The supervision relationship rests on mutuality. All parties need to be actively and continuously involved in the process. The student or supervisee holds considerable responsibility and can steer and influence this relationship in many different ways. The supervisor is there to support the student through the Higher Degree by Research (HDR) journey to enable a successful candidature. Read through the following sections to understand more about the different roles and responsibilities.
Research is defined as the creation of new knowledge and/or the use of existing knowledge in a new and creative way so as to generate new concepts, methodologies, inventions and understandings. This could include synthesis and analysis of previous research to the extent that it is new and creative. (Australian Research Council)
In any supervision, there are always two sides – the supervisor and the supervisee. Hence, the following sections are divided by your role. Choose the section that is applicable to you:
I am a Higher Degree Research student
If you are engaging with this section, you have probably already decided that you would like to start a HDR or you have already started. If you are unsure how the supervision process may work, what its intention is and how you can maximise the benefit from this relationship, please read the following sections.
I am a Higher Degree Research supervisor
You may be a very experienced supervisor for HDR students but you may have never supervised an Indigenous HDR student. While you know all the technicalities of the job of a supervisor, you may find yourself unsure of the differences in supervising an Indigenous student. The following sections will provide you with an overview of what you need to consider when supervising an Indigenous HDR student.
If you are just finishing up a university degree, you may already know a potential supervisor who you might be interested in working with:
“I first met my supervisor during my undergraduate degree. I found the subject really engaging and the lecturer was really interesting. I talked to the lecturer about perhaps doing some further research during my Honours Degree. Once I finished my Honours Degree it just made sense to continue on with that supervisor since I was really passionate about the work I was doing.” (PhD candidate)
If you are coming from an industry background and have no current connection with a university you might find the following approach helpful:
“Sourcing my supervisors was quite challenging because I didn’t come through the university but through a business and didn’t know who was available. So, I went onto the staff website and I got into the faculty and had a look at the staff members who could fulfill the areas of creatives aspects that I needed to have support in and then I narrowed it down to a few names. I then had the program coordinator present my proposal to a shortlist of supervisor candidates.” (PhD candidate)
- Selecting a supervisor:
Each HDR student has unique requirements or experiences that other students may not have. Hence, you will want to work with a supervisor who you feel could either form an understanding of your experiences or comes from a similar background. This might be very important when you are from an Australian Indigenous background and want to engage in Indigenous research. Sadly, not many academics are from Indigenous backgrounds (yet), but you may have other partners from outside the university who may be suitable supervisors. You will likely have more than one supervisor, so you should be able to distribute the roles of their supervision by what they can offer to you. More important in the selection of supervisors will be whether they can support you in the selection of the research methodology that you are want to engage with. Again, the supervisor may not necessarily be an expert in this, so you may need to find someone who is willing to learn these approaches alongside you and develop their knowledge accordingly. Most supervisors will be quite honest about this – after all, they want to supervise you into a successful graduation and they cannot do this if they are not willing to engage in the research approaches you choose.
- What to expect from a supervisor
A supervisor helps you through your HDR. They are your mentor, and they will guide you through the process of becoming an independent researcher. For this reason, the relationship between a supervisor and student is bidirectional. You will need to want to work with your supervisor and the supervisor will need to want to work with you. For this to occur there has to be a mutual understanding of expectations. Hence, it will be very important to be open and clear with your supervisor what you expect of them and to listen to what they expect of you. Some institutions require you to sign a supervision contract with your supervisor that regulates some of the more basic interactions such as meeting frequencies. Working with a supervisor can be a daunting thought; after all, you have chosen them because they are experts in their fields and you are just at the beginning stages. However, this is exactly where your supervisor is going to be the most help – to get you started and to oversee and direct your research development. For this to be successful, you will need to be willing to listen to their advice.
- What is your role in that relationship?
