Saturday, June 23, 2012

Using 'SMS' in PhD Supervision - The supervisors perspective

 I would suggest that there are two things that challenge most  supervision relationships in their embryonic stages. One is developing a relationship between the new doctoral student and their supervisor that is sustainable for a minimum of three years and the other is dealing with the questions that are important to the doctoral candidates but which occur outside of scheduled supervision session and can delay a candidates progress until a satisfactory answer is available. Lee Yarwood-Ross has eloquently explained one way to address these challenges is via SMS supervision
As a supervisor I think this is a great idea - the well documented phenomenon of cyber-space disinhibition means that a strong working relationship can be developed even before the first off line face to face meeting which can only expedite the progress of the doctoral student. Thinking back to my first meeting with my own PhD supervisor, I was so intimidated that it was difficult to get the boundaries of my own research articulated. This set the scene for all our subsequent encounters which did not make for a happy experience!
In addition, the middle of the night questions that come to all doctoral students can be dealt with in a timely fashion (although hopefully NOT in the middle of the night!). Sometimes it can be something really simple such as what literature databases to start a search on or the difference between a research aim and a research objective. A simple SMS can help enormously.
The only problem that I can see with this is that some (possibly most??) supervisors may be reluctant to hand their mobile phone number over to students. However, and I've made this point before, doctoral study should be a collaboration between peers rather than a pedagogic student/teacher relationship and should be open to negotiation. A clear discussion of boundaries and ground rules to support satisfactory SMS supervision that is agreed between supervisor and supervisee  can add another helpful dimension to the relationship and facilitate the PhD journey. 

Using 'SMS' in PhD Supervision

For the social media crazed PhD students out there (including myself), I have personally found so far that supervisory support via SMS/text messaging is greatly beneficial. It is quick, easily accessible and any excuse to use the Samsung Galaxy Note to its maximum capacity is fine by me (beautiful gadget). Some people may read this and think “why not just use email?” and I would argue that there is nothing more frustrating than having no Wi-Fi or internet access when you’re out and about and the need to reply to a super busy supervisor cannot be achieved *pulls hair out*. With the use of SMS you can normally guarantee some form of network signal and the communication between supervisor and supervisee can therefore be timely and harmonious.

I agree that technology in PhD study cannot replace ‘Face to Face’ contact with the supervisory team but I feel it is about what is appropriate for the area that needs to be discussed. Let’s face it, when somebody rings us, more than likely we rush to the phone (like the intro to Baywatch) and miss the call resulting in a voicemail that says “call me back”. When you call them back it then goes to voicemail *blood pressure rising*.  I have found small issues can easily be dealt with via SMS. The bigger issues can be discussed through pre-planned meetings.

I imagine that it would be useful if someone could invent an ‘out of office’ tool for the use of SMS as currently I believe we have one of two things in the world; no reply = I am busy or don’t want to talk to you; or the little box you can tick in your settings that lets you know when the message has been successfully received by the recipient and you sit waiting for a response with baited breathe!

Someone said to me recently that the use of SMS has resulted in a loss of spoken human communication and the rapport with the supervisory team can become fragmented; but in my experience so far this is not the case. I think what is most important is discussing at the beginning of your studies how the ‘supervisee’ wants supervision to occur and in what form. Some prefer the use of social media and some do not but if we add the use of SMS to our communication toolkit, it will only have a positive impact on the doctoral research.

One needs to be cautious though that they check their contractual message allowance as no PhD student wants the horror of paying out a humongous bill at the end of the month especially with the small amount of pennies in the bank account. I would also stress that users be aware of the character allowance in their SMS as I have noticed that if you type too much in one SMS it will convert to MMS resulting in an unexpected charge! However this can be resolved through splitting messages into two and it doesn’t take an academic to work that one out!

Reap the benefits of all forms of communication is my opinion and SMS is only one of them. Please be sure though to rest your fingers and eyes as much as possible, text induced finger ‘ache’ and headache is a killer!