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.

Social support and burnout in the doctoral study process

This is a guest post by Solveig Cornér, who is a doctoral researcher at the University of Helsinki. Her research focus involves social support for early career researchers’ in Higher Education Institutions, on wellbeing, and on youth identities. Together with her supervisors, Professor Kirsi Pyhältö and Professor Erika Löfström, she recently published an article on ‘The Relationship Between Doctoral Students perceptions of Supervision and Burnout’.

When PhD challenges become overbearing
MATCHINGIN PROGRESS.pngAchieving a PhD can be a long and tough journey and the doctoral study process is often described as an ‘intensive’ and an ‘intellectually and emotionally challenging’ period of time. Doctoral students’ usually face many kinds of pressures that might pull them away and prevent them from maintaining their focus on achieving the doctorate. For instance, their work with their Dissertation (Thesis) becomes too stressful and overwhelming, or, their funding is ending and hence the researcher faces financial hardship.

Another factor that can affect the study process is that the doctoral student doesn’t receive adequate support from others, for their academic development, or even the support to respond to the inevitable PhD challenges.

The combined result when students experience challenges and their community of practice fails to provide adequate and constructive support for those challenges, can lead to increased ‘ill-being’, and even withdrawal from their doctoral program.

In our recent study, we investigated the interrelation between social support structures and experiences of burnout*. Burnout in the doctoral study process is a symptom of ill-being that is not often talked about in this group. We looked closely into doctoral students’ perceptions of supervision, including the frequency of supervision and overall satisfaction with supervision, and we connected this with their perceptions of burnout.

We used an internationally validated instrument, namely the Doctoral Experience Survey (Pyhältö et al., 2017) to collect data in three universities in Finland. The sample consisted of 248 doctoral students representing Humanities and Theology, Natural Sciences and Engineering, Social Sciences and Law, Behavioral Sciences, Economics and Medicine.

Support comes from a range of players

Firstly, the students’ in our study benefited from having several and varying sources of doctoral supervision beyond their main supervisor. These other sources included peers and individuals from the researcher community, both nationally and internationally.

Secondly, the students’ reported on the frequency of their supervisions, varying from daily meetings to less than once every sixth months. Most typically, students received supervision either once every second month (30%) or every month (26%).

Thirdly, the doctoral students who participated also had varying experiences of the quality of supervisory support. On average, students reported that they received overall constructive supervision e.g. receiving encouragement and positive attention. They also reported that they received support from the researcher community, entailing acceptance, appreciation and collegial support.

What’s more, the students we researched commented on whether or not they were treated as equals in the research community, including: observing justice and fair play among fellow doctoral students.

  • Overall, doctoral students who reported high levels of support from the researcher community, who perceived that they received constructive supervision, and who felt that they were equally treated were more satisfied with supervision than their peers.
  • On the other hand, several factors were associated with experiences of burnout. Lack of satisfaction with their supervision, a low frequency of supervision and poor experiences of equality within the researcher community were related to experiences of burnout.
  • Finally, and importantly, our results showed that experiences of burnout, were connected with the student’s intention to leave their PhD course. It’s worth noting that students who received supervision from several supervisors reported less intention to leave their PhD. Hence, a collective model of supervision is related with reduced risks of students experiencing burnout.
In conclusion, we suggest that by enhancing various sources of social support we can offer a substantial base for future development of enabling practices in researcher education. We call for greater emphasis on group supervision and other collective forms of supervision. If our doctoral students are not provided with sufficient social support to overcome the challenges faced in the study process, it is likely to reduce experiences of wellbeing, and, in the long run, increase the risk of doctoral students abandoning their studies.

* “Burnout is defined as prolonged work-related stress together with symptoms of exhaustion and cynicism and when these symptoms are combined it may lead to burnout. Exhaustion is described by feelings of strain, chronic fatigue and lack of emotional energy. Cynicism, on the other hand, is characterized as depersonalization and an excessively detached response to colleagues and other aspects of the job. Often, both exhaustion and cynicism, has shown to emerge from overload at work, heavy job demands, and, also social conflict.” (Maslach, 2003Maslach & Jackson, 1981).

building and breaking professional trust in doctoral student-supervisor relationships

I am delighted that the Trust Me! research report is now available here on the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education web pages!

This report presents findings from a research study looking at perceptions of trust in doctoral supervision relationships. It views academic supervisors in the context of their role as leaders and enablers of trust within their research environments and higher education institutions. It aims to take a broad exploratory view of the specific behaviours that are important in trust building in supervisory relationships.

Supervisory leadership is characterised by tensions and balances. To build trust a supervisor must respond to the student’s individual needs and circumstances and develop a discipline-appropriate professional practice in supervision. This study contributes insight into the nature of that supervisory trust. It deepens our understanding of what constitutes a ‘good quality’ student-supervisor relationship, and signals the presence or absence of trust as a component of quality.

Recommendations are offered that draw on the presented evidence and make suggestions for how supervisors could be supported to establish and sustain trusting supervision relationships. The practical recommendations avoid the language of supervision ‘skills’, preferring instead to describe contextual and demonstrable trust-building behaviours within the social worlds of research environments and relationships.

There is an online open access and free workshop with learning resources for supervisors here, that I have created from the research findings.

The primary aim of this report is to assist higher education institutions to enhance supervisory practice, specifically through focusing on relationship tensions. I am sure that supervisors themselves will also find it very interesting.

This report is available to LFHE member institutions. Downloading the publication requires you to have, or make, an account using your university email address. If you have any problems gaining access, please let @AdvanceHE know.


what is predoctorbility?

This site is based in the data collected from a project investigating the vulnerabilities and tensions in the relationship between doctoral students and their supervisors. It asked about the quality of that relationship: what constitutes ‘quality’, what does quality mean for learning, and how do you get a quality relationship, and how would you recognise if and when you have it?

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