7. Supervision of Indigenous Research and Higher Degree Researchers

Ailie McDowall; Sana Nakata; Martin Nakata; and Felecia Watkin-Lui

Why read this chapter?

We find ourselves in a moment of opportunity for Indigenous researchers to help build the knowledge and research capacity to positively impact Indigenous communities and the academy. There is an increasing demand for Indigenous researchers to participate in research projects and on grants. At the same time, potential Indigenous higher degree researchers are approaching supervisors wanting to research a wide range of topics, but like all students arrive with varying capabilities to undertake thesis work. These higher degree researchers also encounter an academic workforce that is still developing its own supervision capabilities to meet this growth in demand.

This chapter will:

  • demonstrate how JCU’s Indigenous Education and Research Centre has been conceptualising the support of Indigenous higher degree researchers
  • describe issues in higher degree researcher and supervisor capabilities in the context of Indigenous research topics, and
  • suggest how supervisors might address these capabilities in their practice.

Defining a research problem in Indigenous research

Supervisors’ experience with Indigenous research projects

In an environment with increasing demand for Indigenous research and an impetus to support increasing numbers of Indigenous higher degree researchers, it is as important for supervisors to first understand how their research training and practice shapes their contribution to a project.

As supervisors, transparency with higher degree researchers and with other supervision panellists is important. Talk with them about your intellectual commitments, including theoretical and methodological practice. Explore together the extent to which these commitments usefully support or pull against Indigenous research activity in your field.

Supervisors are encouraged to lean into their own expertise and share that expertise through research training and education. Not all Indigenous research projects require Indigenous research methods, and equipping Indigenous researchers with traditional methodological skills can have value. Supervisors also need to be self-reflexive about how their own training and commitments may come into tension with Indigenous knowledges and research practices.

Due to the limited Indigenous research training capacity nationally, supervisors should not assume that others can supplement gaps in your expertise. The Indigenous academic workforce is growing, but still small and it is not appropriate that non-Indigenous supervisors continue to delegate this aspect of their supervision to others. We encourage supervisors to take a professional development approach to your own skill set and invest in your ongoing learning: reading new literatures alongside higher degree researchers, facilitating peer learning groups and critical friends, attending conferences, and asking questions.

Research problems at the interface between knowledge systems

Not all research problems emerge from identifying gaps in existing scholarship. But all research problems will add something new to existing scholarship.

In Indigenous research, many research problems will emerge from empirical problems that the higher degree researcher has observed or experienced in their everyday life. The literature review task is thus driven by the purpose of identifying whether the observations or experiences have been studied and made sense of in the academy already. Gaps may well be identified. Sometimes, however, it can appear that there is literature ‘on the problem’ and an Indigenous higher degree researcher may need direction to articulate how their inquiry will present something novel. Supervisors can support higher degree researchers by working with them to identify their novel approach by thinking ‘widely’ about the literature rather than ‘narrowly’, which risks guiding higher degree researchers into disciplinary debates and potentially away from issues of significance to them.

Encouraging higher degree researchers to investigate widely may identify what types of commitments underpin that body of knowledge: ontological, epistemological, conceptual or methodological. From here, higher degree researchers should be able to identify how their proposed study is different from existing knowledge on the subject. Indigenous research projects will often reveal how Indigenous and Western knowledge systems are grounded in distinct commitments, and with many Indigenous research projects, higher degree researchers will need to be supported to grapple with the interface between them.

Understanding the complexity of contemporary Indigenous situations

Supervisors will arrive on panels understanding the complexity of contemporary Indigenous situations in different ways – through lived experience, through research, and through relationships. Each type of experience has its limits.

Similarly, Indigenous higher degree researchers may have understandings that they cannot yet articulate through academic or disciplinary language. Supervisors may also not have the language to understand what the higher degree researcher is trying to articulate.

