The relationship between PhD student and supervisor is central to students’ experience and well-being during their doctoral journey (Ives & Rowley, 2005; Lee, 2008). Our research (In search of the ‘super’ in supervision: A journey into the PhD supervision experience at Warwick) explored barriers and enablers within this relationship, and identified ways to enhance the experience for students and supervisors. As part of our research approach (see box below for details) we used co-creation, which is an increasingly popular method of facilitating collaboration between researchers and the population or group that the researcher’s work intends to benefit. Although not suitable for all research, co-creation methods have particular relevance for studies which have a relational dimension and a focus on the lived experience.
Here we share our experiences of designing and facilitating a co-creation workshop, outlining the benefits and challenges experienced and our 'top tips' for planning similar workshops.
Research Design – In Search of the ‘Super’ in Supervision
We used a mixed-methods research design, collecting rich, comprehensive data about the Warwick supervisory experience from three sources: (i) Qualitative data from student participants (n=25) and supervisors (n=9) drawn from all Warwick Facilities, interviewed individually or within a focus group, was collected around expectations of the supervisory relationship, the remit of each person’s role, barriers and enablers to a positive working relationship, and suggestions for enhancing the relationship. (ii) Quantitative data from a survey, open to all PhD students and supervisors across the University, identified the prevalence of issues and ranked qualitative participants’ suggestions for improving the PhD experience. 86 students and 56 supervisors responded. (iii) Co-creation: A mix of students and supervisors (n=11) were invited to a co-creation interactive workshop to explore key emergent ideas/findings from the previous two stages of the research.
Experiences of Co-Creation – Benefits and Challenges
There were a number of aspects that worked to benefit our research including:
- Feedback and input from the attendees enriched our interpretation of the data. E.g., when discussing contributing factors to PhD students loneliness (one of our key findings), attendees shared ideas and helped shape our recommendations for improving the sense of community at the University.
- Although interactive by design, there was freedom to shape the nature of that interactivity to suit participants’ needs. E.g., we facilitated participants’ discussion of selected survey data and exploration of statistics by ensuring the activity was engaging - using paddle responses and incorporating a competition. Even without a prize, participants were highly engaged and energetic, enjoying this aspect which resulted in deeper conversation.
- Allowing time for informal conversation encouraged and supported a rapport between participants.
- Using a versatile space (in this case the Humanities Studio) created an active ‘workshop’ atmosphere. The space provided increased flexibility in designing activities.
- It supported participants to meet and share their story, which can be a cathartic experience, creating an opportunity to engage in shared discourse around PhD study - typically experienced largely as a solo pursuit.
- Providing a platform for attendees to meet new people, gave permission to engage in self-reflection in a ‘safe’ space, discussing their individual experiences, finding commonalities and differences (both positive and negative), and gaining a new perspective.
- Interpretation of our results was rooted in the lived experience of the intended beneficiaries, and enabled us, as researchers, to ‘check’ emerging understanding.
- It involved a diverse group of collaborators in shaping outputs and/or recommendations that sparked innovation and improved the quality and relevance of findings and recommendations. Outputs and/or recommendations from the research may also be better received since they are developed collaboratively with subjects of the research.
Not everything ran smoothly and there were some challenges:
- As facilitators, there were some personal struggles. Co-creation is largely an open-ended approach, introducing a level of uncertainty and risk. We quickly overcame any nerves as facilitators as a shared lunch acted as a useful ice-breaker. Completing a risk assessment was a useful tool to anticipate potential challenges (e.g. participants not turning up, problems with technology, participants not engaging with activities). Adhering to a strict plan was helpful, but it is not possible to anticipate all risks, so researchers must be dynamic in their facilitation approach. E.g. rather than cut a valuable group discussion short, we decided in the moment to reprioritise planned activities to create more time.
- The challenges of recruiting participants. It was difficult to recruit the required numbers for a second workshop, resulting in a cancellation. Co-creation is a very fluid term that can mean different things depending on the researcher’s discipline. Although the lack of boundaries afforded us useful flexibility in design, we think it also made recruitment difficult. We were also asking for two hours of people’s time (plus an optional 30 minutes beforehand for lunch) during examination season, which many staff and students may have struggled to accommodate.
Top Tips for planning co-creation
- Set a clear goal - be sure about what you are trying to achieve and plan, plan, plan!
- Consider the mix of participants and set ground rules if necessary. E.g. we explicitly addressed the potential power dynamics between students and supervisors at the start of the workshop, resulting in a more comfortable atmosphere for sharing opinions and experiences
- Make it engaging and interactive. Provide opportunities for all participants to contribute.
- Think about a range of activities to provide inclusivity e.g. we used small group activities, plenary group discussions, and individual work to accommodate different learning styles.
- Consider using gift vouchers or some other incentive, if possible.
- Provide lunch! If this isn’t possible, then schedule the meeting over lunch and invite people to bring their own and join you.
- Use two facilitators, plus a note-taker, if possible. If you are engaging groups of people that have been traditionally considered ‘hard-to-reach’ or under-represented, you may think about training peer facilitators to help support the delivery of any activities (similarly, if the research area is particularly sensitive).
Finally... We encourage researchers who may be unsure about engaging in co-creation activities to:
- Think about the use of co-creation workshops as a positive mechanism to address issues which stakeholders may find contentious.
- Build on unexpected outcomes like sharing of ideas, e.g. breaking down barriers for students between them and senior staff.
- Position the design and delivery challenges for those who haven’t facilitated before, as an opportunity to develop useful skills that may be worth investing in.
- Engage with opportunities to be a participant in co-creation style events! Participants in our workshop reported positive feedback. They left feeling heard and with new ideas of their own to pursue.
Further resources about co-creation:
Ives, G., and Rowley, G. (2005). Supervisor selection or allocation and continuity of supervision: PhD students’ progress and outcomes. Studies in Higher Education, 30(5), 535–555.
Lee, A. 2008. “How Are Doctoral Students Supervised? Concepts of Doctoral Research Supervision.” Studies in Higher Education 33 (3): 267–281. Doi: 10.1080/03075070802049202.