11 The Myth of Mastery: Examining the Supervisory Role Through a Self-Learning Lens

Doug Hamilton


A positive and constructive relationship between dissertation supervisors and their students is a key factor in a successful outcome for doctoral candidates (Gill & Bernard, 2008; Golde & Walker, 2006; Golde, 2000; Halse & Malfroy, 2010; Lee, 2008). As well, the quality of doctoral supervision has significant implications for doctoral program progression, attrition, and completion rates (Halse, 2011; Ives & Rowley 2005; Sadlak 2004). Over the last 15 years, considerable attention has been paid to positioning doctoral supervision as a critical factor in improving the quality of the doctoral experience in Europe, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada (Allen et al., 2002; European University Association 2008; Green & Usher 2003; Golde & Walker 2006; McCallin & Nayar, 2012; Neumann 2003; Pearson et al., 2008; Walker et al. 2008). During this period, there has also been increased emphasis on exploring different supervisory roles, styles, models, and frameworks (Brew & Peseta, 2009; Lee, 2008; McCallin & Nayar, 2012; Parker-Jenkins, 2018; Vilkinas, 2007). Despite this increased attention on the supervisory process, an underexplored dimension of the supervisory-student relationship is the importance of ongoing ‘self-learning’ by supervisors that can lead to further mutual and reciprocal learning opportunities (Halse, 2011).

Although most supervisor-supervisee relationships are developed based on a collegial and, sometimes, even a collaborative basis, supervision is a predominantly conceived as a one-way learning process focused on enhancing the doctoral candidate’s learning process. Supervision often serves as an extension of the teaching process –albiet an advanced one– where supervisors help doctoral candidates learn through the process of developing and completing their dissertation (Connell, 1985; McCallin & Nayar, 2012; Nulty et al., 2009; Parker, 2009). The supervisors’ main roles are to share their experiences and expertise with a student through the process of advising, mentoring, reviewing, critiquing, and enculturation (Määttä, 2012; Pearson & Kayrooz, 2004). Rightly so, the emphasis on supporting the learning of students takes priority over the supervisor’s own potential to learn and to reflect on their supervisory experiences in an ongoing way. Little attention has been given in the research literature, however, to both the processes and outcomes of supervisors’ own ongoing self-learning processes (Halse, 2011). Therefore, the purpose of the proposed session is to provide a forum and reflective space for participants to individually and collectively explore their own self-learning experiences during the supervisory process in the hopes of heightening the value and importance of this process.


Knowles (1975) defines self-learning as “a process by which individuals take the initiative, with or without the assistance of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identifying human and material resources for learning, and evaluating learning outcomes” (p. 18). Adapted to the doctoral supervision context, I define self-learning as the informal process of ongoing professional growth experienced by supervisors based on dialogical and mutually-beneficial relationships with dissertation candidates.

Self-learning can be enhanced through the process of reflective practice which can be defined as “learning through and from experience towards gaining new insights of self and practice” (Finlay, 2008, p. 1). This process involves examining one’s own assumptions about practice, becoming more self-aware of one’s own actions, and being able to critically evaluate these actions in order to adopt new strategies to improve future practice (Brew & Peseta, 2009; Brew & Peseta, 2004; Finlay, 2008). Various models of reflective practice have been proposed that all have a common focus on the practitioner reflecting on their concrete experiences, drawing out insights and implications from these experiences, and considering what actions and behaviours can be adapted that will lead to further success and professional growth (Brookfield, 1995; Gibbs, 1988; Johns, 2013; Kolb, 1984). In the context of doctoral supervision, applying a model or a process of reflective practice enables a supervisor to adjust their supervisory approach based on their own critical evaluation of past supervisory experiences to better support current and future students in the dissertation development process (Brew & Peseta, 2009; Brew & Peseta, 2004).

Workshop Design

This participatory workshop is designed to help participants increase their awareness of the value of reflecting on their own ongoing professional growth as dissertation supervisors and to help participants surface, articulate, and explore key learning insights that have resulted from their supervisory experience. The workshop will feature a series of individual and collaborative exercises that are supported by the application of various online learning tools. Topics to be explored in the workshop include:

  •  Conceptualizations and assumptions about self-learning and reflective practice;
  •  Types and purposes of self-learning;
  •  Barriers and challenges to making self-learning more intentional and explicit;
  •  Relevant models and research that informs the process of self-learning; and
  •  Implications for self-learning specifically related to supervising applied, change-oriented   research projects.


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The Myth of Mastery: Examining the Supervisory Role Through a Self-Learning Lens Copyright © 2022 by Doug Hamilton. All Rights Reserved.

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