what does supporting international doctoral learners mean?

This is a guest post by a team from the School of Education at the University of Glasgow: Dr Dely Elliot, Dr Muir Houston, Dr Kara Makara, Dr Kate Reid, Dr Catherine Lido. They reflect here on their recent national event with the UK Council for Graduate Education.

We cannot fail to notice the strong presence of international doctoral learners in British Higher Education Institutions. After all, they comprise almost half of the entire doctoral community. Although they may be under the umbrella of ‘international learners’, they are far from being a homogeneous group as they often hail from different continents. Interestingly, their shared experience of being away from home to pursue what often becomes an isolated doctoral journey can also easily lead to comparable experiences of the rewards and concerns that international doctoral education entails.

To foster an ongoing appreciation of the distinct experiences of international doctoral students in the UK, our team from the School of Education, University of Glasgow in partnership with the UK Council for Graduate Education (UKCGE) organised a national event held in Glasgow in November 2017 called ‘Enhancing the Student Experience for International Doctoral Students’.

Through this event, we intended to harness and synthesise ideas from presenters and delegates representing 20 different Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) and organisations in the UK. Thoughtful reflection and discussion revolved around how supervisors, international doctoral researchers, researcher training managers and HEIs could improve international PGR learners’ overall experience by identifying strong and effective support mechanisms.

These collective ideas led to the production of a concise list of key messages that is now available on the UKCGE website (see ‘Latest Resources’). These messages are intended to offer recommendations for how key stakeholders can assist these learners, including what international doctoral learners can do to help themselves!

For this blog, the attention is on PhD supervisors. Of all the guidelines proposed, we only highlight what our delegates regarded as the most crucial. These messages stress a few points that you probably already know and have put into practice. Yet, gentle reminders would not go amiss:

  • Consider that effective support provision needs to take into account different cultural backgrounds – this is because the learning orientations previously received do still influence learners’ preferred study approach and practices even in the new learning context.
  • From the beginning of the PhD, establish a learning alliance towards a shared goal, i.e. successful PhD completion – not only does a focus on success help reinforce the idea of genuine partnership, it also serves as a tool for combating attrition.
  • Set expectations (including explanations and clarifications), that can serve as a ‘contract’ with PGR learners – this is an effective strategy that can help smoothe the working relationship by bringing clarity of expectations between the two parties.
  • Aim for clarity of deadlines, i.e. what is due each year, overview of processes and distinguishing what is needed and what is critical – enabling a shared workable timeline from which reasonable major and minor goals can be derived.
  • Discuss academic cultures, e.g. how to address feedback received, what the PGR processes entail, expectations of supervisors and researchers, use of supervisor’s first names or their titles, the role of indigenous knowledge when conducting research – informally facilitating a sound understanding of the new academic culture helps international PhD learners to feel reassured and to act more confidently in their new learning contexts.
  • Help address PGR learners’ feeling of isolation – although this is not strictly within the remit of PhD supervisors, they tend to be international PGRs’ key contact in the new environment. Therefore, thinking of ways of assisting them to alleviate this sense of isolation is indispensable (e.g. to encourage them to join different communities, to facilitate community-building among PhD learners).

The last two points are slightly different as they pertain to what can assist supervisors in equipping themselves with ‘tools’ to enable them to be more effective in their roles.

  • Stress the importance of peer and professional development – as supervisors need to keep abreast of PGR-related developments. It was emphasised that learning how to supervise should be based on effective practice rather than what they ‘learned’ from their previous personal experience as doctoral learners.
  • Possibility for induction with supervisors on a one-to-one basis, if necessary – should supervisors not able to take part in the induction for PGRs; an alternative could be to obtain a handbook for supervisors informed by the questions typically raised by the PGR learners.

Although the delegates focused on international PGR learners during the group conversations, what is apparent from these exemplars is that these critical messages, if carefully implemented, can benefit all doctoral researchers since many points are equally relevant to local students. Also, both local and international learners are part of the same doctoral community, as one of the delegates stressed:

‘Working towards trying to enhance PGR experience and international experience [are] important issues to address, to encourage better inclusivity.’

