How can supervisors help doctoral students to complete on time?

Shane Dowle is a PhD researcher at Royal Holloway and Head of Studentships and Programmes within the University of Surrey’s Doctoral College. 

Taking on a new doctoral student is an exciting prospect for any academic. Three to four years of interesting research and a new intellectual partnership stretch out before you. Yet those years fly by. Before you know it, you are reviewing thesis chapters as the spectre of the final submission deadline looms over you and your student. You might find yourself wondering where all that time went and marvelling at how your student managed to squeeze in so many things – research, writing, teaching, training, a placement, conferences, outreach, the list goes on…

This raises an important question for supervisors: How can you help your doctoral students to make the most of their doctoral experience and still submit their thesis on time?This is a big question. I was so intrigued by it that I decided to embark on my own PhD adventure to find out more.  

Here is a glimpse at what the supervisors who participated in my study thought: 

Planning balance: Supervisors were increasingly aware of the range of opportunities available to doctoral students, which, for the most part, they regarded as value-adding and essential for their students’ future careers.  A common concern amongst supervisors was that their students might take on too many extra opportunities or take them on at the wrong time. This could jeopardise progress with the thesis and risk leaving students feeling frazzled. To help students find a good balance between the competing demands on their time, supervisors found it beneficial to take an active role in supporting their students to plan out their activities, helping them to make judicious choices. This involved active questioning: ‘Why do you think that you need to do that 10thtraining course on presentation skills? How would you feel about sharing your work at a conference this semester instead?’ This approach also helped supervisors ensure that their students were building in time to relax. Regular breaks were felt to be critical for enabling students to maintain a healthy work life balance. 

Regular contact: So much of the doctorate is contingent on the supervisor-student relationship. Supervisors reported how regular contact with their students was key for preventing research-related problems from festering and for keeping on top of what students are working on. Regular contact also helps to build the foundations for a productive working relationship. Investing the time to get to know your students, whilst respecting professional boundaries, creates an environment in which students feel empowered to talk about what’s on their mind. This can help you to diagnose research-related problems quickly and help your students to get the right support if they are experiencing personal difficulties. 

Reset the relationship with feedback: A common stumbling block for doctoral students is how to respond to your feedback on their work. Their previous degrees have taught them to gauge progress based on summative numbers and by comparing their grades to peers who are all working on the same assignment. This is no longer the case at doctoral level: the numbers have disappeared, and their peers are all working on different projects. So how can you help your students to develop a constructive relationship with feedback? One approach is to have open conversations about feedback. Through these conversations you can be explicit about your expectations, share how you have dealt with critical comments about your own work, and emphasise the reason for feedback: to help improve the work. These conversations can provide the foundations for a new relationship with feedback. 

Constructive questioning: A core skill that doctoral students need to develop is how to defend the decisions and approaches they have taken in their research – this is why the viva voce examination is sometimes known as the thesis defence. If your students are over-relying on you to provide the solutions, then alarm bells should be ringing. Instead, you can use questioning during supervisory meetings to get your students accustomed to justifying what they have done: ‘why do you think that method is suitable? How can you be confident about those knowledge claims?’ Of course, questioning should always be supportive and commensurate with the stage of your students’ research. Start gently in the early stages and build up to more rigorous questioning as your students grow in confidence and the viva approaches.

Write, write, write: Continuous writing throughout the doctorate is generally viewed as good practice but it is a difficult habit to ingrain, especially in disciplines where writing has traditionally been left until the end of the process. Across disciplines, the supervisors in my study advocated for a continuous writing approach because of its benefits: it provides a window onto how your students are thinking; it can facilitate early diagnosis of problems; it helps your student to think about the bigger picture in their research; it creates tangible evidence of progress; and it generates material that can be drawn on for publications along the way. 

You are not alone: Nowadays, universities tend to have much better organised support systems in place for supervisors. These include mentoring schemes, directors of graduate studies, doctoral colleges, and ample training opportunities. If you are experiencing an intractable problem with a research student, there are people around you who can help. Sometimes just having a conversation with somebody else can trigger an idea that unblocks things. If the problem is more serious, then these networks can link you up with people who can provide appropriate support. 

Of course, there is no magic bullet for a successful doctorate – every student and every project is different. Nevertheless, I hope that these insights from my research have given you a few ideas that you might consider using in your own supervisory practices. 

Community Acuity (18) Learning to supervise – a two-way conversation

This is a guest post by Dr Rob Pilling, Thesis Mentor and Associate Supervisor, Chemical and Biological Engineering.

