity and detachment appeared to operate throughout the course of the study. A continuum exists between the concepts with relationships being established through power, negotiation and collaboration.


The discourses compete and often conflict, yet both have the capacity to be productive. The dominant discourse within the literature on doctoral supervision is one of progression of a research student from a position of dependence, to independent scholar. Our findings suggest however, that although the successful outcome of supervision is marked by independence and detachment of the student, simultaneously, it is also marked by unity; a close attachment to research supervisors.


The competing discourses of unity and detachment operate throughout the course of a doctoral relationship. Research students may be no less detached from their supervisors on completion of their studies than at the beginning of their relationship. We argue that understanding the discourse of doctoral supervision sheds new light on the subject of the supervisory process which could augment the quality and successful outcome of the supervisory experience.