What this means is that efforts to support international doctoral learners will, first and foremost, benefit these learners. Effective transition to a new environment, feeling empowered and acquiring the confidence they require to function better as learners will create a more favourable impact as they interact with fellow local and international doctoral learners, and arguably extended to their respective supervisors and others in different communities of which they are part. In turn, we can argue that nurturing this group not only leads to their own growth and development but also to an enhanced and enriched experience for the whole academic community.

These ideas are merely starting points for consideration. A bigger question worth asking is how HEIs can promote a better and more coordinated approach towards enhancing institutional PGR experience – for all concerned.

Should you wish to speak to us about this event or the key messages, please feel free to contact any of the research team.


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.

Community Acuity (7) trust your gut: a cautionary tale for the eager new supervisor

‘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. 

This guest post is anonymously shared in the spirit of helping others to learn.

In Business Schools, we get a lot of applications from overseas students with full scholarships from their governments, often with mediocre proposals (think “dull but worthy”) and qualifications that it’s hard to map onto our own more familiar entry requirements. The best of these are invited to take up 4-year programmes where they study a taught Masters in Research and providing they do well, are offered a place on the PhD programme. Continue reading “Community Acuity (7) trust your gut: a cautionary tale for the eager new supervisor”

creating a shared way forward with new research students

This is a guest post by Dr Duncan Cross (PFHEA), Senior Lecturer (Education), University of Bolton.

There are a range of complexities involved in effectively supervising PhD candidates that are recognised in the literature. Delany’s (2008) literature review highlights some of those complexities as significant predictors of candidate completionwhich includes demographic data around age, funding and area of subject, and also, importantly, ‘the intellectual environment of the department …’.

Continue reading “creating a shared way forward with new research students”

Community Acuity (5) supervising doctoral writing — situated practices

‘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. 

This is a guest post from Dr Amanda French, Associate Professor, School of Education and Social Work, Birmingham City University.

Much of what I do in my supervision sessions is based on what I wish someone had told me when I was a PhD student struggling to make sense world of doctoral education where, or so it seemed to me, everyone else appeared to magically understand what was expected of them. Continue reading “Community Acuity (5) supervising doctoral writing — situated practices”

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?”

ally with your stressed students

I guest posted here on the Supervision Whisperers’ blog a couple of weeks ago on how we might ‘design-in’ self-care strategies for doctoral students. In response a few supervisors have been in touch to ask about how they might approach a student they believe to be stressed, without making things worse. Visible stress symptoms:

Continue reading “ally with your stressed students”

October is coming…

Dear doctoral supervisor,

“I was blissfully unaware how long it would take me to write up. To be honest I would have preferred a more clear marker from my supervisor, or from the department, saying stop doing experiments now and write! I was expecting someone to say when I had enough data, because I never felt I did, so instead I kept going much longer than I needed in the lab because I didn’t know how much was enough. I feel pretty annoyed about that.”

The 31st of October is coming. I mention this date as we have around 1100 third year doctoral students whose theses are due on that date*. With still 6 months to go, now is a perfect time to make sure that your thesis writers know it’s time to spend some time each week — an hour a day, every day? — writing. Continue reading “October is coming…”

PhD –> postdoc no sweat, or posthoc regret?

I work a lot with stuck and panicking PhD researchers near the end of their time here, and from them I have some intel to share. Bear in mind then that what follows doesn’t represent an ever so typical experience, but it does represent an important and keenly felt negative experience. One we can all learn from as colleagues in researcher development: be your role full time academic superhero and supervisor, or like mine, a specialist learning and development role, I think this will be relevant to you. Continue reading “PhD –> postdoc no sweat, or posthoc regret?”

coaching myths and coaching legends

I teach professional practices in coaching and mentoring* in an education context and have developed some short workshops for academic supervisors and principal investigators that focus on the relational aspects of research leadership and use coaching techniques as the basis for conversations that help people develop their thinking and understanding. Continue reading “coaching myths and coaching legends”