Research Mentorship: Qualities from Doctoral Supervision

by Selinda Berg
Leddy Library, University of Windsor

During the 2017 Librarians Research Institute, I talked about the uniqueness of doing my doctoral research as compared to the other research I have engaged in. While there are many differences, the defining difference was the firm guidance, clear supervision, and frank, but respectful, honesty of my supervisors. As I come to the final stages of my degree I recognize how incredibly unique and special that relationship is. The experience raises questions about how, within the profession, we can build strong, honest, and trusting relationships that will provide true guidance through the research process?

In conversations about research mentorship in libraries, the interactions are often limited to isolated conversations about: potential methods, options for good readings, tips for interpreting results, offers for proofreading, and of course, sentiments of emotional support to persevere. While these are all important, it is less common to see experienced librarian-researchers providing consistent guidance to their colleagues along the entire research process—from inception of an idea to publication—where each step is accompanied with nudging, pushing, challenging, critiquing, and inspiring.

Working with amazing supervisors is definitely a key part of that privilege of completing a doctoral degree. I reflect on the qualities of my supervisors that I appreciated the most and made the biggest difference:
1. Competence and confidence: The expertise, wisdom, and skills that my advisors shared with me were an essential component of what made my experience so positive. I knew that their insights emerged from their own extensive experiences and their deep understanding of the research process. They presented their viewpoints with a confidence that allowed me to trust that their advice was moving me in the right direction.
2. Firm honesty: There were times that their guidance cut deep. There were times when I thought I had a good idea or I was on the right track when I really wasn’t. Being told that I was wrong did sting. I had wasted precious time and even more, I was embarrassed. However, because of my trust in their words and their ability to explain to me the reasoning, I took it in and I changed course. They were not afraid of the sting their honest insights produced because they did not let me suffer- rather, they walked me through those difficult moments with honesty and strength.
3. Mutual respect: From the onset, I respected the work of my supervisors, but over the course of my degree, our mutual respect grew. As often as they provided me with much needed guidance, they also listened with deep respect to what I had to offer. They recognized and validated that I brought something to the table. I was not required to take every piece of guidance that they offered “as is”; They were willing to be swayed by my insights and my understandings, my voice was respected within the conversations.
4. Unselfish motivation: I recognize that my supervisors are paid to supervise. However, I always felt like their priority was helping me. They were not in this supervisory role to further their own careers, to make themselves look good, or so that they could use my work to get ahead. They always made me feel like this process was truly about me and they were there to guide me through so I truly could reach my potential.

I reflect on these qualities with the goal of considering how it is that we can instill more of these attributes across our own research culture. Not an easy task, but so worthwhile. On twitter, I follow Hugh Kearns, a researcher and writer, who also provides inspiration and motivation to researchers, especially doctoral students. He often reminds the supervisors who follow his feed that PhD supervision is not only about developing the research, but about also developing the researcher. While I am very thankful for the quality of research that I produced under the supervision of my advisors, I am also proud that I feel better equipped to take on the role of researcher.

This article gives the views of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.

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