As I waited to meet my first actual Thesis Mentee, I was conscious that they were expecting to meet an actual mentor. The question in my mind was whether I could be one. I had attended a workshop on coaching thesis writers and it sounded fun. I had also convinced myself that various conversations with friends and colleagues over the years ‘kind of amounted to the same thing.’ However, none of this would be the same as the actual ‘doing’ of mentoring a real person. As happens so often, the anticipation was more worrying that the reality. I survived the first session and have progressed steadily since. 

Thesis Mentoring at The University of Sheffield offers mentors training and experience of delivering coaching support for PhD Researchers. The Associate SuperVisionaries Framework builds on this offering a professional development pathway for supervisory practice. It piloted in autumn 2018, and will launch again in 2019. I’ve been involved on the Thesis Mentoring side for a couple of years and also recently completed the pilot. These initiatives target primarily early career researchers (Research Associates, Fellows, New Lecturers), so my own path is atypical. I work in research management, having previously operated outside of higher education and I gained my PhD back in the mists of time. None the less, I found a warm welcome onto the schemes and have benefited greatly.

I myself find motivation for thesis mentoring in the quality of the conversations. The opportunity to spend an unhurried hour with an intelligent, thoughtful researcher chatting about a piece of work, to which they are intellectually and emotionally committed. The mentoring space is defined loosely enough so that conversation can be flexible and responsive. At the same time it is tethered: both by its attention to the present and also by its contingency (reflective of two people talking as equals). The conversations are flavoured by the nature of the project, the personality of the researcher, and also their main supervisory relationship. There is more than enough to keep things interesting and, equally, common themes to provide familiarity. 

This is not to reduce thesis mentoring to idle conversation. The process draws bite from its focus and intent. There is a thesis to write and deadlines to meet. I have seen mentees express a full range of emotions, not least uncertainty, distress and anger, and also impressive transformations in mood over a few sessions or even a few minutes. Less immediate, but no less striking, has been their gentle edging towards greater independence and awareness, driven as much by associated experimentation and practice as the conversation itself. Overall, and particularly inspiring, is the vicarious excitement for the mentor, in the making of plans and sharing in the ups and downs as they unfold.

In writing this note, I considered talking about theories of coaching, experiences of putting them to practice and examples of value to the mentee. Or perhaps considering the structure of the university scheme, the workshops, colleague observations and reflective writing – all of which were brilliant and have made the steps I’ve taken possible. 

With only a few words, I tried instead to describe three valuable things that I have gained from being involved: confidence, motivation and inspiration; and also to reflect on the fact that good conversation leaves neither participant unchanged.

Complementary approaches to working effectively with international PGRs

This is a guest blog post jointly written by Dely Elliot from the University of Glasgow and Sofie Kobayashi from the University of Copenhagen. Together, they have explored the experiences of international PhD students and how supervisors may support them.

If you are interested, you can find the whole article entitled ‘How can PhD supervisors play a role in bridging academic cultures?’ here.

Embarking on a PhD in a foreign country can be a daunting experience. The challenges of research education are many and varied. Therefore, the added inherent challenges involved when navigating through a new national and academic culture tend to intensify such an experience. For many, it can easily be a steep learning curve in a double sense. 

Drawing upon our own experience, we know that moving to a new country entails a journey of ‘decoding’ another culture while simultaneously learning about one’s own culture. This comes with the realisation that the obvious ways of ‘how to do things at home’ no longer work, and therefore requires a whole new strategy of learning, unlearning, and re-learning while discovering novel and fascinating ideas in the new setting – both in academic and personal terms. 

Likewise, we can see that such a daunting experience is not restricted to PhD students alone. It can also pose as a challenging learning experience for the supervisors who work with them, especially if the culture of the PhD student is one that they are not familiar with. If so, they need to tailor their support and engage effectively in supervision across cultures where they cannot take much for granted. However, we learned that supervisors enjoy that – after all researchers are eager to learn new things. 

As researchers in higher education we are curious to better understand the challenges as well as the opportunities that our international PhD students and their supervisors encounter. This has been inspired by the two authors’ firsthand experience of being educated abroad.

Hailing from the Philippines, Dely was herself an international student who did her postgraduate studies in Thailand (MSc) and England (PhD), and has now settled in Glasgow. At the University of Glasgow, one of her primary responsibilities (and the one that she enjoys the most) is supervising postgraduate students, many of whom are international students, who undertake their research – either at Master’s or at PhD levels.

