Meet the Allied Health Professions Cancer Research Team at Sheffield Hallam.


Welcome to the first in our new blog series from the Sheffield Hallam, Allied Health Professions (AHP) Cancer Research group. Our group of researchers have combined roles as educators and researchers, we combine teaching of under-graduate and post-graduate students with the running of research projects under the cancer (or oncology) theme. In this first blog I’d like to summarise the AHP cancer research group aims and vision, introduce you to the steering group, tell you about our current research projects and highlight what topics and discussions to expect in the coming months on the blog.

Cancer Statistics

Of those people born after 1960 in the UK one in two will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime, forty-two percent of cancer cases are preventable(1). In the 1970’s less than a quarter of all cancer patients survived their cancer. Today fifty percent of those diagnosed will survive(2). Of those diagnosed with cancer half will receive radiotherapy, sixty percent of these for curative intent. Radiotherapy is considered one of the most effective cures for cancer, with over 90,000 patients receiving radiotherapy in the UK each year(3).

Our vision

Dignified, evidence based, cancer care delivered by highly skilled AHP professionals.

Our Mission

To deliver high quality research to improve:

  • the accuracy and delivery of radiotherapy,
  • the patient experience,
  • patient engagement in treatment decision-making and self care and
  • public knowledge of how to reduce the risk of cancer development.

The Sheffield Hallam AHP Cancer Theme Steering Group


Professor Heidi Probst PhD, FCR, MA, BSc(Hons), DCR(T)

I am the research group lead my main research interests are in breast cancer and the oncology workforce. My research fits with the Allied Health Professions (AHP) cross cutting themes of innovation and technology in healthcare, and improving the patient experience.

I am the chief investigator of the SuPPORT 4 All project; developing a support bra for women undergoing breast irradiation following a diagnosis of breast cancer. I have completed research investigating burnout and resilience in the cancer workforce and developed an intraprenurial pedagogy (through the 2INSPIRE project) to enhance the development of capabilities for service improvement. I am currently supervising 5 doctoral research students (3 projects are linked to breast cancer and two are workforce development studies).

Let me introduce you to the rest of the team:


Keeley Rosbottom MSc, BSc(Hons), PG(Cert)

Keeley is a Senior Lecturer in Radiotherapy and Oncology and undertaking a PhD, her areas of research interest include 3D Stereophotogrammetry as a tool for evaluating the accuracy and reproducibility of new radiotherapy immobilisation devices, and methods to evaluate patient comfort and dignity within radiotherapy.


Cath Holborn MSc, BSc (Hons), PG (Cert).

Cath is a Senior Lecturer in Radiotherapy & Oncology and also Course Leader for the MSc Prostate Cancer Care, at Sheffield Hallam University. Cath’s primary area of interest is the management of prostate cancer and she has a particular interest in the lived experiences of those affected by the disease and the care they have received. Other areas of interest include the role of education, particularly in the post-registration and advanced/specialist practice setting, for individuals working in this field. Cath has recently undertaken a project on behalf of Prostate Cancer UK, exploring the impact of CPD (Continuing Professional Development) and CME (Continuous Medical Education) on patient care and patient reported outcomes.


Laura Pattinson MSc, BSc, PG(Cert)

Laura is a senior lecturer in Radiotherapy and Oncology and course leader for the BSc in Radiotherapy and Oncology at Sheffield Hallam. Laura’s areas of interest are in public health and the role of AHPs. Specifically Laura has had involvement in projects on the impact of lifestyle choices on chronic disease, the role of the Higher Education Institutions (HEI) in the delivery of public health messages, barriers and facilitators to the delivery of public health messages within radiotherapy and the future AHP workforce, smoking cessation strategies in radiotherapy practice and the impact on service users. A new area of interest Laura is developing (through her PhD) is the experience of service users with severe mental health conditions during diagnosis and treatment for cancer.


Gemma Burke MSc, BSc(Hons), PG (Cert).

Gemma is a senior lecturer and the course leader for the PG Diploma (pre-registration) course in Radiotherapy and Oncology at Sheffield Hallam. Gemma’s research interests are Brachytherapy, specifically technical developments, patient care and the management of long-term side effects, and the management of radiotherapy skin reactions, click here for the Society and College of Radiographers guidelines on skin care during radiotherapy for health professionals (Gemma supported the development of these through a systematic review of the available evidence).