Some try to address this issue by ensuring that each panel has an Indigenous supervisor, or that the higher degree researcher engages an Indigenous reference group. These strategies can be useful if those providing advice have experience with the research problem under investigation. There are also other ways to ensure that the project aligns with Indigenous priorities (such as through the higher degree researcher’s networks or through partnerships with Indigenous organisations), and for supervisors to develop their understandings. Groups such as JCU’s Indigenous Research Support Network also provide venues to discuss issues.

Doing a literature review in Indigenous research

Reading volumes of material

The thesis literature review provides an opportunity to study and map previous attempts to tackle the research problem, deepening familiarity with both academic writing and conceptual knowledge. It also provides higher degree researchers and supervisors an opportunity to ask questions of previous approaches: did they work? What assumptions underpinned these approaches? Did they contribute tangible outcomes to Indigenous goals?

Reviewing the literature requires higher degree researchers to search for, locate, identify and read a mass of relevant literature, eventually sorting this literature into more and less relevant materials. Many Indigenous students are underprepared for tertiary education when they commence undergraduate studies, requiring considerable academic skill development during their initial degrees (Nakata & Nakata, 2023). Depending on the individual’s academic pathway, commencing Indigenous higher degree researchers will have varying levels of independence when it comes to critical reading.

We suggest that supervisors do not make assumptions about Indigenous higher degree researchers’ capacities to identify and read masses of literature. Rather than sending higher degree researchers off to independently read, make time to discuss approaches to locating and identifying relevant literature, and model how you work your way through volumes of material. A useful approach is to plan a longer supervision session to sit together and find and discuss relevant literature. Regular check-ins during this stage allow you to clarify minor misunderstandings and provide feedback.

Understanding argumentation in scholarly literature

Having located relevant literature, higher degree researchers need to be able to read the structure of the argument. This is again important in both understanding the field and learning to produce their own writing. Proposition structure will support higher degree researchers in writing their own theses.

We have noticed that as Indigenous research interests proliferate across a range of disciplines, in many fields there is an over-reliance on papers that critique or present a position on a topic, with varying levels of evidence to support arguments. If higher degree researchers learn to read for propositions, structure and evidence, they will be better able to understand the limits of previous research attempts, as well as possibilities that exist within their field. Such an approach also centres the higher degree researchers’ own critical analysis skills and works toward building a scholarly identity.

This issue is again connected to Indigenous higher degree researchers’ previous academic training. Universities often provide workshops on identifying main arguments and Indigenous higher degree researchers can be encouraged to attend these. Such workshops may be insufficient for postgraduate research. In this case, supervisors or discipline-based postgraduate coordinators can work with individuals or groups of higher degree researchers to demonstrate how you would identify the main argument in a paper, providing opportunities for candidates to trial approaches and receive feedback. Higher degree researchers will also benefit from guidance on developing an argument as they produce their own literature reviews and analytical chapters.

Note-taking and writing short descriptions from materials

Annotating materials is a fundamental skill in moving from reading literature to producing a critical review. Learning to write short and concise notes is important to being able to identify major arguments.

Note-taking is taught in the school system, albeit with various emphases. University disciplines provide students different opportunities to practise and cement these skills, depending on the engagements with scholarly content. Here too, we would suggest supervisors do not make assumptions about their Indigenous higher degree researchers’ experience in note-taking. You can work with higher degree researchers to practise identifying the paper’s core proposition and writing short descriptions of the arguments, including an assessment of the evidence to support the argument. These descriptions provide building blocks for a more critical, rather than descriptive, literature review.

Encouraged to write short annotations of literature, a higher degree researcher wrote half-page descriptions of each article they read. The first draft of the literature review was overly descriptive, containing information that detracted from an understanding of how the field was constructed. By re-writing shorter descriptions, the student could focus more on the major arguments.

Indigenous research design

Difference between theory, methods and methodology

As many Indigenous higher degree researchers take on novel topics within their fields or work from philosophical assumptions unfamiliar to their supervisors, it is important that higher degree researchers learn to differentiate between theory, method, and methodology.