Equally, Sofie has rich personal insight into international student experience having studied and worked abroad. Currently, she is involved in teaching international PhD students and supervisors in her home country of Denmark. 

So, as part of our research, we interviewed two respective groups of PhD students and supervisors from a science faculty in Denmark. The PhD student participants all came from abroad and came specifically with the intention of doing their PhD in a Danish university. Originally, they came from Iran, Japan, India, Bangladesh, Kenya and China. The supervisors, on the other hand, were all experienced supervisors with extensive international collaboration and were highly proficient in cross-cultural communication. 

On the surface, many of their efforts appear to be informal and practical ways of supporting international PhD cohorts’ general adjustment, but they are in fact, indirect and strategic moves designed to provide gradual social assistance that is inherently and strongly linked to the academic growth and development of PhD students.

These interviews have confirmed how the international PhD students we interviewed were facing numerous challenges that resulted from contrasting what they were familiar with in their home country, compared with the new expectations that they need to meet in the host country. Examples vary from differences in teaching and learning practices, to mismatched expectations of the feedback process, and challenges posed by becoming critical thinkers – or voicing their critical thoughts. Needless to say, each example is central to the day-to-day experience of typical PhD students – local and international. Reiterating an earlier argument, existing differences between old and new academic cultures among the international cohort are contributory factors, which tend to intensify these challenges. 

Building on a deep and sensitive understanding of these culturally-informed and intensified challenges, the supervisors we interviewed then exemplified how they attempted to bridge the existing gap between the two academic cultures.

On the surface, many of their efforts appear to be informal and practical ways of supporting international PhD cohorts’ general adjustment, but they are in fact, indirect and strategic moves designed to provide gradual social assistance that is inherently and strongly linked to the academic growth and development of PhD students in Denmark.

There is evidence to suggest that supervisors’ actions result from their conscious contemplation of how to approach and support their international PhD students. They had strategies in place, i.e. of being more direct in the beginning than they would with most local PhD students. They also acknowledge that in general they put in more time and effort with international PhD students, as they always adjust their supervision to align with the actual needs of each of their students. It is worth noting that they would have strategies to enhance equity in their relationship by endeavouring to get to know their students well – in the academic or social contexts. 

Such gradual efforts to get to know the students better as a preliminary step towards helping them academically are arguably important. By doing so, supervisors then implicitly and strongly convey to their international PhD students the idea that they fully acknowledge them as whole human beings and not just as doctoral students – recognising them as people who have needs beyond doctoral-related knowledge and skills.

Additionally, humour is a tool that some supervisors in our study habitually use in an effort to flatten the supervisor-supervisee hierarchy and, in turn, make the atmosphere of supervision meetings a lot more informal and open. Supervisors do steer carefully towards a ‘friend-like’ relationship, yet avoid being friends with their PhD students. There is an argument that a friendly, professional relationship with their supervisors serves as the crucial means to encourage the international PhD students to take charge and subsequently, be more courageous in voicing their views and opinions, which is a precondition for taking a critical stance and becoming more critical in their thinking and discussion. 

Supervisors will rightly argue that international PhD students, depending on their background and experience, do possess a combination of varying strengths and weaknesses. Our study suggests that, in supporting our international PhD students and responding to their needs, some underlying mechanisms need to be recognised, too. It is because these mechanisms often underpin the overall effectiveness of the support provided, and as a result, bring delight and satisfaction not only to the international PhD students themselves, but equally, to their supervisors.  

Trailblazers: Enabling ECRs to lead doctoral supervisory teams

This is a guest post by Dr Kieran Fenby-Hulse, Assistant Professor in Research Capability & Development at Coventry University.

Experience of doing Research Supervision is essential to a researcher’s career development. Progression and interview panels, for academic roles, often expect some level of research supervision experience, with an increasing focus on acting as Lead/First Supervisor or Director of Studies. Acting as a supervisor provides researchers with the opportunity to develop and hone a range of personal and professional development skills and practices, including intellectual leadership, teaching and learning, support and development, coaching and mentoring, team building, emotional intelligence and pastoral care, as well as negotiation and conflict resolution. The act of supervision can also familiarise supervisors with the institutional, national, and international contexts for doctoral study and the changing funding landscapes for postgraduates. In this sense, supervision provides a particularly powerful form of work-based learning.

Supervision of others also offers the opportunity for researchers to develop their research portfolio, programme, and/or body of work. It helps them to further their expertise, learning with and from postgraduate researchers. It supports capacity building in their area of research and can also enable innovative and interdisciplinary approaches to research. In addition, it offers the opportunity to expand their research community and network.