Coming next…

The next blog in this series will be available next month and is titled “Breast lymphoedema; why we need more research on this side effect of breast cancer treatment”. You can subscribe to our blog below to make sure you don’t miss out on any future posts. Watch out for our guest blog from Dr David Bottomley from the Leeds Cancer Centre on current developments in prostate cancer.

If you are a health professional or a healthcare student please also look out for our free research seminar series. If you are local to Sheffield feel free to join us in person, seminars run on the first Friday of every month (except where there are Bank Holidays) and take place in the Robert Winston Building at Sheffield Hallam University. We meet at 8.30am for coffee and cake with the seminars starting at 9am (sessions finish at 10am). Attendance is free but you must register to attend as places are limited, details of how to register can be found here. If you are remote to Sheffield look out for the recording of these seminars, the link will be posted here on the blog. Our first seminar in October will be delivered by Mark Collins and Amy Taylor who will present the rationale for their doctoral research and what it is like to be a doctoral student and the career opportunities it offers.

You can also join our free webinars, look out for these they will also be advertised here on the blog along with our ‘Hot Topics podcasts’ on cancer related research.

  1. UK CR. Cancer Survival Statistics 2015 [Available from:
  2. UK CR. Beating Cancer Sooner Our Strategy Highlights. 2014.
  3. (NCRI). NCRI. CTRad: National leadership in radiotherapy research. . 2014.

Getting Started with Research: The Research Process.

If you are new to research I would always recommend undertaking some study in research methods first to gain insight into the stages of development of a research proposal and to understand the ethical, clinical and research governance regulations that exist to ensure the conduct of health research follows good practice and to ensure the safety of patients.

Most universities will run research methods training programmes as part of undergraduate or postgraduate courses that are a good starting point for learning the basics of research methods and research governance. You can search your local university web pages for research methods training programmes. Health Education England and the National Institute for Health Research also have research training opportunities for health professionals that are worth considering. There is also the e-learning for healthcare training programme for those working in the NHS and new to research. In addition, the UK Health Research Agency also runs training courses on ethics and governance processes for researchers, click here to find a relevant course for you.

As a novice researcher it is always worth referring to the research process when starting a new research project. Click here for a handy reminder of the research process, hover your cursor over the numbered bullets for each stage of the process for more detailed information on each stage of the process.


Research Webinar Series

If you work in healthcare you maybe interested in the Journal of Radiotherapy in Practice and Sheffield Hallam webinar series. This is a free webinar series offered through the Sheffield Hallam Radiotherapy and Oncology CPD Anywhere provision, all you need to do is register for the event to obtain the link to the webinar room and access to the journal article that accompanies the webinar.

The next webinar is on Wednesday 7th September at 18.00 (GMT, London, Lisbon) run by Neill Roberts from the St James’ Institute for Oncology (Leeds cancer Centre), title of the presentation is A development framework for the consultant radiographer in oncology: the Leeds experience. For more information and joining instructions please click on the link below.

Let’s talk about tattoos


When someone mentions tattoos what is the first thing that comes into your mind?

Do you think of a heavily tattooed man or woman? Your own tattoo perhaps? As a Therapeutic radiographer the word tattoo makes me think of radiation treatment positioning. During the planning for radiotherapy, Radiation Therapists/Therapeutic Radiographers will mark a patient’s skin to indicate a reference point for positioning the patient each day underneath the linear accelerator. More often than not these reference points are made into a permanent mark, a tattoo, using sterile Indian ink and a sterile needle. These permanent tattoos act as a reference point for each radiotherapy session helping to align the patient with the treatment machine with the aim of increasing treatment accuracy.

Radiotherapy tattoos are small; they are less than 2mm in diameter. Images available to view online at CRUK website and here on this personal blog show the actual size. So what’s the fuss? They’re tiny right? So why write a blog about them?

Well here is the problem. While they are small they are permanent, and act as a permanent reminder for many patients of an experience and a time in their life they may want to forget. This quote from a blog by Andrea Hut really exemplifies what many women I’ve come across over the years as a Therapy radiographer express:

The tattoos themselves are just tiny bluish dots. They’re barely visible, but they are permanent. Nobody told me that. It’s as though they think you wont care because of all the other stuff you’re going through. I’m sorry, but I care about any permanent mark that’s being made on my body. Especially the ones I didn’t choose. Scar or tiny black dot.

