Teaching researchers to fly

Supervising PhD students is notoriously hard - but help is at hand, writes Stephen Pritchard
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Supervising a PhD student is one of the hardest tasks an academic can undertake. Despite this, it is an area for which there is surprisingly little guidance or advice.

While there are shelves of books offering advice to postgraduates on PhD success - with chapters on the relationship between student and staff - supervisors themselves have far less material on which to draw. It is assumed that because they are experts in a particular field, they will automatically make good supervisors. That is by no means always the case.

This will change next year with the publication of a series of guides by the Society for Research into Higher Education (SRHE). The guides are being edited by Dr Pat Cryer, senior visiting fellow in the higher education research and development unit at University College London.

Dr Cryer, who chairs the SRHE's international postgraduate network, runs seminars on supervision at several universities, and has written a book for doctoral students, The Research Students Guide to Success.

The first series includes volumes on supervising the production of a thesis, the needs of part-time students, and handling overseas research students. The SRHE hopes the guides will feature future titles on a wider range of issues, from PhD theses to health and safety regulations in research.

Just as research students have worries about how to tackle a PhD, Dr Cryer says supervisors face common dilemmas when handling students. Some are basic and administrative: how often to meet for supervisions, how far to become involved in copy editing. More fundamentally, supervisors have to strike the right balance between assisting a research student, and carrying out the work themselves.

Often, the decision is a highly personal one that involves moral judgements. Every new research student needs guidance in the early stages of a PhD. But the goal is to produce experts capable of independent research: spoon- feeding is not the way to build that independence.

Dr Cryer says that the word "supervisor" itself is something of a misnomer: it implies too much control over the research. The term "adviser", used in the United States and Canada, is closer to the truth of the relationship, she believes. "Supervisors see their role as to advise, to warn and to guide, but not to direct."

The publication of the guides is timely. The number of research students has grown steadily throughout the decade, at a time when senior academic staff claim they are more and more stretched. New universities especially are boosting their research efforts, but often academics are fairly new to the business of supervising PhD students.

Students are also more aware of the importance of good supervision and support and, through students' unions or bodies such as the National Postgraduate Committee, they are becoming more vocal in demanding it. At the same time, more universities are adopting codes of practice that cover the basics of the student-supervisor relationship.

Dr Cryer says guides make allowances for academics' sensibilities. They offer a way for academics to exchange ideas about good practice. Readers will be invited to comment on each paper, to help with future updates. "There are no single solutions which fit all individuals, and all situations," Dr Cryer warns. "The guides will present a range of options with their pros and cons so that individuals can make up their own minds about what is best for them."

Academics maintain that the best approach to supervision is partnership. It is almost impossible to generalise about even something as simple as how often to meet. What may be appropriate in the first year of a PhD, may not be in the final year; what could work well in a lab-based science subject, may not suit the humanities.

Dr Cryer advises supervisors and students that negotiation is the key to finding an arrangement that works.

On balancing guidance and interference, however, she warns that supervisors will have to come to their own conclusions.

"Students have to be weaned into independence, so it is reasonable to expect guidance from the supervisor," Dr Cryer says. "Nobody can say in advance when that will happen"