The benefits to both the researcher and the research in undertaking supervision are significant. Nevertheless, early career researchers (ECRs) rarely have the opportunity to partake in supervisory practices. 

For some, this is a result of stringent eligibility policies and processes within universities that require certain levels of experience before supervision can be undertaken. These institutional processes are not misplaced. The emerging field of doctoral education shows that doctoral pedagogy is nuanced and fraught with difficulties, with issues arising often from the intimate and unseen nature of supervisory process (Boud and Lee, 2008Walker and Thomson, 2010Bengsten 2016;). In addition, recent student satisfaction surveys have provided us with an insight into postgraduate researcher perspectives that have also highlighted issues in the supervisory relationship (HEA Postgraduate Research Experience Survey, 2009-2018; Vitae, 2013Vitae, 2018). Institutions, therefore, are quite right in thinking through their approach to research supervision and with ensuring their supervisors have access to training and development and a good understanding of the nuances of the policy context and doctoral education.

This, though, has the unintended effect of leaving ECRs out of the process, as they have not yet met the quality assurance standards set by a university. This is compounded by the precarious nature of work for ECRs, where short-term contracts work against the longer-term nature required for doctoral supervision. 

To try to address some, but not all, of these challenges, the Centre for Research Capability and Development at Coventry University recently piloted a new internal funding scheme. The Trailblazers: The Early-Career Researcher and Doctoral Studentship Partnering Schemeprovides ECRs with the opportunity to lead a supervisory team and develop a doctoral project. The centrally-funded scheme focuses on trailblazing, transformative research with exceptional doctoral candidates. Important to the scheme is ensuring that the doctoral project is devised and developed by the early-career researcher and connected to the ECR’s wider programme of research and development as an independent researcher. By having the ECR intellectually lead the doctoral project, we can ensure that the scheme offers both the doctoral researcher and the ECR a developmental opportunity. 

Given ECRs are often less experienced in supervision, it is important that the doctoral experience is not impacted in any way. As such, the scheme requires that an experienced mentor with significant experience of research supervision sits on the supervisory team. We also asked that, as part of the application, for a developmental plan for both the doctoral researcher and the ECR, that takes into account both the research and researcher development.

It is possible that ECRs, particularly at early stages of their career, will move on, either because of fixed term contracts or because of career and research development opportunities. Our approach at Coventry is to keep the number of fixed-term contracts to an absolute minimum and have in the last two years halved the number of researchers on fixed term contracts. Instead we try to backfill (where possible) research assistant and research fellow posts on funded projects, rather than recruit new fixed-term positions. In addition, through our investment schemes and our developmental provision that supports doctoral, early, middle and senior career researchers, we hope to provide an attractive research environment that encourages our ECRs to stay. It is still possible that supervisors will leave and so the team-based model is central to our supervisory provision, each doctoral researcher on this scheme supported by at least two other supervisors, so that should this happens there is continuity for the doctoral researcher.

Studentships will be announced in March. We hope that this alternative approach to supervision, not only provides a significant developmental opportunity for the ECR that recognises their talent and expertise, but that also provides an innovative and dynamic intellectual space for the doctoral researcher, who has an opportunity to partner with an ECR to deliver trailblazing research and academic impact. 

Community Acuity (17): Academic babysitting – what to expect when you’re expecting (to take on maternity cover)

This is a guest post from Dr Rob Moorehead, Research Technician (and previously acting Lecturer) in Dental Materials, University of Sheffield.

A few years ago, the opportunity arose to cover an academic colleagues maternity leave. I jumped at the chance and with little time to organise changeover, I’d gone from being co-supervisor of 2 PhD students to being the primary supervisor of 7 students; 3 writing up, 2 in the middle and 2 new starters (And thats without mentioning becoming the module lead on an undergraduate programme).

I don’t think I’ve ever felt so overwhelmed in my work life. To start with I got angry, upset, frustrated and sad. Could I do this? With lots of understanding and advice from my wife I knew that to get through it I had to make a plan. I took each student and analysed what stage they were at and what support I thought they required. I then had meetings with each student individually to discuss what we thought. This was a real help; each student’s own needs, and the approach I had to take was completely different!

Some students were taking the project in the right direction and just needed me to set deadlines so they didn’t slack off. Others needed me to give them a direction in their research and to find their originality. Others had more challenging problems. Problems at home, problems with the co-supervisors, problems with motivation, medical problems, problems with their mental health. These are all very familiar to anyone who has done a PhD but how to help them is a completely different kettle of fish.

