Matching student and supervisor expectations in Malaysian doctoral education

Year: 2019

Author: Baydarova, Irina, Collins, Heidi, Saadi, Ismail, Ait

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Aligning expectations and developing positive student-supervisor relationships is a challenge for both students and supervisors of higher degree research (HDR) programs. In the Malaysian context, the mismatch of student-supervisor expectations has been cited as a major contributor to slow completion times and high attrition rates. This study explores student-supervisor expectations of their respective roles and responsibilities, and identifies where mismatches arise. Semi-structured interviews were held with fifteen HDR students and fifteen supervisors from universities in Malaysia. Participants discussed their understandings of their own roles and responsibilities, and the roles and responsibilities of their counterparts in the student-supervisor relationship. Personal and professional relationships were explored, including sources of student-supervisor conflicts.

An inductive thematic analysis was conducted, from which fivethemes emerged:Supervision Processes, Research Outcomes, Skills and Personal Attributes, Personal Relationships, and Clarifying Expectations. Within each theme, the related expectations of HDR students and supervisors were compared. The results indicate HDR students and supervisors have both matched and mismatched expectations. While both parties held similar views regarding supervision processes (including frequency of meetings and feedback) and research outcomes, (including timely completion and training), contradictory views emerged in the more subjective aspects of personal support and personal relationships, and in the ways they were clarifying expectations. Furthermore, themes differed in terms of how explicit and implicit the associated expectations were. Where roles and responsibilities were explicitly regulated (e.g. written in institutional guidelines) students and supervisors tended to perform their roles with little difficulty. Where roles were more implicit in nature however, students and supervisors showed more diverse and mismatched expectations, and subsequent problems arose. Universities were found to provide little guidance relating to personal support or interpersonal relationships between students and supervisors.

The results provide empirical evidence of the need for HDR students and supervisors to hold explicit discussions of their mutual expectations during early stages of candidature, to avoid conflict and misunderstandings. Such discussions should include not only the more procedural aspects of candidature, but also the interpersonal. While institutions may not be able to regulate all aspects of student-supervisor relationships, they can play a role in encouraging and supporting the establishment of aligned expectations. They can, for example, develop and disseminate clear policies and guidelines to avoid variations in interpretations of even the more explicit and regulated aspects of HDR supervision, as well as provide workshops and tools to encourage open communication about the less regulated, interpersonal aspects.