Indigenous research projects undertaken within the University necessarily involve an interface between Indigenous and Western knowledge systems. While supervisors are increasingly recognising the place for Indigenous research methods within projects, a focus on research methods without a focus on theory is likely to produce fundamental tensions in later stages of analysis. Ensuring higher degree researchers can identify and critically engage with the underlying theoretical assumptions in their research design (including problem formation) and the methods they consider utilising will help minimise later challenges. It is also a reminder to supervisors that engaging in Indigenous-generated theory and philosophy should be taken as seriously as consideration of Indigenous research methods. Importantly, strong Indigenous theorisation of knowledge production can align well with ‘traditional’ Western research methods.

Qualitative research

Many supervisors encourage Indigenous higher degree researchers to use qualitative approaches. The depth and richness of qualitative data, as well as the opportunity for Indigenous participants to represent their own experiences, are attractive to higher degree researchers and supervisors alike.

We suggest that supervisors contemplate the complexities of generating new data in qualitative research projects. These include:

  • An extended ethics process given that Indigenous participants/topics often automatically make the project ‘high-risk’
  • Negotiating site access and following community protocols
  • Recruiting sufficient participants from what is often a small potential pool of potential people
  • Training higher degree researchers to interview Indigenous participants who may be uncomfortable expressing themselves in a formal research setting
  • Analysing research data, particularly if Indigenous participants’ points of reference differ from those commonly used in your discipline.

You will need to work closely with the higher degree researcher to determine whether qualitative research is appropriate for them. Considerations include whether the higher degree researcher is joining an existing project, whether they have access to sites and participants, and their previous experience representing Indigenous experiences within academic and disciplinary conventions.

Alternatively, analysing pre-existing data (such as policies, previous transcripts, archival research, or publicly available data like newspaper media) can facilitate opportunities for scholarship whilst minimising the risks to the project.

Project managing Indigenous research

Working to the timing of milestones

Regulating candidatures through milestones can lead to higher degree researchers focusing on achieving goals related to milestones rather than maintaining a clear focus on the research and subsequent research thesis.

We suggest that all candidatures commence with the end goal (the thesis) in sight, and that the progression of chapters is prioritised. Many Indigenous higher degree researchers have additional community and family responsibilities they must manage (Barney, 2013). Early and frequent conversations about self-regulation strategies in the context of research work can provide conditions for success. You can support the higher degree researcher to break the project into chunks, with clear goals and an agreed schedule of deliverables. Re-visiting this schedule regularly and ensuring there are opportunities to revise as necessary should ensure that higher degree researchers are on track for milestones, without making the milestones the goal.

Indigenous higher degree researchers also experience unique time pressures that supervisors should take into account. There is high demand upon Indigenous researchers from the earliest stages of their career to become members of larger projects. Sometimes, they are sought after by research groups seeking to demonstrate their inclusion of Indigenous researchers, represented as good opportunities for mentoring and networking. This can certainly be the case. However, supervisors need to play a strong role in supporting higher degree researchers to make choices that do not inhibit the student’s own goals and timelines. In our experience, often the benefit accrues to more established researchers than Indigenous higher degree researchers.


Many Indigenous higher degree researchers are highly respected members of their communities. Their relationships within a community can both facilitate fieldwork and raise complexities which can be difficult to negotiate within a research degree’s timeframe.

Supervisors should prompt higher degree researchers to reflect on their own position within the research and its impact on fieldwork. Where the higher degree researcher has pre-existing relationships, you will need to discuss how to re-frame personal, family, community and professional relationships into a research context, and assist them to develop self-awareness about how they present themselves to potential participants. Strategies such as wearing university uniforms and communicating through university channels can help to emphasise the higher degree researcher’s position as researcher.

Supervisors should also be hands-on in developing interview questions and practising interviewing. Closeness with the topic and participants can lead to inexperienced researchers making assumptions about participants’ positions, rather than asking follow-up questions. These issues can be supported through training. Ensure potential participants and interview questions are closely aligned to the research question, rather than following tangential interests (from the student or supervisor), given the complexities of Indigenous research contexts.

