Recommendations on PhD Supervision

Introduction

“Misconceptions between people mostly occur due to erroneous assumptions of the interpretation of each other’s behavior.”

(unknown)

Quality of supervision is an important theme, of high interest to research schools, PhD candidates and supervisors. Although a PhD trajectory is focused on performance and output on a specific academic topic, supervision quality andrelationship with the supervisor are considered to be amongst the most important issues for a PhD candidate, an importance definitely not being met with the number of scientific publications on this topic. Only few literature sources,mostly policy documents, on relational aspects can be found. These indicate that motivational aspects (showing interest), content aspects (knowledge of the supervisor on the topic) and process- oriented aspects are deemed necessaryfor qualitatively good supervision (Delaney, 2008; Gill & Burnard, 2008; Leonard, Metcalfe, Becker, & Evand, 2006; Sinclair, 2004; Sonneveld, 2009; Willems, 2009). Even without further supporting evidence, it is perfectly imaginablethat a good relationship between the PhD candidate and his or her supervisor will not only enhance a candidate’s motivation; it might also increase his or her output.

PhD candidates and their supervisors do not enter the PhD trajectory as equals; their relationship is hierarchical by nature. The PhD candidate is highly dependent on his or her supervisor(s), which is reflected by the go/no-goverdict 10 months after the start of the trajectory in the Netherlands, by the quality and speed of the feedback provided by supervisors, and because of important decisions, such as when to submit a manuscript to a journal or to thethesis assessment committee, being made by supervisors, not by PhD candidates. This can cause feelings of dependency and uncertainty within a person, feelings that need to be acknowledged and handled carefully by supervisors.

Supervisors, on the other hand, may also experience doubts and difficulties in their relationship with a PhD candidate, even if they have ample experience with supervision. Whereas new supervisors might experience a lack ofsupervision skills or experience, the more experienced ones might not always be aware of the increasing gap between their own knowledge, skills and competences, and the level of those in their candidates. The supervisor’s skills, such asempathy, communication and coaching skills, are highly important for matching or mismatching with a PhD candidate (Delaney, 2008; Gill & Burnard, 2008; Sinclair, 2004).

With the present study we aim to explore relational aspects by investigating the expectations, experiences, andopinions of PhD candidates and supervisors regarding each other’s role.

 

Recommendations

“When people would give each other more space, they would undoubtedly draw closer to each other.”

(unknown)

 To facilitate successful supervision for both supervisors and PhD candidates we will present general recommendations first, followed by separate recommendations for PhD candidates and for supervisors that are based on the findings of this study.

General

  • Mutual expectations should be explicitly discussed at the start of the trajectory and have a regular follow-up. Just like any other meeting an agenda and minutes should be made.Topics to be discussed should include practicalexpectations, such as for example how many days prior to the meeting the PhD candidate is to send the written material, or how long after a draft article has been sent to the supervisor; he or she should give feedback to the PhD candidate.Also responsibilities (of the PhD candidate, of the supervisor(s), or shared) should be made explicit. Naturally this might vary by the stage the trajectory is in. Other topics could include more generic expectations regarding the way ofworking together, such as discussing how to have clear and open channels of communication, and how to establish opportunities to discuss progress of the PhD trajectory with each other.
  • Feedback rules should be used whenever feedback is given. These rules state: start with the positive, mention in clear and specific terms what aspects need improvement and how to achieve them, and end with the positive.Constructive feedback is important as it contributes to a positive atmosphere, nurturing self-confidence and self-esteem in the receiver. By feedback being concrete and specific, it prevents misunderstandings and decreaseslikelihood of negative feelings, uncertainty and resentment. Although it is a simple rule for professional academic behaviour, it remains important to emphasise time and again.
  • During the PhD trajectory, expectations and responsibilities for PhD candidates vary, and so do the level of control and guidance by the supervisor. It is good to monitor the expectations of each other, and adjust levels of control andguidance depending on the PhD project’s phase and PhD candidates’ performance. Discuss these issues openly, either during regular meetings or during yearly evaluations.
  • During the yearly evaluation, do not only discuss the progress of the PhD trajectory, but also talk about the relationship and communication within the PhD team. Write notes about this in minutes or in a document for annual evaluationof the trajectory as well.
  • Ask for mutual feedback regarding the process and progress of the PhD trajectory and how the supervision is being experienced at regular intervals of the PhD trajectory. Talk about the points of improvement in the way feedback isgiven and on communication within the PhD team. Both parties are responsible for bringing up issues related to personal characteristics, knowledge, skills and communication and coaching skills that need to be changed or improved.

for Phd candidates

  • Make a long-term, structured plan of meetings with promoter(s) and co- promoter(s),to ensure there is sufficient guidance at every stage of the project. If the project enters a busier or quieter phase, the frequency of meetings could beadjusted with consent of all those involved.
  • If you would like to change something, initiate the process, and take responsibility for the PhD project and for your own contributions and activities and contribute to an open atmosphere of giving and receiving feedback.
  • To help monitor the responsibilities and progression of the project, take minutes of team meetings and send them to promoter(s) and co-promoter as a basis for next meeting.

for supervisors

  • HR agents should be involved in the selection and recruitment of a PhD candidate, since they have knowledge and experience regarding the selection procedures, and can be of valuable help in making adequate choices in theprocess of the selection of the PhD candidate.
  • Supervision is a demanding task and supervisors are generally not specifically trained to provide supervision, but have to acquire these skills ‘on the job’. Therefore, attending supervision courses or peer exchange meetings at regularpoints in time is advisable, to regularly discuss supervision issues confidentially with peers, learn from each other’s approaches and support those struggling with specific issues. More experienced supervisors should advise andcoach less experienced supervisors on how to develop and improve supervision skills, for example, by sharing the supervision of particular PhD candidates as a team.
  • Personalise your approach: different PhD candidates require different styles of supervision, and different phases of the project require varying levels of support and control. Help your PhD candidate to gradually become moreindependent and self-confident.
  • Try to open doors for the PhD candidates by sharing professional networks. PhD candidates appreciate it.
  • Content-related knowledge and expertise are important, but do not forget that PhD candidates highly value a personal approach and sensitivity for their individuality, and are more vulnerable to the way feedback is given ratherthan what the feedback is about content-wise.
  • Since supervision is a demanding and time-consuming task, before taking up responsibility for supervising another PhD student, honestly and realistically evaluate whether there is enough time and energy available for it. If not,divide supervision tasks clearly over several members of the supervision team, offer assistance in the form of co-authorship, ad-hoc participation in the project or refer the PhD candidate to another supervisor.
  • Open up a discussion within research schools regarding a policy about the quality of PhD supervision and means to evaluate its quality.
  • Be conscious about the dynamics within the supervising team and how this might affect the PhD candidate and his/her work. Preferably, the different supervisors within the team complement each other. There should be one supervisor(daily supervisor) that will take up an intensive coaching role and is available most frequently.

Reference:

Blair, L. (2016). Writing a Graduate Thesis Or Dissertation. Springer.

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3 Comments
  1. Adebukanla Jamiu Kolawole says

    Good

    1. Eng. Zaid A Alsmadi says

      thank you

  2. Sani Lawal Daura. says

    Compliance with the aboved by both the PhD Student and the Supervisor will ensure a definite success. A good price of write-up, indeed. Thanks!

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