I struggled with a lot of this for a while, but lucky for me I was also completing the University’s Certificate in Learning and Teaching course. On this course they taught us about all the support services the University has for students. I finally understood that, whilst I would try to help solve the problems that their is support out there for supervisors and that it is not up to you to be the solution to all problems. You don’t have to do it all yourself. The University has some excellent support for students through student support services and when it comes to mental health issues through the Student Access to Mental Health Support (SAMHS) system.

This changed everything for me. I worked with the students through their issues and managed to get all 3 students that were writing up to finish, get the new starters moving and those that were in the middle to be positive and progressing well toward writing up. There were plenty of bumps on the way but we managed to get through them successfully, together.

Despite all the problems these 10 months doing maternity cover were easily the most rewarding that I’ve ever spent. If I was to offer 3 take away points from this they would be;

1. Assess and address individual needs, take one problem at a time;

2. Seek support for yourself in the form of formal training, a mentor, or a network of colleagues;

3. Know when and where to signpost on, you don’t have to solve everyone’s problems.

Community Acuity (16): It pays to be focused and specific when it comes to choosing a PhD topic

Dr Parveen Ali is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Nursing and Midwifery at the University of Sheffield.

Entering into a PhD programme is a big commitment and certainly a step that affects one’s life. Those who want to do a PhD are often ambitious individuals wanting to make the world a better place with their research and innovation. So, there is no doubt that the topics they choose to explore as part of their PhD are often ambitious. At the same time, a purpose of the PhD is to contribute to the body of knowledge by developing new knowledge or challenging existing concept and facts. 

In an attempt to ensure both of these requirements are met, often, candidates come up with too broad a topic and or research question. They also like to use novel and often complex methods to explore their research question and this all is done in an attempt to ensure that their research topic and the research question are unique, significant and something which will make a difference to relevant stakeholders and contribute to the body of knowledge. In my experience of being a research supervisor to PhD (and Master’s) students, they often come up with interesting but very broad ideas and do not always appreciate the implications of that in the long run.

Here the role of research supervisor becomes very important as their job is to help PhD researchers develop a focussed and specific research question which does contribute to the body of knowledge, but is also answerable and researchable in the limited timeframe of a PhD programme. The research supervisors’ job is to help their PhD students to think through various aspects of the question to ensure its developed well, as a good research question shapes the design of the study.

I see this responsibility as a significant but difficult aspect of research supervision as the supervisor has to challenge the student to think about various aspects of their research in an attempt to ensure the topic or research question is contained when the student may think otherwise. Many new researchers and especially those who are really fixed with their topic and research question, find it very hard to understand why they need to narrow down their focus. Many feel that narrowing down is going to make their study less useful. If we are not careful, tensions here can sometimes even result in break of relationship with supervisors or have a negative impact on the enthusiasm of the students with regards to their PhD. They do eventually realise the importance of staying focused; however, often, it is too late. 

I have always been interested in this aspect of study, and therefore often reflect on my own practices used as a student, and then as a supervisor. I also observe practices of my colleagues and compare and contrast between the various approaches. I realise that there are people who are receptive to feedback and then make conscious decisions for themselves; there are others who are less receptive to feedback and find it very hard to change their stance. Finally, there are those who, perhaps, are less confident about their point of view and often would accept the feedback given as it is without critique. In my view, those who are receptive to feedback, but make a conscious decision when making changes are the easiest people to work with, yet we must find a persuasive way to help all students define their project. 

Over the past few years, I have learned certain strategies to enable myself to discuss this issue effectively with my students. With regards to the discussion, I believe it is really important to take time to explore how fixed the student is with their topic and question and if they understand that their research question may need to change considering what is already known about the topic, and what can be explored within the time limit. This discussion also makes student conscious of their research topic and question and that it may need to change or specified – so it’s worth taking time over.

Another important strategy is to help students search and review literature using appropriate review questions. This exercise often helps in realising how much literature is already available out there and what are the gaps in the literature. It also helps the student increase their knowledge of what research designs have been used previously and the challenges associated with the use of each design. 

For those who are less receptive of feedback and reluctant to adapt, it is important to highlight that the PhD is just a starting point and some aspects of the question/topic can be left to explore later as a post-doc project, or future career.

I believe these strategies used in the initial few months of PhD programme really help PhD researchers to understand the importance of staying focused and develop a focussed question, something that has a long-lasting impact on all phases of PhD journey. 