When researching in community settings, we recommend supervisors being hands-on in analysis. Study transcripts independently from the higher degree researcher, probing why they think participants gave a particular response. The higher degree researcher should then allow for time to workshop the analysis with community participants. You will need to discuss what will happen if participants are unhappy with the analysis, or want their views represented differently. This is not to suggest that participants’ analysis should dominate the final thesis. Rather, participants should have an opportunity to express their own understandings, and higher degree researchers should check that these understandings have not been lost in the disciplinary analysis. It also builds the understanding that Indigenous community people need to see themselves represented within research to enable impact. This stage can help develop relationships that can be useful for postdoctoral research.


Relationships in the research site also affect questions of ethics. If supervisors are unfamiliar with Indigenous research protocols, guidelines from organisations such as AIATSIS and the NHMRC are useful starting points. Where Indigenous higher degree researchers are well known within the community, it is important to negotiate any perceived requirement to participate. You will need to support higher degree researchers to conduct interviews where participants can speak voluntarily, freely and confidentially. They may also need to manage participants’ expectations that the research will result in immediate change.

Withdrawal of data

While rare, there is a possibility that participants may withdraw data from a research project. Ethically, this would likely result in that data no longer being part of the project. This could have implications for the project’s viability and serious implications for an Indigenous higher degree researcher having insufficient data to analyse. The supervisor’s responsibility is to be considerate of these potential tensions and balance the respect for Indigenous protocols and their educative duty to the higher degree researcher. The possibility of data withdrawal should be considered in the research design process, ensuring that the project is robust enough to withstand such a request.

Writing, examination, and publication approaches for Indigenous research

Interpreting Indigenous research data

We recognise many supervisors have limited experience interpreting Indigenous research data. Indigenous participants and Indigenous higher degree researchers may draw on reference points unfamiliar to you as supervisors. This is another delicate balance that supervisors must hold: the reflexivity to recognise the limits to your own approach, and supporting the higher degree researcher to analyse this data with theoretical and conceptual frameworks.

You can encourage the higher degree researcher to explain how Indigenous reference points may provide a new way of thinking about the topic. Rather than deferring to an Indigenous position as the ‘truth’, this requires an engagement with and extension of the disciplinary conventions in your field. Theories such as the cultural interface and Indigenous standpoint theory (see Nakata, 2007b) can be useful tools to assist higher degree researchers in interpreting contemporary Indigenous situations.

Selecting and responding to examiners of Indigenous research projects

Indigenous research remains a small field, with a small pool of potential examiners. The pool of Indigenous examiners is smaller still, and both personal and professional conflicts of interest exist.

A thesis does not need to be examined by an Indigenous examiner, rather by an expert in the field. There will be a strong correlation between Indigenous research expertise and Indigenous examiners, but where an Indigenous expert in the field is unavailable, the next best choice is another disciplinary expert, rather than an Indigenous examiner with less expertise in the thesis subject matter. Again, this approach centres the supervisor’s responsibility to the candidate.

You will need to guide the higher degree researcher in responding to examiners, particularly where reports are critical of the work. Some examiners hold strong convictions about what constitutes appropriate methodological and theoretical approaches for Indigenous projects, which may or may not reflect genuine issues in the thesis. Where critique corresponds to the argument presented in the thesis, it should be addressed. Where critique is founded in alternative theoretical or ideological perspectives, the higher degree researcher can identify this in their response to examiners.

Supporting publications

Supervisors play a key role in encouraging and supporting Indigenous higher degree researchers to establish their track records, particularly as lead and sole authors. This can include developing a publication plan and demonstrating how manuscripts can be developed from thesis work (or vice-versa).

As a supervisor, you mentor an Indigenous higher degree researcher into new academic networks. They are invited onto an existing research team’s proposed publication, whose lead researcher you have known for many years, and who is keen for the novice researcher to contribute an analysis of Indigenous knowledges relevant to the central thesis. This is an exciting opportunity for establishing a publishing record for the higher degree researcher. As the paper takes shape, the higher degree researcher makes their contribution but then raises concerns that the analysis is not consistent with their contribution around Indigenous knowledges. The higher degree researcher suggests a different approach, but the research team rejects this idea and indicates they are overstepping their agreed contribution. The higher degree researcher is distressed: they can either keep their name on the paper, despite their reservations about its overall argument; or they can withdraw, eliminating an opportunity for their first publication and risking new professional relationships. They share with you what has happened, but do not explicitly ask you for advice.

