GIHE Teachtalk - From Nuclear to Extended Family

A New Metaphor for Supervision of RHD Students

In the past, an important metaphor for the supervisor-student relationship was a 'parent-child' metaphor. The Germans had a word for it: 'Doktorfater'. The supervisor and student formed a single-parent family. Now that University policy requires joint supervision, the supervisors and student could be described as a nuclear family. However, we need to consider reconceptualising supervision in terms of the extended family. The relationship between a student and individual supervisors will always be crucial, but studies have identified as critical to RHD student success a thriving research community (including RHD students as well as University staff and many others).

A national ARC discovery research project conducted by GIHE over a three-year period showed that:

  • frequency of group meetings as well as student satisfaction with the intellectual and social climate showed positive and significant correlations with student outcomes (graduation)
  • RHD students learned not only through their own efforts and hard work and from their supervisors but through a wide variety of academics, post-docs, researchers at other universities, student peers, researchers at conferences, journal article referees, etc., and
  • the importance of the research community for student learning was recognised by both RHD students and supervisors in both the arts and the sciences.

Griffith University RHD students have praised supervision that helped them to build supportive relationships with others who could help them in their research. In response to a question on the most effective supervision and support they had received or observed, RHD students most frequently mentioned efforts to bring them together through:

  • supervising RHD students in groups
  • giving students the chance to meet together for peer support
  • developing teams and a sense of teamwork
  • complementing supervision with formal and informal programs, and
  • 'collegialising' supervision.

I found I could cope with my own research, even if supervision is minimal (luckily not the case) but could not work in an alienating environment.


Griffith plans to achieve its research goals in part "by embedding a strong research culture across the institution as a whole" (Strategic Plan 2006-2010). In line with this goal, it would be useful to think of supervision as entailing all students in a school or centre supporting and learning from each other, and all academic staff sharing their experience and expertise with RHD students and one another. Among Griffith supervisors who have received awards for excellence in research supervision are a number who have emphasised the value of enabling groups of students to work together. This approach to supervision is essentially the enactment of the metaphor of an extended family - with supervisors having help from aunts, uncles and cousins in the challenging task of advising students; with RHD students receiving support from siblings and cousins in their research; and with frequent reunions to ensure a collective tradition of research excellence.

Linda Conrad, GIHE

For similar ideas from a research student perspective, see Conrad, Linda, 'Countering isolation - Joining the research community' (2006), pp. 34-40 in Doctorates Downunder: Keys to Successful Doctoral Study in Australia and New Zealand edited by Carey Denholm and Terry Evans, Camberwell, Vic: Australian Council for Educational Research