The critical reason for using permanent tattoos for positioning radiotherapy is the belief they provide an accurate guide to positioning of the radiotherapy beams on a daily basis.

So how accurate are they? Set-up accuracy for breast irradiation is dependent on a range of factors including the use of immobilization devices such as breast tilt boards, how the patient’s arms are positioned (one arm up versus two arms up) and support cushions, as well as patient factors (such as breast size). Using tattoos for positioning can enable accuracy of radiotherapy field placement in the region of 2-6mm(1). Where partial breast irradiation is employed accuracy between 3-7mm(2,3) have been reported. Accuracy using semi-permanent skin marks alone have been shown to be comparable to accuracy achievable using tattoos(4) where average systematic errors were 3mm for those patients with tattoos and 3.3mm for those with semi-permanent skin marks. The disadvantage of using semi-permanent marks is the need for the patient to take care when bathing to avoid the marks disappearing; this can cause patient anxiety, and could necessitate a re-planning of the radiotherapy, potentially delaying treatment.

It’s all about choice.

Body tattoos have been a part of human culture for a long time. Initially, tattoos represented a specific aspect of culture either identifying the bearer to a religion, strength or social status. In European culture in the 20th century body tattoos have been associated with groups such as sailors, and bikers and with the advent of the punk scene they became an expression of antithesis to mainstream culture. The 21st century has seen a rapid rise in body tattooing; with tattoos no longer seen as solely representing a tie to any specific sub-culture or group. Wohlrab, Stahl, and Kappeler(5) identify 9 different motivational reasons for obtaining a body tattoo:

  1. Beauty, art or fashion,
  2. Expression of individuality
  3. Personal narrative
  4. Physical endurance
  5. Group affiliations and commitment
  6. Resistance
  7. Spirituality and cultural tradition
  8. Addiction and
  9. Sexual motivation

Except when the individual obtains a tattoo while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, the majority of these motivations above represent a personal choice, a reasoned decision to gain a permanent embellishment to their body.

Take Eve for example, here is her tattoo and her motivation for getting it.


“My tattoo is two magpies representing the old saying ‘one for sorrow, two for joy’. The saying is based on the fact that magpies mate for life so when you see two together you know they are happy and in love. Whenever you see one magpie you are meant to salute the bird so that you respect his loss as he no longer has a mate, and I have been doing this since I was little. By having the tattoo I will see them everyday and everyday ‘hopefully’ I will have joy in my life.” Eve

Eve tells us about her decision to get a tattoo:

How long were you thinking about getting a tattoo? 

Eve: “I thought about it for a couple of years as I had to wait until I was 18 years old before I could get it done.”

What made you want something so permanent?

Eve: “I have never been worried about it being permanent, as it reflects my personality and is something I believe in.”

Were you worried about what people would think? If not why not?

Eve: “ I have heard of people talking about people with tattoos as being wayward, however, I do not believe that. Most people now a days are not as judgmental, as more and more people are getting inked.”

Do you think you will ever regret it?

Eve: “No never, it will always reflect that period in my life.”

Eve’s motivation for getting a tattoo is clear, it represents something of meaning to her, something that she see’s will bring her joy and is a part of her personality. Eve’s is just one story, but most motivations for getting a body tattoo reflect a positive connection between the individual and the permanent image they choose. Patients that are tattooed during the radiotherapy planning process have less choice. The permanent dots, although small are unlikely to add or improve their appearance, and for many simply may act as a reminder of cancer treatment. For some cancer survivors they are an unwelcome reminder of a difficult time in their lives. These quotes below from our most recent research highlight the mixed emotions patients with breast cancer experience during the planning of radiotherapy and coming to terms with the notion of having permanent tattoos. (All the names have been changed to protect the individuals’ identity). Emotions and experiences are diverse and serve to highlight the need for healthcare practitioners to understand the individual patient journey:


“I’ve written a couple of things down there that kind of go back to something that Maryanne said about choice, you know the tattoos and not feeling like you have a choice.”