In this situation, a supervisor needs to prioritise and protect the interests of the higher degree researcher, their intellectual integrity, together with the goals of timely completion and establishing a research track record. A number of options follow: you can offer your support to the higher degree researcher no matter what decision they make. Whether they progress the publication or not, you can help identify an alternative publication opportunity from their own emerging research that they might lead or sole author. You can de-emphasise the need to publish under these circumstances, and assure them of future opportunities. You can smooth tense relationships with your colleagues, or you might be willing to advocate for them more strongly given your long-standing relationship with the project lead.


Supervisors have a vital role to play in educating the next generation of Indigenous researchers. As you develop your own experience, awareness of the complexities of Indigenous research, and to protect the interests of the Indigenous higher degree researcher by ensuring a high-quality research experience.



While most of these sources and additional readings are freely available, some are not. The lock icon Closed lock icon beside an entry indicates that the source may be available from your library.

Supporting Indigenous HDRs

Barney, K. (2013). ‘Taking your mob with you’: Giving voice to the experiences of Indigenous Australian postgraduate students. Higher Education Research & Development, 32(4), 515–528. https://doi.org/10.1080/07294360.2012.696186 Closed lock icon

Hutchings, K., Bainbridge, R., Bodle, K., & Miller, A. (2019). Determinants of attraction, retention and completion for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander higher degree research students: A systematic review to inform future research directions. Research in Higher Education, 60, 245–272. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11162-018-9511-5 Closed lock icon

Indigenous Research Support Network. (n.d.). Support our researchers. James Cook University. https://www.jcu.edu.au/ierc/indigenous-research-support-network

McDowall, A. (2022). Preparing postgraduate research students to research Indigenous topics. Innovations in Education and Teaching International. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1080/14703297.2022.2157857 Closed lock icon

Moreton-Robinson, A., Anderson, P., Levon, B., Nguyen, L. & Pham, T. (2020). Report on Indigenous success in higher degree by research: Prepared for Australian Government Department of Education and Training. Indigenous Research and Engagement Unit, Queensland University of Technology. https://www.qut.edu.au/?a=921040

Nakata, M. & Nakata, V. (2023). Supporting Indigenous students to succeed at university: A resource for the higher education sector. Routledge. Closed lock icon


Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. (2020). AIATSIS code of ethics for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Research. https://aiatsis.gov.au/research/ethical-research/code-ethics

Nakata, N. M., & Nakata, V. S. (2011). Report of Torres Strait fisheries research protocols: A guide for researchers. UTSePress. https://utsepress.lib.uts.edu.au/site/books/m/10.5130/978-0-9924518-4-4/

National Health and Medical Research Council. (n.d.). NHMRC ethical guidelines for research with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. https://www.nhmrc.gov.au/research-policy/ethics/ethical-guidelines-research-aboriginal-and-torres-strait-islander-peoples


Kukutai, T. & Taylor, J. (2016). Indigenous data sovereignty: Toward an agenda. Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, Australian National University. http://doi.org/10.22459/CAEPR38.11.2016

Nakata, M. (2007a). Disciplining the savages, savaging the disciplines. Aboriginal Studies Press. Closed lock icon

Nakata, M. (2007b). The cultural interface. Australian Journal of Indigenous Education, 36(s1), 7-14. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1326011100004646

Tuhiwai Smith, L. (2011). Decolonizing methodologies: Research and Indigenous peoples. Zed Books. Closed lock icon


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Confident Supervisors: Creating Independent Researchers Copyright © 2023 by Ailie McDowall; Sana Nakata; Martin Nakata; and Felecia Watkin-Lui is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.