On the starting blocks

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It seems, therefore, that starting to study for a PhD is much like starting on any new job. On your first days at work you want to feel comfortable, both with your environment and your colleagues. The induction is simple, and after all, mainly common-sense. The student needs to know where to find things that are going to be useful, everything from the desk and chair where they are going to sit, to the facilities that they will be using – the tea-room, the toilets, the laboratory, the library, and so on. They also need to be introduced to the people they will be working with – their fellow postgraduates, the academic staff, the support staff, and most of all, their supervisors. This is going to be the case whether the student has newly arrived at the university or has already studied there as an undergraduate for several years. In the latter case, the evolution from undergraduate to postgraduate might be deceptive, because although there might already be an established familiarity between the students and staff, this relationship will necessarily be subtly changed. When a postgraduate student embarks upon a PhD they are normally treated as an honorary, if temporary, member of staff. They will have more generous permissions for library and IT services than they had as an undergraduate, they might be encouraged, or even expected, to acquire a teaching commitment in the department, and they will certainly be expected to hold there own in academic discussions when their subject area comes up.

In all of these changing circumstances, the supervisor has a mentoring and advisory role for the student, and this relationship needs to be established at the outset. Although the precise topic of the PhD study may have been decided by the supervisor, who has raised the money to support a students, then interviewed and appointed a likely candidate, the fact is that from the moment of embarking, the research topic is owned by the student, not the supervisor. The student must go from a standing start to becoming a recognised expert in this area of research, and this can only be achieved if the student makes the subject their own. The role of the supervisors is to help the student to develop the skills to complete the task. Obviously, the supervisors have a vested interest in the student reaching a successful outcome, but this stops short of actually doing the work for them. The distinction is that the supervisors have already won their own PhD, it is up to the student to rise to the occasion and prove their own abilities.

To start with, this is hard. Possibly the student is over-awed by the reputation of the supervisors or by the academic language that is used to phrase the nature of the challenge. Conversely, they might initially think that this is a continuation of their undergraduate work and that they just need to turn up in class often enough and take good notes in order to pass. Traditionally, PhD students have normally been based on the same campus as the main supervisor, although second and third supervisors might be located on a different campus, or even a different university. Increasingly, however, the use of digital communications, the internet, online library resources, and more flexible ways of work and study, have liberated the PhD study out of the cloisters and into the digital world of distributed education. There are a lot of tools and techniques to encourage and support the tuition of PhD research at a distance, and I would like to draw attention to these over the next few weeks as I ruminate over the experience of the PhD student and the role of the PhD supervisor in a digital environment. Like all tools and techniques, the suggestions made are just suggestions, there is no compulsion to rush out and adopt them uncritically. In addition, the usual caveat applies when discussing digital resources, in that this is a very fast-changing subject area, so software applications and services rise in popularity and disappear without trace; they are improved, superseded, and adapted to suit other purposes. So, much like the PhD process itself, their use is a voyage of discovery and transformation that leads to new ways of thinking about old problems.

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