“…when they put the tattoos on so it was all in the same incident, I did feel suddenly there that there was something permanent happening because you know they say these tattoos are permanent, up to then it felt like you know we’ll cut this out, I’ll get better, it’ll go away and then they went no you’re going to be permanently tattooed, I felt like you know you’re going to make me tattooed and marked ………. I did, I felt a real sense of loss at that point and I thought no this is not something I’m going to get through this is something that I’m stuck with and it’s silly really because it’s just tattoos and I’ve got used to the tattoos and I don’t notice them.”


“some of these points to an outsider may sound small, like the tattoos, I wasn’t happy with those either, but because you’ve lost you know your sense of self and your confidence it just, you know every little thing even though it’s small like using different cream or something is a really big issue.”


The picture is clearly mixed, while there are negative experiences associated with patients having tattoos like those above. The complete picture includes many positive attitudes towards radiotherapy tattoos:

“small, discreet, only a few in number, quite freckley skin anyway, don’t mind needles, nothing to worry about compared to chemo, needed to keep me alive so what’s the problem?”

Some women even choose to change their radiotherapy tattoos into works of art on completion of treatment as this Guardian article highlights. It’s clearly all about choice.

So what are the choices?

Well let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water just yet. Permanent tattoos have been used for many years to mark the placement of radiotherapy beams for a range of cancer sites. For those women that don’t mind having tattoos they remain, at the moment, possibly the best alternative and an option patients can choose. It might be worth Therapy Radiographers/Radiation Therapists considering where they position the tattoos and the number used. Where possible, if tattoos can be positioned where they are less likely to be visible when the woman is dressed in her normal clothes, it may make them more acceptable to some women. In addition, for standard whole breast radiotherapy (where only the breast or chest wall is treated and not the lymph nodes in the neck) what is the optimum number of positioning tattoos that are needed to retain accuracy? There is no research evidence for us to use, and nothing to indicate that five tattoos are better than three for example; so will three suffice to improve the cosmetic outcome?

For those women that don’t want to have a tattoo the use of semi-permanent pen marks is often used with special dressings (that act as a clear skin) to avoid the marks rubbing off onto clothes and to maintain longevity. Semi-permanent marks come with restrictions on washing but can be as accurate as permanent tattoos if application is maintained carefully(4). Some centres have access to 3D surface imaging that can complement patient alignment and enhance accuracy of set-up; unfortunately not all radiotherapy centres have such a facility.

A recent trial has tested the viability of using ultra-violet (UV) ink for permanent tattoos. This option means that the tattoos are not visible in normal daylight conditions and only visible under UV lights that are applied in the treatment room. The use of UV tattoos still requires a needle prick to get the ultra violet ink underneath the skin. However, it may offer a solution in the future, and we await the published results of this recent trial to see the full benefit in terms of accuracy for treatment and acceptability to patients. The use of UV ink for tattooing is a fairly new development and we currently don’t know if there are any long-term risks associated with using UV ink for tattoos. It does also mean that while the radiotherapy tattoos would remain invisible during normal lighting conditions under any ultra violet lighting such as those sometimes used in clubs and restaurants the tattoos maybe visible.

Another future solution that could provide patients with an alternative to permanent tattoos (either indian ink or UV tattoos) is the use of a well fitting immobilisation device where the set up marks are incorporated within the device. This approach is used for radiotherapy application to areas of the head and neck where an immobilisation mask is fitted to the patient and marks placed on the mask rather than on the patient. We are currently developing a support bra for women undergoing breast radiotherapy that may allow for marks to be incorporated within the bra, avoiding the need for skin marks or tattoos on the patient; details of the SuPPORT 4 All study can be found here.

Is there sufficient choice for patients? What’s your view?


