The X-factor for Quality Research: Research Intelligence for Humanising Supervision

Ruth Albertyn highlights the need to broaden research education and support. She proposes conceptualising doctoral intelligence and developing higher levels of thinking to produce quality research.

Illustration by Tristan Barnard

We are aware that a measure of intelligence is needed for the successful completion of higher qualifications. However, narrow definitions of intelligence do not tell the whole story; being clever in the conventional sense of the word may not be enough to be successful. But what are these other factors necessary for the holistic development of students? Both students and supervisors could benefit from insights beyond knowledge as intelligence. The X-factor could provide a clue.

Traditionally research education has focused on research and disciplinary knowledge taught in block sessions. In this context, supervisors take the lead as experts, often according to the apprenticeship model of supervision following under-theorised pedagogical approaches and, at times, based on crisis management to get students ‘out of the system’. This focus on timely completion of the research product could result in supervisor risk avoidance strategies for ‘safe research’ and students complying so they can ‘get on with their lives’ after graduation. This functional approach fails to instil a passion for the research puzzle, nor does it consider the opportunities for sustainable development of the knowledge makers of the future (McChesney, 2022). With the increasing focus on social impact through research, we can no longer focus on the qualification from an individual or institutional perspective alone. Facilitating the development of lifelong researchers who can think differently and contribute to complex problem-solving in society beyond the qualification is imperative. It requires that we think differently about research education and support.

This focus on sustainable, transferable skills development during postgraduate education can be guided by intelligence thinking. One tool for research development is the conceptualisation of doctoral intelligence based on the analogous link to the notion of cultural intelligence (Earley & Ang, 2003). As reflected in Textbox 1, doctoral (or research) intelligence is seen as the ‘knowing’, ‘doing’, ‘thinking’, and ‘willing’ mindsets that are necessary to successfully accomplish a task (in this case, the research for the qualification) (Albertyn, 2022).

Illustration Ruth Albertyn by Liani Malherbe

Textbox 1

Mindsets for research


Foundational expertise in discipline and research


Application in practice of research for the research product


Higher level of mental processing for quality research work


Open-minded for continuing development

As knowledge and application (knowing and doing) are implied during postgraduate training and supervision, the more hidden mindsets of thinking and willing require attention for generative research development (See Elliot et al., 2020; Albertyn in print). Although often not explicitly taught, both students and supervisors are aware of the need for higher levels of critical and creative thinking. There are ways to facilitate the development of higher-order thinking during the research trajectory through group processes, such as colloquia, conference presentations, and constructive challenging feedback on work. The intelligence domain less often spoken about is the willing mindset.

It seems that ‘willing’ could be the X-factor for developing higher levels of thinking for quality research. Findings from research amongst doctoral students and graduates revealed the following willing characteristics: open-mindedness, intellectual humility, love of learning, maturity, wisdom, a higher purpose or calling with a commitment to make a difference (Albertyn in print). These mindsets provide the resilience and motivation to persevere in the face of feelings of uncertainty during research. At times, the willing mindset seems counter-intuitive in the higher education context, where neatly articulated graduate attributes, such as independence, ownership, and mastery, create the impression that certainty is a pre-requisite for postgraduate studies and not something that requires thoughtful nurturance over time. Often supervisors perpetuate these expectations of the ‘already ready’ student, which may be disempowering and inhibit growth and development. Supervisors tend to forget the process that formed them during their own research identity development trajectory.  

Uncertainty is indeed a hallmark of problem-solving and learning, yet often marginalized and silenced in the educational context that values expertise, an authoritative voice, and overconfident knowing (Hay, 2022). Students may want to avoid this uncomfortable feeling of uncertainty, thus perpetuating a stuck mindset, tunnel vision, and limited thinking. Supervisors may feel they ought to either save the students or else feel undue pressure to take control. The value of unknowing is highlighted by Hay (2022), who notes that without uncertainty, current thinking is limited, giving rise to the false sense of mastery that inhibits growth. This reinforcement of current thinking disadvantages the stimulation of fresh, innovative ideas essential for effective problem-solving. As learning happens when we work on the edge between knowing and not knowing, the negative emotions accompanying uncertainty can be the impetus for deep learning. These emotions need to be thoughtfully harnessed and not avoided. The work by Albertyn and Bennet (2021) provides an outline for manifestations of uncertainty and strategies for support.

One characteristic of the willing mindset that provides a clue for continual growth and life-long research is intellectual humility, defined as the realistic appraisal of strengths and weaknesses on a continuum between intellectual arrogance and intellectual servility (Haggard et al., 2018). Similar to intellectual humility, the essence of wisdom is seen as a balance between knowing and doubting (Hay, 2022). The generative value of ‘unknowing’ in this context would be that it signals a need to reconsider ways of understanding as a stimulus for further enquiry. As supervisors, we are lifelong researchers, so it is assumed that we will emulate these mindsets in our recurrent research processes and practices. With each new research project and supervision opportunity, we are also exposed to unknowing. As traditional notions of education tend to favour ‘power over’ students, being open and vulnerable is often not valued, resulting in stunted growth and development in ourselves and our students. Part of the empowerment of students is to demystify the process that has formed us. The focus needs to fall on fostering trust in the student-supervisor relationship and reciprocal learning (Robertson, 2017). There is a quid pro quo in the relationship with benefits to the learning and development of both parties. The traditional one-sided functional power and control approach to supervision is counterproductive in the modern postgraduate landscape. We as supervisors need to create a safe space where uncertainty can be explored and embraced so students can make wise courageous choices.

A visualization of the mindsets or intelligence needed for quality research and the development of lifelong researchers is depicted in Figure 1.

Figure 1

Intelligence domains: Mindset for research

Illustration by Liani Malherbe

The traditional focus of formal training and supervision has been on the research product (knowing and doing). Although an essential component for successful completion due to external accountability drivers, the more hidden domains that emerge in the challenging process of research are essential (thinking and willing). It seems that the X-factor for quality research is the foundational willing research intelligence domain, which influences and is influenced by each of the other mindsets. The love of learning and commitment to excellence that characterises wisdom, will help nurture and sustain the knowledge makers for the future. Learning during postgraduate research entails far more than what is taught. We need to broaden our vista of research education and supervision support to provide a conducive context to embrace and facilitate this holistic development perspective for quality discipline-focused problem-solving for social impact.

Ruth Albertyn

Extraordinary associate professor / Research associate: Stellenbosch Business School Centre for Higher and Adult Education

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