Community Acuity (15): Learning to supervise – the never-ending story!

This is a guest post from Dr Candice Majewski, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Sheffield @CandiceMajewski

Let’s be honest, the first time supervising a PhD student can be a little terrifying. The vast majority of us have only done one PhD before, which isn’t exactly a huge amount of experience to draw from. There’s also that sudden realisation that, aside from the student themselves, you’re the person who can make the most difference to their chance of success. You look around for the nearest responsible adult and then realise you’re now officially that person.

Of course, if you’re at this point, the good news is you’re not the first person in this position! Many, many, people before you have navigated the process of becoming a supervisor, and the vast majority have survived this process without any major mishaps. 

Now, it’s fairly well-accepted that a PhD thesis never ends. There’s always something else a student could do (one more piece of data, one more experiment or model refinement, or re-writing that section for the umpteenth time), and the process of developing as a supervisor is pretty much the same. There’s always something more to learn, something you could do better, or a new situation to navigate. I’m currently waiting to hear the thoughts of one of my mentees, who has just observed one of my one-on-one PhD meetings, and I’m sure she’ll mention things I’ve not thought about before.

Having said that, there are a few things I’ve personally found really useful as I’ve navigated the supervisory journey. 

Working together

I was lucky in that my first two PhD supervisions were as co-supervisor, which made the transition much easier. I knew I brought something useful to the table, but ultimately I wasn’t theperson. Seeing those students successfully complete their PhDs made me much more confident when I started taking on students as first supervisor. Even if you’re not yet in a position to become an official co-supervisor, it’s worth talking to some trusted colleagues. Perhaps they might allow you to sit in on some of their supervision meetings (with permission from the student), take on some responsibility for overseeing specific aspects of a student’s work, or let you get involved in some other way. Any experience you can get, however small, can be invaluable when you start supervising formally. See Sheffield’s Associate Supervisor development framework.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that you can’t be (and aren’t expected to be) an expert in everything. Co-supervising with a colleague can also be a great way of diversifying your research by combining your areas of expertise. Coming from a very manufacturing-focused background, I’ve gained a great deal from working with colleagues in areas as diverse as Bayesian statistics, thermal modelling and micro-biology! 

Developing the relationship

The PhD student-supervisor relationship is, in many ways, one of the most intimate relationships we encounter in academia; this means it’s important to manage it effectively. Different people have different motivations, boundaries, and ways of dealing with different experiences, and this can make a difference to how we supervise. 

Making sure you’re upfront about things from the start is a crucial part of this. Do you expect your students to work certain hours? How do you prefer to communicate with them? What sort of timescales can they expect when asking you to review they’re written work? Is there flexibility in the project direction, or is it set in stone?

If there is anything that’s non-negotiable, discuss it with the student before even offering them a PhD position. Equally, how does the student prefer to work? Is there anything they need from you in order to make their PhD an enjoyable and rewarding experience?

Cultural differences can also play a big part and being aware of this can really help things run smoothly. Depending on their background a student may or may not be confident in questioning you, offering up their own ideas, or reminding you that you’ve forgotten to do something you promised to do! I’ve found relatively simple things can help; telling a student when to chase you (‘I’ll get this back to you by next Thursday, but if for any reason you don’t hear from me please remind me’), or making it explicitly clear that they are always welcome to question you if they have another (or better!) idea! It can sometimes take a while for the student to get used to a new way of doing things, and they may need to test the water slowly at first, but with a bit of patience you should find you can help bring out the best in them.

Friend or foe?

It’s also worth thinking about the level of formality/informality you prefer with your PhD students. For me I much prefer a more friendly and informal relationship, partly because that’s how I prefer to work in general. I also think that can really help when things get tough; if your students know you as a person, they’re perhaps that bit more likely to come to you when they’re struggling with something. You may need to get tough with them at certain points, but if they know you’re on their side even this can be a relatively smooth process most of the time.

Honesty helps here too. Talking about the things you struggle with (for me the top one is those awful two hour unstructured ‘networking’ sessions you often get at conferences) can make it easier for someone to admit to the things they find difficult. You may then choose to gently push them outside of their comfort zone, but understanding how they’re feeling about it will help with this too.

Talking about things you’re doing or interested in outside of work is a good way of showing your students that you want them to have a life outside of the office/lab, and hopefully shows that you understand that other things are important too. Hopefully that can help avoid students feeling like they should be working 16-hour days and only leaving the building to go home and sleep! 