  1. Probst Heidi, Bragg, Christopher; Dodwell, David; Green, David; Hart, John. A systematic review of methods to immobilise breast tissue during adjuvant breast irradiation. Radiography. 2014;20(1):70-81.
  2. Gierga DP, Riboldi M, Turcotte JC, Sharp GC, Jiang SB, Taghian AG, et al. Comparison of Target Registration Errors for Multiple Image-Guided Techniques in Accelerated Partial Breast Irradiation. International Journal of Radiation Oncology*Biology*Physics. 2008;70(4):1239-46.
  3. Yue NJ, Goyal S, Zhou J, Khan AJ, Haffty BG. Intrafractional Target Motions and Uncertainties of Treatment Setup Reference Systems in Accelerated Partial Breast Irradiation. International Journal of Radiation Oncology*Biology*Physics. 2011;79(5):1549-56.
  4. Probst H, Dodwell, D, Gray, J.C, Holmes, M. An evaluation of the accuracy of semi-permanent skin marks for breast cancer irradiation. Radiography. 2006;12(3):186-8.
  5. Wohlrab S, Stahl J, Kappeler PM. Modifying the body: Motivations for getting tattooed and pierced. Body Image. 2007;4(1):87-95.





Mobile Learning: 7 key benefits of the MyKnowledgeMap mobile app and why you should consider using it.

It is estimated by emarketer that around 1.75 billion people worldwide are using smartphones, with the trajectory of smartphone use expected to continue to increase. Currently a quarter of the world’s population uses a smartphone at least once a month. Six in ten adults in the UK now use a smartphone according to the 2014 Ofcom report on media use. Of these smartphone users the majority are 25-34 year olds and 45-54 year olds. Even activity by those aged 65-74 has increased since 2012 when around 12% of this age category was using smart devices; activity has risen to 20% in 2014. Of those that use smartphones 48% report downloading apps and on average have 23 apps on their devices of which they use 10 on a regular basis.

So with the majority of the UK population now regular smartphone users it is not surprising that many educators are now utilising this technology for delivering information, and communicating with students. The Jisc mobile learning infokit introduces three frameworks that educators may want to consider when operationalising the use of mobile technology as a learning tool (Laurillard 2002, Park 2011, Koole 2009).

We have been trialling using mobile technology to enhance research skills in the Allied Health Professions (AHP) department. Using the MyKnowledgeMap (MKM) MyProgress app we have developed a series of 9 tasks (see table 1) for masters students to work through to take them from an initial research idea to a full research proposal that is ready for submission for governance approval processes.

1 Tri-partite agreement between student, manager, and university on research topic
2 Elevator Pitch- The research idea
3 Preparing for Publication
4 The Literature in the Field
5 Method/Study Design
6 Gaining Stakeholder Input
7 The Research Journal
8 The Full Proposal
9 Feedback results to place of work- Presentation

Table 1 the Tasks used in the AHP Research app

Rather than using one of the frameworks identified by Jisc we have opted to deliver the research tasks through an intrapreneurial lens utilising an intrapreneurial pedagogy developed through a small Higher Education Funded research project(1). The pedagogy fosters learning by doing, learning by networking, learning from mentors and role models, learning from mistakes and learning from challenging tasks as a way of developing the relevant skills required to innovate within the work organisation where the student is employed; developing intrapreneurial skills through the context of their research dissertation.

So why use a smartphone app and not traditional e-learning platforms such as Blackboard and Pebblepad? Our post graduate students primarily are employed and are working mostly full time with no access to Blackboard and other e-learning platforms during working hours because of access to PCs in hospital departments. Even those that do have access to a PC can’t access traditional e-learning platforms because NHS firewalls prohibit website access to many traditional websites, and gaining the relevant access for specific users is problematic. We have found seven key benefits for using the MKM app with our PG students:

  1. Retaining contact and engagement with students that are out on placement (or at work) where the place of work has no Wi-Fi.

The MKM app works without the need for Wi-Fi. Students can download the app and all the tasks while at home or in a Wi-Fi enabled environment and work on the app tasks offline, simply synchronising the app once they are back in a Wi-Fi enabled area perhaps as they pass a Wi-Fi enabled café on their way home.

2.     Engaging students beyond the classroom.

Using the app enables learning to take place beyond the confines of the physical or virtual classroom, at any time when learning opportunities arise.

3.     Allows a student to be the orchestrator of their own learning, bringing in relevant stakeholders where appropriate.

The app and the tasks as they are designed encourage students to gain feedback from a range of stakeholders that they choose based on their own project and work situations. Stakeholders for our students can be colleagues, managers or patients/clients. For example, students are encouraged to present their research idea to a user forum (patient representative group) where direct feedback about the topic and study design can be gained from those present by handing the student’s smart device to a member of the audience and asking them to complete a short feedback form. This immediate feedback is recorded and captures important patient perspective that can inform and enhance the design of the study.

