Doctoral writing development: supervisors and institutional support  Part Two


By Claire Aitchison

In the previous blog post I explored how doctoral writing is supported through the work of supervisors and ‘third space’ practitioners, that is, those who operate from institutional units such as learning or writing centres, research offices or academic development units. In that post, I tried to tease out what might be different between centrally provided services and the work of a supervisor in relation to doctoral writing development. It’s a slippery space that challenges us to (re)consider our roles and practices.

Here I extend that discussion to consider how supervisors and third space practitioners can work together. My reflections are based on my own experiences, and from research such as the recent paper by Sylvia Mackie and Julie Holden examining the expertise of STEMM research communication advisors.

My last post raises the question of how students choose and access writing support. My experiences in Australia lead me to believe that students mostly still dip in and out writing support services, for example, when their curiosity is piqued by an interesting-sounding workshop, or when driven by need or desperation. I wonder how many are encouraged to attend by their supervisors, apart from when there is a ‘problem’.

Supervisors can play an important role in encouraging candidates to engage with writing development opportunities. Timing is everything. As a supervisor I encourage early stages candidates to attend generic introductory workshops because these sessions provide invaluable foundational knowledge upon which we can build specificity. In some cases, I encourage more senior students to revisit workshops and/or resources they may have accessed early in their candidature because their needs and ability to incorporate the information will have changed. When students are encouraged to be inquisitive and question what’s presented, these events can lead to rich discussions and build student capacity for thinking critically about their own work and its relationship to different approaches. Engaging with others in critical discussions (such as occurs in writing groups) helps build social networks, skills and resilience, especially for giving and receiving feedback.

But can supervisors also learn from these experts, and integrate that knowledge and those services into their practices? Despite the expansion of supervisor training opportunities, it is likely that very few supervisors learn about writing and writing pedagogies to support their doctoral students (Guerin et al 2017). Should we be concerned? If there are other options for students, then do supervisors need these skills?

Building relationships between centrally provisioned support and supervisors

As most writing support staff are student-facing, I suspect they still have relatively little direct contact with supervisors, except, perhaps, if they are involved in supervisor training. I think this is a pity as it contributes to a general lack of understanding. When supervisors and writing support services work in isolation, neither group has an informed appreciation of the roles, responsibilities and expertise of the other. Further, a lack of clarity about obligations and lines of authority can contribute to mistrust, undermining chances for fruitful collaborations for the support of doctoral writing.  Writing experts are, after all, working in a truly hybrid space – they are rarely formally part of the supervisory team, their expertise and status is often unclear to supervisors, and their contribution to the doctoral project is largely invisible. Tensions can arise.

Let’s be honest, writing experts are privy to some pretty unimpressive practices. It is the nature of the job to come across students in distress; to see neglect and hear stories about supervisors and research cultures that can be shocking. We learn quickly that there are always two (or more) sides to a story.

As an academic literacy advisor, I encouraged students to tell their supervisors about their interactions with me and their involvement in writing groups. I encouraged students to be open about the feedback flows between themselves, myself, and peers in their writing groups; I also invited more senior candidates to talk about how they managed these multiple exchanges of feedback (Aitchison 2014). Some students didn’t want their supervisors to know they were engaging with our services, instead keeping their activities secret. Others openly integrated the two sources of support sharing supervisor comments and practices with their peers in writing groups and vice versa.

Reflecting on my time as an academic literacy advisor, I can recall some incredible supervisors with whom I had close and productive relationships, and from whom I learned so much about writing. Some I knew from research collaborations or supervisor training, others I came to know when they reached out to seek advice so they could better support their students.

Nevertheless, I always thought central units and supervisors could work together far better.

Working with supervisors

Sometimes requests came from supervisors who felt out of their depth, or who didn’t have the time, interest, or ability to help a candidate struggling with their writing. Sometimes supervisors simply wanted someone else to fix the problem. I was lucky enough to have significant autonomy, and, where possible, I tried to form partnerships through collaboration, making learning social, dialogical and contextualized.

A strategy for working with supervisors who request writing support for individual candidates

  1. When I received a request for help from a supervisor, I would ask the supervisor to tell me in confidence what their concerns were in regard to the student writing, and explain my role (and limitations) and the process.
  2. I then asked them to discuss the situation with their student, seek their approval to go ahead, and together for them to identify a ‘typical’ recent piece of writing (1 page maximum) with supervisor feedback, and send it to me.
  3. I would identify the key writing challenges from reviewing the text. I would assess the text for meaning, coherence, grammatical accuracy, argumentation and structure (depending on the sample sent).
  4. I would then meet the student separately to discuss the situation, ask them about their piece of text and their concerns, and offer my feedback on it. Together we would discuss what should be reported back to the supervisor and a proposal for action (e.g. the aim of the intervention, the type of support (i.e. individual consultations, resources, workshops, writing groups), the timeframe and wrap-up for the support).
  5. I would send my report and recommended actions to the supervisor, copying in the student.
  6. Depending on the nature of the recommendations (if, for example, funding might be needed) the supervisor and I would agree on the next steps and processes for reporting and engaging with the student and the supervisor.

This approach required the supervisor and student to cooperate together in decision-making about the writing concerns and how to move forward. It required a high level of trust and respect between all parties, and good, clear channels of communication. On the other hand, writing expertise remained positioned outside the supervisory panel. Nevertheless, ultimately, whatever interventions were determined, the student had to drive their learning, and, for them, their primary relationship was always with the supervisor. I expect this example is not unusual; but it is unusual to see it made public.

Indeed, what’s needed is a more public sharing of practices, as well as research and evaluation of writing pedagogies undertaken by third space practitioners and supervisors – individually, and when they work together. Too much of what’s done still remains private. Third space practitioners must learn from each other (and students and supervisors), making their tacit knowledge explicit so as to develop and test best practice pedagogies, and to articulate and promote their expertise. In addition, third space practitioners such as writing experts, are well-placed to lead the development of processes and policies (such as Good Practice Guides) for how central units, supervisors and research students can work together with integrity and confidence.


Aitchison, C. (2014). Learning from multiple voices: feedback and authority in doctoral writing groups In C. Aitchison and C. Guerin (eds) Writing groups for doctoral education and beyond: Innovations in practice and theory, 51-64 London: Routledge.

Carter, S., & Laurs, D. (Eds.). (2014). Developing Generic Support for Doctoral Students: Practice and pedagogy (1st ed.). Routledge.

Guerin, C., Walker, R., Aitchison, C., Laming, M., Padmanabhan, M., James, B. (2017). Doctoral supervisor development in Australian universities: Preparing research supervisors to teach writing. Journal of Academic Language and Learning, 11, 1.

Lee, A. and Aitchison, C. (2009). Writing for the doctorate and beyond In D. Boud and A. Lee Changing Practices of Doctoral Education 147- 164. Routledge: London.

Mackie, S. and Holden, J. (2022). Labelling the expertise of STEMM research communication advisors Journal of Academic Language & Learning, 16, 1. C26-C44. ISSN 1835-5196



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