Of course, each of us, and each of our students, is an individual, with different levels of comfort with different ways of working. Whatever the specific ways in which you manage your supervisory relationships (these will differ by supervisor but may also vary between your own students), perhaps the most important thing is to cultivate a situation where they know they can come and talk to you when they need to, and that you’ve always got their back if needed.

None of this is an absolute guarantee that your student will succeed, but it’s at least a good foundation to start from; hopefully it pays off when you get to proudly watch them collect their certificate on Graduation Day!

With one of my most recent PhD graduates, Dr Charis Bronze

Doctoral loans, what supervisors need to consider

Rebecca Teague is a PhD student at the University of Sussex, studying genome stability. She is a doctoral research representative for the University of Sussex U-DOC project, working towards understanding the mental health of doctoral researchers, and a student researcher at the SMARTEN project, the Student Mental Health Research Project lead by Kings College London. 

Dr Billy Bryan is a policy consultant at Technopolis Group, specialising in higher education. He researches on the topic of doctoral value with Dr Kay Guccione; the most recent (2018 publication). He recently published an article on the topic of doctoral loans in the Guardianand was invited to present at a recent UKCGE workshopon the topic.

The new loans for doctoral study in England and Wales were launched this academic year. Over 4,000 applications had been made by January 2019 according to the Student Loans Company. You might now, or in the future, supervise a student in receipt of this loan. In this post, we explain what this loan is and what it means for you in your role as a supervisor.

What are the doctoral loans? 

Prospective and current UK and EU students under 60 can apply for up to £25k over a maximum of eight years of study (full-time or part-time) to contribute towards the costs of doctoral study. Students in receipt of, or intending to apply for, any amount of UKRI funding or NHS bursaries will be ineligible for the loan, but it can be combined with university studentships or charity funding. The Government aims for around 3,000 students per year to access the loan, plateauing at 10,000 students receiving loans in total after three years, equal to £250m of loans. 

There is no London weighting on the amount available to borrow. Demonstrating ‘progress’ will be a factor in whether recipients continue receiving their payments. You will be the one who reports on this and there is no guidance on how to make that judgement. A student must apply for the loan 21 months before the end of their doctorate if they need it for their final year. This means they must be able to foresee needing money a year-and-a-half in advance or be caught out with no money to finish their course.

What it means for you

As a supervisor, you have a key role in ensuring your students’ doctorates are of value to them, the research community and beyond. We present some issues that might be experienced by students receiving doctoral loans, and provide ways you can support them. 

Ensure the project is genuinely accessible for self-funders

Depending on discipline, a doctorate can cost the candidate different amounts – the loans will not take this into account. In sciences, you may need to pay for reagents, equipment, computers or software for processing data. Others may require extensive travel for fieldwork or access to specific datasets. If any of this may be true for the project you’re offering, consider whether you have the funds independently to support a loan-funded student who takes that project on, in an equitable way, and for the duration of their doctorate. 

You will know more about the financial requirements of a project, and you should ensure whether it is suitable for any student, particularly those with limited financial backing. 

They’re not just a doctoral student

Your previous students may have had full funding to get them through their doctorate, amounting to around £57k (not including bench fees). Students in receipt of doctoral loans have only £25k for that same period, meaning that – after tuition fees – they will have around £2,250 for living costs per year (assuming a four-year degree). Unless they have another source of funding, such as their parents, savings, or a separate scholarship, this is not nearly enough to pay rent, bills and commuting costs, regardless of where they live. 

Students will have to supplement their loan income somehow and it might be with additional employment. Some may take on teaching work at their university, others may hold a part-time job outside of campus to make ends meet. If so, they will be splitting time between their research project and their job(s). 

Before you take on a student who is self-funding this way, make it clear to them what hours you expect them to work each week, and how flexible that can be. When sitting down in catch up meetings, ensure you know vaguely what their upcoming work schedule looks like, and don’t give them a to-do list of research goals that will far exceed the research time thay have allocated themselves.

There’s more to a Doctorate than the thesis at the end

Presenting at conferences and attending networking events are integral parts of the doctoral development – but can be expensive. Doctoral loans students are less able to access these paid experiences. Unlike many institutional and UKRI stipends, there is no ‘conference allowance’ attached to the doctoral loans. The student may apply for their own funding – in this case, be on hand to look for grants they can access and help them with applications.