4.     Tutors can see at a glance how individual students on a cohort are progressing with tasks and activities.

Tutors either at the work site or at the University access the MKM app webpage where they can see all student activity, enabling tutors to monitor individual progression. It makes it possible to take early intervention where it is seen that a student maybe struggling and not meeting targets. Tutors can feedback directly on individual tasks providing immediate support, encouragement and advice where necessary, providing valuable links to the University. The student receives the tutor feedback each time they synchronise their app when in a Wi-Fi area.

5.     Students can monitor their own progress.

The framework of the app allows students to monitor their own progress seeing how much or how little they still need to achieve before they reach the stage where their work is ready for submission (ie all tasks are completed to a sufficient standard).

6.     Allows connections between university working and placement staff and placement learning.

The app enables better connections between University learning and real life work situations. It also provides an opportunity if required for work mentors to feed in reports on task achievements, providing a multi-faceted approach to student support.

7.     Facilitates the opportunity for stakeholder input and feedback on student work.

In the moment reflections can be recorded on the student’s smart device, simplifying the process for key stakeholders who need to provide input or feedback. The student simply hands over the smart device to the stakeholder who completes the feedback form at the point of the activity; this is invaluable for busy clinicians or staff who don’t have time to leave the clinical department to find an office and a PC in order to write and e-mail formal feedback to a student.

Why should you consider using the MKM MyProgress app?

The majority of our students now own and use a smart device and are comfortable with the technology, using it for communicating, shopping and gaming; the next natural extension for these users is to support their University learning. Accessing activities or messages from University tutors via their phone means students can feel connected to their learning in the same way they feel connected to their friends via Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. Being able to engage students beyond the classroom within a placement environment serves to authenticate and situate learning in real life scenarios enabling the learning to have greater impact.

As the majority of students are already using this technology it becomes a missed opportunity if tutors avoid engaging with smartphone technology as a platform for learning. The impact of exploiting mobile learning in the workplace via the MKM MyProgess app, particularly in relation to the 7 points above, is currently being evaluated. A future blog post will discuss the outcomes of this evaluation.

Acknowledgement to @cyclingbob1 who helped write this blog post.

Inspirational Teaching: What does it mean?


This year I was fortunate enough to be nominated and subsequently awarded an Inspirational Research Supervisor Award by my University. What is lovely about receiving such an accolade is that your research students are the ones that nominate you. One hundred and forty six nominations were received this year from approximately 700 research degree students of which only five supervisors received the Inspirational Research Supervisors Award- and I was one of those lucky five.

After the initial shock and usual worry that they may have made a mistake and got the wrong ‘Heidi’ (there are two of us in my Faculty I often receive the other Heidi’s e-mails by mistake). I started to think:

“Well this means I’m doing something right, right?”

I know what I’m doing, but I’m not sure I know which bit of what I’m doing inspires and encourages my students.

“I’m not lost for I know where I am. But, however where I am maybe lost”
A.A. Milne Winnie-the-Poo

The thing is, being called an inspirational researcher supervisor felt somewhat alien. Mainly because most of the time after each supervisory session with a student I question:

  • Am I doing this right?
  • I’m following my instinct and my experience as a PhD student, but am I correct to do this?
  • I’m also following my instinct as a trained healthcare professional with twelve years of hard labour in the NHS, and using all my inbuilt empathy, leadership, motivational and coaching techniques, but do these work?
  • Do my students’ learn and develop from our one to one discussions?
  • Do my students feel motivated, and enthused when they leave a supervisory session? Or do they feel despondent, deflated and mentally drained?

The list of questions to self is endless.

So what does being an Inspirational teacher mean? What aspect of the relationship I have with my students is the part they find most helpful and uplifting? Or more importantly what should I be doing in the future to make sure my students always feel inspired?

