Student experiences of the PhD cohort model: working within or outside communities of practice?
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The Collaborative Cohort Model (CCM) of higher degrees supervision is gaining increasing popularity internationally and, in some contexts, replacing the conventional Apprentice Master Model (AMM). Among the motivations advanced for this shift is that the CCM improves completion rates and enhances the quality of research supervision. This exploratory paper interrogates these claims through the eyes of students, by documenting and analysing their experiences of the CCM currently used by the Faculty of Education, at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), South Africa. This form of supervision integrates the traditional master-apprentice supervision with cohort seminar sessions. The traditional supervision involves students working one-to-one with what is referred to, in this instance, as the appointed supervisor/s while the cohort seminars draw on the expertise of a team of experienced and novice supervisors referred to, in this instance, as the cohort supervisors. In addition, students benefit from contributions offered by peers within the cohort as they are guided through the various phases in the research process. This paper engages with the experiences of a small sample of students, appraising the key principles of collaboration and collegiality which are integral to the success of the cohort model. The study reveals abundant evidence of successful collaboration and collegiality among students and between the cohort and appointed supervisors. However, there are also instances of students in the cohort working in isolation and supervisors working counter to each other. Through engaging with student experiences of the cohort model, this study offers critical new insights into the strengths, limitations and challenges of using the model to address the unsatisfactory PhD productivity rate in South Africa.