Conceptualising risk in doctoral education: Navigating boundary tensions

Frick, Liezel ; Albertyn, Ruth ; Bitzer, Eli (2014)

CITATION: Frick, L., Albertyn, R. & Bitzer, E. 2014. Conceptualising Risk in Doctoral Education: Navigating Boundary Tensions, in E. Bitzer (eds.). et al. Pushing Boundaries in Postgraduate Supervision. Stellenbosch: SUN PRESS. 53-66. doi:10.18820/9781920689162/05.

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Introduction: If you are not willing to risk the unusual, you will have to settle for the ordinary. – Jim Rohn Risk-taking is an important form of human behaviour, but can be conceptualised in different ways (Byrnes, Miller & Schafer 1999). Some researchers in higher education point to the association between academic risk and its negative consequences (McWilliam, Lawson, Evans & Taylor 2005; McWilliam, Sanderson, Evans, Lawson & Taylor 2006; McWilliam, Singh & Taylor 2002) and therefore conceptualise risk as something that should be avoided or at least carefully managed. Others highlight risk as an opportunity for achievement (Backhouse 2009; Frick 2011, 2012; Holligan 2005). If innovation is key to the generation of new knowledge, then risk is seen to be an integral part of this process (Brown 2010). Knowledge and innovation are considered to be critical contributors to national wealth and welfare and therefore doctoral education has gained increasing significance within the context of human capital development (Bloland 2005; CHE 2009). In this context, the dynamics of balancing risk and innovation (Brown 2010; Latham & Braun 2009) may provide challenges for the supervisory relationship and the research process. Education – and more specifically doctoral education – seems to be risky given the requirement to produce original knowledge. Students need to have “the courage and confidence to take risks, to make mistakes, to invent and reinvent knowledge, and to pursue critical and lifelong inquiries in the world, with the world, and with each other” (Freire 1970, cited in Lin & Cranton 2005:458). MacKinnon (1970) agrees that the courage to take risks is an important characteristic of creative endeavours – such as doctoral studies. In this chapter we therefore take the position that risk is unavoidable within the context of doctoral education, but in order to extend the boundaries and manage risk constructively, supervisors could gain from understanding the concept of risk within this context.

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