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

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.

Community Acuity (9) training, training everywhere… how to survive (and prosper) in the new doctoral landscape

‘Community Acuity’ blog posts are from supervisors, to supervisors. They share the thoughts, experiences and reflection of the highs and the challenges of supervising doctoral students. 

Dr Glyn Williams is a Reader in international development and a former member of the ESRC White Rose Doctoral Training Partnership’s management team.

For PhD supervisors new to UK academia, or for any who finished their own theses more than a decade ago, the contemporary doctoral training landscape can be a confusing place. There is a sea of acronyms, (CDTs, DTCs, DTPs…) linked to a bewildering array of cross-disciplinary and cross-institutional partnerships. All seem to be vying loudly for your students’ attention with claims to develop their research and professional skills to previously unknown heights.

My own PhD experience – and I’m not that ancient – was vastly different. One-to-one PhD supervision was pretty much the sum total of my doctoral training, supplemented by the very occasional workshop. Because for some of my fellow supervisors these differences are as unwelcome as they are incomprehensible, I want to offer a few words of comfort, but also in defence of the new doctoral landscape.

Understand the ethos – The point of the new development landscape is to enable broad-based, critically-reflective professional researchers, not just to equip students with the tools to complete their own PhD topics. So, yes, this will involve them learning about methodological techniques they won’t immediately use, or sitting in workshops reflecting on things – such as how to manage their relationships with their supervisors – we might think of as a distraction from their ‘real’ work as researchers. Clearly, we need to be wary of producing an ever-growing training industry, but equally we must recognise the dangers of leaving things where they were. Less than one in ten UK PhD students will go on to a permanent academic post, and those that do will increasingly work in interdisciplinary teams, not narrow disciplinary silos. Providing space to talk about the PhD process makes it understandable across cultural and other boundaries, not simply the arcane practice of a cult of insiders. Doing this collectively addresses the isolation of doctoral study, and is therefore vital in supporting student well-being.

Recognise the supervisor’s changing role (see also this post, and this post)– The easiest way to describe the change here is from guru to guide. Rather than being the perfect role model, or the font of all knowledge, we can all contribute to doctoral students’ development simply by knowing what development activities are out there. Keeping our ears to the ground, finding out from colleagues and our Departments’ students what workshops and events they’ve found most valuable, and which are best avoided, are therefore tasks of considerable value. Likewise, your training review meetings don’t have to be bureaucratic exercises in box-ticking: they can create meaningful and achievable plans that integrate our students’ broader development with the progress of their theses.

Engage and participate – Finally, remember that one of the things most valued by doctoral students is hearing good researchers explaining and reflecting on core elements of their craft. This could be about the use of a research technique, how to survive fieldwork, or how to deal with journal reviewers’ comments. Many of us are not comfortable putting ourselves forwards as ‘experts’, but the fact remains that we’ve all got something useful to share that will invariably have a potential audience that’s far wider than our PhD students. Facilitating that process of sharing should be one of the core tasks of your local DTP/DTC/CDT – so don’t be afraid to get involved!

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encouraging robust scholars: how can we encourage students to critically give and receive?

This is a guest post from Dr Steve Hutchinson, a freelance consultant and author on doctoral development and supervision.

Let’s start with two quotes taken from a book called Enhancing the Doctoral Experience. Both quotes are from research students and they highlight a common ingredient in the challenge of growing as a researcher. Continue reading “encouraging robust scholars: how can we encourage students to critically give and receive?”