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. 

recognising the valuable contribution that postdocs make to the supervision of PhD Students.

This is a guest post from Laura Lane, Head of Strategy and Operations at the Graduate School, Imperial College London and currently Chair of the UK Council for Graduate Education’s Graduate School Managers’ Network. Grad School twitter  |  facebook  |  Instagram

This blog post is designed to provide a practical example of how Imperial College London has chosen to formally recognise the valuable contribution that postdocs make to the supervision of PhD students.  It briefly summarises how and why the framework was established and provides links to all relevant documentation which forms part of the process.  I am very happy for colleagues to contact me with further questions about any aspect of this provision.


During 2014-15, the Graduate School established an institution-wide project called, the world class research supervision project.  As part of this project, over 1,400 doctoral students and 400 academic staff shared their thoughts and experiences of research degree supervision at the College.  As a result, the College agreed 40 recommendations, covering many aspects of the research student experience, which were taken forward by seven task and finish groups.

Between 2016 and 2018, the Task and Finish Group for the Student Supervisor Partnership worked to address the recommendations which related specifically to supporting students and supervisors to have effective working relationships.  However, one other important aspect of this group’s work was to review the role and valuable contribution postdocs make to PhD supervision and to implement means of recognition.  This came through really strongly in the feedback received from staff and students as part of the original consultation.

Working Party for Recognising Postdocs

In order to take this forward, the Task and Finish Group for the Student Supervisor Partnership itself established a Working Party to look specifically at this recommendation.  The Working Party for Recognising Postdocs comprised academic staff from each of the College’s Faculties, Postdoc Reps, the Head of the Postdoc and Fellows Development Centre (Dr Liz Elvidge), representation from Human Resources and myself.  This Working Party met twice to consider the roles and responsibilities that postdocs carry out with respect to PhD supervision, the training and support needed in order for postdocs to carry out these roles effectively and finally to develop a process which formally recognises postdocs as Assistant Supervisors to PhD students.  At the first meeting, draft documentation was prepared and the Postdoc Reps were asked to consult with the Postdoc Rep Network on the draft paperwork and proposed process in time for the next meeting.

Recognising Postdocs

The following documents were developed by the Working Party for Postdocs, agreed by the Task and Finish Group for the Student Supervisor Partnership and approved by the College’s Postgraduate Research Quality Committee.  All have now been implemented.

  1. A roles and responsibilities document for the role of Assistant Supervisor
  2. Continuing Professional Development Framework for Assistant Supervisors which includes mandatory training and other recommended workshops and support.
  3. Assistant Supervisors also have access to the online Supervisors’ Guidebook which contains further resources and information to support them in their role.

The formal process for recognising postdocs as Assistant Supervisors was agreed with Human Resources (HR) and enables academic Departments to make requests for HR to issue formal notification of appointment to Assistant Supervisor, subject to completion of the mandatory online training course “introduction to supervision at Imperial College London” and with agreement from the postdoc’s line manager.  On a termly basis, the Graduate School confirms to Departments which postdocs have completed the mandatory training.

Concluding remarks

It is hoped that postdocs who are formally appointed to Assistant Supervisors will find this helpful in terms of their career development and can refer to this appointment on their CVs.  As a final note, the College also agreed to include reference to Assistant Supervisors in the Early Stage Assessment Form (9 month milestone) and Late Stage Review Form (18-24 month milestone).

Although driven by the Imperial College Graduate School there have been many contributors to this important project and I would like to extend thanks to all those who have shared their expertise and given up their time to contribute.