Being awarded with this title comes with an invitation to attend a number of events, a faculty celebration, a University dinner for awardees and presentation at the annual graduation award ceremony, not to mention lots of photos. The best thing about attending these award ceremonies is the opportunity to listen to comments made by students about other award holders. It is a truly uplifting experience to realise the impact that tutors/teachers/educators (what ever your preference is for the title) have on the lives of their students. I felt humbled to be in the company of individuals who could inspire their students to learn, give students an opportunity to develop in their chosen professional field, and encourage them to grow as human beings. So as someone fairly new to higher degree research supervision I really started to think about the pedagogy for successful research supervision. I have completed the Institutional research supervisor’s course, I know the procedures and the regulations, but what are the successful pedagogies for research supervision? So I undertook a small search of the literature.

I was delighted when my searching led me to a report from the Department of Education, Science and Training of the Australian Government on ‘The Pedagogy of Good PhD Supervision’. Unfortunately the ‘good’ in this report relates primarily to timely PhD completions. While timely completions are advantageous to the University, as a metric they say little about the whole student experience and the knowledge development that the student has attained during their PhD journey. Surely ‘good’ supervisors want their students to complete in a timely way but to also gain positively in both knowledge and skills during the process. Nonetheless, Sinclair in this 2004 report identified a ‘hands on’ supervisory approach as a key characteristic of supervisors where students complete in a timely way. The ‘hands on’ approach (as opposed to a ‘hands off’ approach where students are left largely to their own devices) assists students to negotiate the PhD journey, by providing a structure to the PhD period. Most importantly it seems to me is that in this process of providing structure ‘hands on’ supervisors build relationships with their students. Part of this relationship building includes development of agreement of expectations between candidate and supervisor and develops trust. Where there is trust in the relationship the student feels able to approach the supervisor with confidence and the supervisor is more able to identify when it is appropriate to intervene or refer the student to others with specialist skills.

In addition, Sinclair (2004) identifies some other key strategies of the ‘hands on’ supervisor in the first year of canditure that leads to successful student progression:

• Engaging students with other students in face-to-face and online cohorts.
• Integrating the student into the supervisor’s broader research networks and research groups.
• Developing the professional development of the student via support for preparation of conference papers and publications.
• Encouraging frequent writing with rapid supervisor feedback.

These are useful strategies to employ, and I would say I employ all of these already. So in order to better understand what it means to be a good supervisor I’ve also been reading Pat Thomson’s blog ‘patter’ which I have found enormously helpful.

There are several useful posts on patter about the supervisory learning curve, particularly a guest post by Eva Bendix Petersen on ‘Learning to supervise: from training to pedagogy’. Her comments about what is generally missing from institutional supervisory courses resonate, what is missing is “conversations about pedagogy”. While Sinclair’s extensive research highlighted the importance of a ‘hands on’ approach with some specific strategies that are useful in the first year of study, the pedagogical picture presented in his report seems to be lacking a holistic element, holistic in the medical sense that is. For example, where do we consider the individual preferences and different approaches to learning of the student themselves?

In a different post in this series on supervision on ‘patter’- “supervision as an ethic of care” there is examination of care as a construct within the context of a supervisory relationship. Through theoretical examination it is proposed that supervision is seen as a caring encounter where both parties should benefit and both parties should contribute. The reciprocity is developed by 4 elements:
• Modeling- demonstrated materially.
• Dialogue- not just a statement of expectations but an explicit discussion of the care-full supervisory relationship.
• Practice- care like any other skill needs to be practiced and develops over time.
• Confirmation- supervisors like good teachers should emphasise the positive, confirming the students’ positive attributes, skills and potential.

This proposition of a caring relationship along with a framework of strategies such as those identified in the work of Sinclair (2004), feels like a more appropriate pedagogy to positively enhance the likelihood of a timely completion while maximising a student’s capabilities and fostering the opportunity for self-actualisation (Maslow 1971)

Now What?