With a HDR, there is an expectation that you are willing to work independently. This is often a gradual process as you may need some more help at the beginning stages of your degree, but this should ease off over the course of your degree. However, your supervisor is never the person you should rely on to solve all your problems, regardless of the stage of your journey. They will advise you, but you will need to start finding solutions yourself that you can then present and discuss with your supervisors. As mentioned before, this relationship is a bidirectional relationship. You will need to put in as much work as your supervisor, but it also means that you have a voice too. You will need to (learn to) speak up when you need help or advice, and you need to discuss with your supervisor when you are not in agreement or unclear about why you need to do a particular task they have asked you to do. A supervisor will also give you feedback on your work throughout your candidature. Sometimes this can feel harsh, but you need to keep in mind that criticism is part of an academic career and your supervisor will likely be able to foresee some criticism you might get from the outside and will try to pre-empt this experience. This can be very helpful as there is no worse feeling than being called out in a conference or receiving scathing reviews from potential journal publications.
Keep in mind that your supervisor will want you to succeed!
There are guidelines for universities on how to ensure active participation of Indigenous HDR students in the academic community that are reflected in research training policies. These policies were derived from the “Behrendt Review” (Recommendations of the Review of Higher Education Access and Outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people 2012) and the Review of Australia’s Research Training System (Australian Council of Learning Academies, March 2016; ACOLA report. Some of the main recommendations are laid out for you below.
Generally speaking, the Behrendt report gave strong recommendations to increase attendance and retention of Indigenous people within the university context, enabling Indigenous students to start Higher Degree Research training and to find capacity to retain Indigenous Academic staff with a view of meeting parity targets (e.g. recommendation 23, recommendations 29 to 31). These recommendations entail flexibility in supervisory provision for students as well as targeted funding to strengthen Indigenous Research.
That Universities incorporate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander supervision in their planning and as a competency within their internal training for higher degree by research (HDR) supervisors and consider, where appropriate, flexible co-supervision arrangements that provide Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander supervisors who are not necessarily academic staff in a university.
That the Australian Government work with universities through compact negotiations to ensure that they
- Allocate Research Training Scheme funding equivalent to a university’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander HDR student target to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research training and a pipeline of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander HDR students. Universities will need to report on their strategy and level of funding as well as report on outcomes.
- Allocate Australian Postgraduate Award funding equivalent to a university’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander HDR target to support the completion of degrees by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander HDR students and a pipeline of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander HDR students. Universities will need to report on their strategy as well as on outcomes.
The ACOLA report identified important barriers for Indigenous students to participate in HDR training such as the absence of Indigenous role models and HDR supervisors, a lack of cohort support networks and financial pressures. Beyond the key findings on a broader level such as reporting and opportunity to develop transferable skills, potential placement options and international benchmarking, the report highlighted that participation by Indigenous candidates in HDR training and employment remains low and lists a number of key findings and recommendations:
Need for system incentives such as targets and specific measures.
Financial incentives to support the training of Indigenous HDR candidates such as higher value stipend scholarships and real-wage competitive fellowships.
Better accountability through monitoring of performance outcomes of targets and measures.
Pipeline of Indigenous high school and undergraduate students to be strengthened to ensure better participation in HDR training.
Need for provision of a welcoming, supportive and safe environment including culturally safe, competent and high-quality supervision.
Better acknowledgement of Indigenous rights, culture and knowledges to further overcome barriers to increased participation.
The government should institute increased weighting for Indigenous HDR completions in the Research Block Grants formulae, and flexibility in scholarship guidelines to allow for higher value stipends and real-wage fellowships to further encourage Indigenous participation in HDR training.
Considerations when taking on Indigenous HDR students:
- Many Indigenous students may have had to break through a series of glass ceilings to get to a HDR. They had to overcome issues in accessing proper early education and they had to suspend their own ways of learning and knowledge to make it through a Western learning system.
- Many students are first-in family for their Higher Research Degree.
- There are very few Indigenous academics around who can serve as role models or supervisors.
- The Western concepts of academic criticism and feedback can be harsh and feel culturally unsafe for Indigenous students, however not challenging them to accept these standards may set them up for failure. It will be important to work with your students closely and sensitively to allow them to grow into this mindset. A way of doing this may be to role-play difficult scenarios or by sharing stories and experiences.
- Often Indigenous students carry a myriad of additional responsibilities such as leadership roles within their communities. They may also be important for the political agenda of their community. This needs to be considered and the students may need support in negotiating the appropriate time for their studies.