Building strong networks during the doctorate can bear fruit for employment after graduation. Splitting time between a doctorate and a job can make it hard to access formal and informal networking opportunities but encourage it where you can. Outside of their peer networks, students can find support from: co-supervisors, personal tutors, professional services staff, researcher developers, and more. Ensure that your student knows about these people and is encouraged to access them regularly.

Financial precarity is stressful

A recent survey found that Doctoral students are at risk of “strikingly high rates of anxiety and depression”Financial precarity can also exacerbate mental health issues. Even fully funded students have financial worries, with rising rent costs, expensive childcare and sky-high commuting expenses, there’s bound to be moments of financial stress for self-funded students on top of their research. This might be occurring without you knowing it.

As a supervisor you’ll need to bear this in mind, particularly around submission time when the money is likely running low and they’re avoiding extra paid work to spend time writing (or writing in the evenings). Avoid adding to their stress and anxiety wherever possible – keep emails within working hours, allow them to work from home where it’s appropriate and remind them of their holiday entitlement, and that they should take breaks to rest and relax.

This financial stress, or stress in general, may manifest as them not spending as much time in the office/lab, or making sporadic progress due to overbearing anxiety about money, work or research. This does not mean they are being lazy or that they are not committed to the work. They need an understanding and motivating discussion with you about how things can progress, taking into account any concessions they might need to pull through. 

We hope these tips help you support your students in receipt of doctoral loans to get the most out of their studies, ensuring they don’t miss out compared to their funded colleagues. Visit the gov.uk website for further information on the loans, or click here for a discussion on the policy implications of this loan.

Community Acuity (14): poacher turned game keeper, or vice versa

This is a guest post from Dr Celia Popovic, Associate Professor at York University, Toronto. Her latest edited book, Learning from Academic Conference (2018) can be found here.

Until the end of December 2018, I was the Director of the Teaching Commons at York University. In that role I was responsible, among other things, for supporting faculty who supervise Masters and PhD students. As of January 1st2019, as my term as Director ended, I returned to my home Faculty in the School of Education as a ‘regular’ faculty member. In my 7 years as Director and before that in the UK, I was invited to take part in supervision committees and had a number of Masters students who elected to take what we call an MRP – a Major Research Paper which is something like a mini thesis. However, as a full-time faculty member my role of supervisor has increased and will continue to do so. I thus find myself on the other side of the table, in that I no longer directly support other supervisors, and instead look for support for myself.

You might suggest I should have done this other way around, and I would agree – but we don’t always get to choose the order of events. In my case I found myself asked to provide support to supervisors when I was at Birmingham City University, in the UK. I inherited a course that was highly effective, and with some updates and innovations over the years this was the basis for the support that I provided. When I came to York University I again found myself asked to provide support and so I created a Canadian version of the same course. That course was run regularly, and while those who attended rated it highly it never attracted more than 10 participants a year. Which out of a faculty cohort of 1500 is not many.

As with all teaching support, and yes, I do see graduate supervision as a form of teaching, there is no mandatory requirement for faculty at York University to engage in professional development. As a supervisor I am shocked by the lack of direct supervision or support that is on offer. I am not suggesting my colleagues are unfriendly or unsupportive, quite the reverse, but the expectation is that this is not something most people require. I do find this odd. 

Why is it that academics are quite happy to accept rigorous training in research methodology and to take advice and assistance from those who know about accessing research funds, but seem aloof to the idea of support for teaching? As a newly (re)minted faculty member, my time is my own to manage around constraints such as lectures and tutorials and department meetings. My diary is oddly empty compared to the same diary for this time last year. I anticipated that I would have plenty of time to engage in many and varied activities once I was back in the ranks, but strangely this is not the case. 

As Director I was required to attend a vast number of committee meetings, events, regular team management related catch ups and so forth. If professional development had been required, it would have been slotted in along with the other meetings. But now as a faculty member it is almost the reverse – I find myself jealousy guarding my time, but I’m not clear for what! I feel like a miser who has won the lottery, after years of little time under my own control now that I have so much of it, I am loathe to spend it frivolously. 

Unlike a miser, though, I do just that but in unexpected ways! The lack of booked appointments is not an indication of a lower workload. I have plenty of things to do, but far fewer externally determined deadlines and commitments. So now that I have had a month or so to contemplate my own needs as a supervisor, I have more sympathy for those who decline the opportunity to take a course. Not because it is unnecessary, it is needed, but because committing to a three day event feels somehow risky. My conclusion is that unless professional development for supervisors is made mandatory, it is unlikely to happen in large numbers. This is the same conclusion I reached as the person offering the support, but it feels different coming from another perspective.