In a PhD (and as doctoral supervisors) we often face situations where we feel blocked, with no idea of how to get out or what to do next. In this post, the first of a series distilling wisdom from the latest round of “A Happy PhD” workshops, we look at a peer advice technique we have repeatedly use in the workshops to help students (and supervisors!) unblock. All you need is… a little help from a small group of people.
From time to time I get pleas for advice in the blog’s email or the comments section, which later become blog posts of their own (see, for example, the one about our recommended process for important PhD decisions). This is a really smart move by the advice seekers, not because I am especially wise or intelligent (hint: I’m definitely not), but because getting a total stranger to ponder our dilemmas is a good idea (as we saw in the decision process mentioned above). Strangers will approach our problem from the totally new perspective of their own past experience and lessons learned, which are bound to be different from ours – and they will probably not be locked onto the 1-2 “bad options” that we think are the only possible ones.
However, there is an even more efficient way to solve our dilemmas (i.e., more than asking just me), which we have used in doctoral student and supervisor workshops with great success. Read on to find out about this “miracle cure” for our blockages and dilemmas…
Those of you reading the blog for some time will remember that research literature into doctoral education recognizes that steady progress (along with bearable amounts of emotional distress and having a thesis that makes sense to us) is essential to finish our thesis in good spirits. I would even argue that the same applies to doctoral supervision (which is also a long and sometimes complicated process). Fortunately, there is no lack of advice about strategies and techniques for productivity, well-being and refinement of your research topic (in this blog, and elsewhere).
… and yet, this does not necessarily mean that you know exactly which of these strategies to apply (and how!) in your particular situation. This is where a group of people can brainstorm more tailored help and advice, if we let them.
Indeed, this is one of the hardest parts: recognizing that we are blocked, that we have a problem we cannot find a solution for… and being willing to be vulnerable enough to explain the details of our conundrum to others. In some of our workshops, this activity has remained undone just because nobody would step up to this challenge of opening up their problem to others. But, when people did, wonderful things happened and the blocked people found this exercise extremely helpful!
The intervision script
Intervision (sometimes also called “peer consultation”) exercises have a long tradition in teacher training1, especially in the Netherlands and Germany2. In the form described below, I first encountered this exercise in one of Helmut Brentel’s workshops on doctoral supervision, where I already experienced how effective this simple but counterintuitive activity structure is.
Pre-requisites: 1) Having a real problem or situation we are stuck with, which makes us feel blocked; and 2) A group of people (3-6 probably works best) willing to spend 30-45 minutes giving us advice3.
Procedure: Follow the steps below (This is important! avoid the temptation of “just informally chatting”, as it will probably lead to groupthink and unequal contributions to solve the problem at hand – as we saw in our process for effective decision making meetings).
- Assign roles to be followed during the exercise: a problem-poser or “advisee” (probably, you); a group of advisors; and (optionally) a time-keeper/moderator that will have the script in mind and will try to push the others to stick to it (and to the allotted times).
- The “advisee” describes the situation and context, and why they feel blocked (e.g., what options are on the table and why they are not suitable). Meanwhile, the “advisors” take notes in silence. [5+ min]
- The “advisors” make clarificatory questions just to get a better idea of the situation or probe initial hypothesis… but do not give any advice yet! [5+ min]
- The “advisors” reflect, brainstorm and write down privately ideas for advice and suggestions for how to solve the problem or unblock the situation. Yes, this involves everyone keeping silent for some minutes at the meeting (weird, right?). [5 min]
- The “advisors” select the 1-2 most relevant pieces of advice and put them as post-its in a whiteboard or in the table in front of the “advisee”, explaining them briefly. Meanwhile, the “advisee” receives these ideas without arguing for or against them (maybe asking for clarifications if the idea is not clear). [5+ min]
- The “advisee” gives feedback to the advisors about which pieces of advice are most interesting, surprising or likely to work. Then, the “advisee” writes down post-its with the next actions that they’re going to take to make progress again. [5 min]
The image below summarizes the intervision script. Feel free to print it and take it to your next “unblocking session”!
Over to you
Reading through the script above may not prove very impressive, I get it. However, the power of this exercise comes from actually doing it, with an actual complex problem and a real group of people interested in helping out. Also, if you decide to try it out, you will face pushback from the very people trying to help: structures like this that go against the instinctive social habits of people (like firing up advice right away without stopping to reflect – or let others reflect more deeply about the problem) feel unnatural.
Yet, I have seen it work again and again: the “advisee” always walks out with at least 2-3 ideas for actions that had not occurred to them before. And this exercise is not only powerful, it is efficient: I doubt one can get better results from 30 minutes of Google searches or unstructured chats over coffee. Resist the urge to circumvent the script!
Try it out and… May you unblock yourself swiftly!
Did you try the intervision exercise for a real thesis/supervision blockage or dilemma of yours? Did it work? Let us know in the comments section below (or leave a voice message)!
Header image by DALL-E.
Bos-Wierda, R., Barendsen, R., Joore, P., Hummel, H. G., & van den Bogaart, T. (2012). Empowerment of trainee teachers; students and teachers discuss and explore workplace dilemmas by means of an international virtual community of practice. The International Conference on E-Learning in the Workplace 2012. ↩︎
Franzenburg, G. (2009). Educational intervision: Theory and practice. Problems of Education in the 21st Century, 13(1), 37–43. ↩︎
It is recommended that these people are colleagues (e.g., fellow doctoral students or supervisors) so that they have at least a general sense of the nature of our problem, even if they don’t know our particular field or situation very deeply. Being familiar with the toolbox of ideas in this blog is also a plus. Picking random people from the street will probably not be very effective… but may still be more effective than remaining blocked in your dilemma :). ↩︎
Luis P. Prieto
Luis P. is a Ramón y Cajal research fellow at the University of Valladolid (Spain), investigating learning technologies, especially learning analytics. He is also an avid learner about doctoral education and supervision, and he's the main author at the A Happy PhD blog.