- Indigenous research methodologies and methods may be new to you and you will need to be willing to learn alongside your student and develop your knowledge as you go. The Indigenous Research Methodology section on this website will provide you with a starting point for this.
Note, that Indigenous research methods often need more time than many of the traditional Western methods so careful time and scoping management of the project need to be done.
- A non-Indigenous culture in academic settings is dominant and this needs to be acknowledged and worked through. Students may bring unique Indigenous learning styles, expectations and cultural perspectives to higher education and with awareness of these, they will need to learn to adapt to the norms, structures and systems of university teaching and learning in order to successfully finish their degree.
If you are unsure whether you are ready to supervise an Indigenous HDR student, you may ask yourself the following questions to clarify your thoughts:
- What is my attitude towards Indigenous people and my understanding of Indigenous cultures? How will my views affect my working relationship with the student? How will the student read me?
- How flexible am I about methodology and approach? Am I able to help the student explore research methods that are culturally safe for the people involved in the study?
- How does my worldview shape my approach to research and to knowledge? How can I come to know this student’s worldview? How will differing worldviews affect the supervisory relationship?
- Am I confident that I can contribute to the student’s academic development? How open am I to learning and developing research relationships in the research community?
- Am I prepared to be both expert and learner?
In order to ease the transition for both you and your student into this relationship, you may want to consider the following:
- Utilise university-provided services and study centres to support Indigenous students.
- Suggest a mentor or co-supervisor or “critical friend” to help tackle the complexities of bringing together non-Indigenous scholarly literature and Indigenous knowledge and meaning.
- Consider setting up a small Indigenous reference group to help balance the research and give feedback on the research process.
- Involve the student in your lab or department. They will need to be part of the academic community and feel accepted by all as equal.
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Frequently Asked Questions
When you start your ethics application it is important that you know exactly what you are going to do – what your research questions are, how you are collecting data, from whom and what you are going to do with the data. So, the best way to start your ethics application is by going through your methods step by step ensuring that you know all bits and pieces that are important to your research so you can talk about them in detail and in layman’s terms for your ethics application.
Check out the Ethics and Research Process pages on this web site and the ethics sheet for more information.
Changes in research approaches are not uncommon. You will need to inform the ethics office at your institution about those changes, though. In most cases, it is sufficient to submit a so-called variation request in which you state the changes to your protocol, and also amend the previously submitted files where necessary. At many institutions this can be done via email, but it is recommended you check with your ethics advisors on how to best proceed as this may depend on the scope of changes.
This is a tricky question and there is not one answer that fits all as a start into a HDR journey depends on where you come from (e.g. industry or university), what you are interested in and if or if not you already know who you want to work with as your supervisory team. If you are from outside the university, but have an idea of what you want to research, it might be best to identify the faculty and school that suits your needs best and get in touch with the respective postgraduate coordinator to see how you can best identify people who can help you.
If you are from within the university, it might be easiest to speak to the lecturers and unit coordinators you have come across and see if they can help you along.
In addition to understanding who your supervisory team might be, it will also make sense to familiarise yourself with the requirements for the HDR journey you are interested in so you know what you will need to deliver.
Also engage with the information on choosing a supervisor and the milestone process.
Reading critically and writing academically are two very specialised skills that need ongoing training. Most institutions offer training courses for HDR students for both skill sets. It will be best to check with your library or institution for appropriate workshops.
Also engage with the information sheet on critical reading and academic writing from the web page.
No. While you are very likely going to use a qualitative data collection method when you are engaging in research with Indigenous Communities, it is not appropriate the use a Western model to engage in this kind of research. When researching with Indigenous Communities, you will need to find a methodology and method that are appropriate for the context that you working within.
Explore the pages on Indigenous Research Methodologies and Methods to learn more about appropriate ways in engaging with Indigenous communities.
No. The skills you learn during your HDR journey are very broad-set and are useful and applicable in a number of contexts. For example, public speaking and presenting are important in many industry contexts and so are project management skills. All of these and more are skill you will learn and develop during your HDR journey.
Engage with the section and skill development and career planning to learn more about the skills you will learn.
WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that the following web page may contain images and representations of deceased persons.