While there is some research and some theorising about what makes a more successful or positive PhD experience for students I still felt like I needed to understand what my students want, what they like about my supervisory approach and what they feel they aren’t getting? So I asked my students to complete an anonymous survey; the results are unlikely to be generalizable, but here’s the crux of what they thought.
They agreed they had:
1. Sufficient contact to enable progression.
2. Sufficient support to allow goals to be met.
3. Enough feedback received to allow progression and
4. Rapid turnaround of feedback.
Interestingly here are some of their thoughts on what they feel helps:
5. Having a structured plan helps them keep to timescales, with regular prompts from the supervisor encouraging the student to keep to the plan.
6. Having a supervisor that is readily available.
7. Feedback given in a positive way that doesn’t overwhelm them.
8. Knowing the supervisor cares about their project.
9. Being challenged.
10. A supervisor that instils confidence.
11. Encouragement.
12. Confirmation that they may not get it right to start with but that very few students do.
13. Permission to fail and
14. Sometimes a kick up the bum!
Some of the comments made by my students in many ways replicate some of the statements made by intrapreneurs in a small study we conducted a few years ago (The 2INSPIRE project). An intrapreneur is someone who innovates within an existing organisation, developing and implementing novel solutions to organisational problems. Intrapreneurs that we interviewed also talked about failure, about confidence (or more specifically about self-efficacy) and about constantly being challenged in order to learn and grow. This makes total sense when you consider that research, specifically at PhD level is about innovating albeit at the apprenticeship level; PhD students maybe viewed as intrapreneurs/entrepreneurs in training. Hence it maybe appropriate to implement an intrapreneurial enhanced pedagogy for research supervision that I already adopt to help develop intrapreneurial behaviours in a traditional taught Masters module.

“I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”
Maya Angelou

Moving forward
Is there pedagogy for research supervision that enables the student to complete in a timely fashion but that also meets the individual student’s needs for personal growth and fulfillment? Based on the discussion above I propose the following 3-point plan as a starting point in formulating pedagogy for research supervision:

1. A structured ‘hands on’ approach specifically in the first year (with an opportunity for the student to develop writing skills early on with constructive, rapid feedback).
2. Building a care-full relationship with the student in order to nurture student potential and the opportunity for growth. A supervisor that cares about the student’s project, is encouraging and supportive, makes themself available for the students, and helps build self-efficacy.
3. If you consider doctoral research as an apprenticeship for entrepreneurialism/intrapreneurialism then the student should experience challenge, should be given permission to fail (with opportunities to learn from failure in a supportive environment), have opportunities to build resilience, opportunities to learn from mentors and role models and be exposed to collaborative research to develop key skills relevant to post-doctoral career pathways.

In another blog (Mobile Learning: 7 key benefits of the MyKnowledgeMap mobile app and why you should consider using it) a colleague and I discuss a method to provide structure for students developing a research proposal through the platform of mobile technology. This short programme maybe easily adapted for use in the first year of a research degree, providing appropriate structure and the opportunity for rapid feedback beyond the confines of the supervisory session. Building opportunities within the PhD tenure for the student to develop entrepreneurial/intrapreneurial skills will enhance the possibility of the candidate surviving within a research career beyond the completion of the PhD. Utilising opportunities for learning from mistakes, learning from role models, peers and mentors and continually setting challenging tasks to take the student outside their comfort zone, may enable entrepreneurial skill development alongside the PhD. Providing an environment where the student can model resilient behaviours needed by long-term researchers (and by successful intra/entrepreneurs) may additionally prepare the student for post-doc research and beyond.

The hardest aspect of the three-point plan above I suspect is getting the right balance of care in the PhD student-tutor relationship this quote from Gwen Boyle struck me:

“The ideal supervisor has infinite time and unparalleled knowledge. She is patient and always available; she is understanding and constantly supportive.
Unfortunately, she doesn’t exist.”
Gwen Boyle

This is true, academics have many other competing priorities (funded research, teaching, team leader responsibilities to name a few) hence as supervisors we need to balance the needs of the student with the need (and requirement) to keep abreast of our own research and teaching commitments. While we don’t have infinite time as supervisors we can provide structure for our PhD students (especially in the first year), we can enter into a care-full relationship with the student, and ensure the student is exposed to experiences that may enhance entrepreneurial/intrapreneurial skills, maybe this will allows us to be inspirational research supervisors more of the time.


The one disadvantage of being given the award of Inspirational Research Supervisor is the photographs; there are lots of them. For those of us that are camera shy this is an appreciated but painful chore. In particular, it took the poor photographer an hour to capture a decent image for this board that is displayed at the entrance to the main building of the University. I think it was a hard day at the office for him and each time I pass this board I do cringe somewhat. However, the quote beneath the image from one of my students, well that always makes me smile.