The new research student

1.1 Ls

1.1 The suitability of the research student

What sort of person makes the best PhD student? What characteristics and attributes should a supervisor look for? Fortunately there is no blueprint. Each and every student is different, but there are some common attributes. Obviously, every supervisor hopes for the perfect student, who will be meticulous, self-motivated, well-disciplined, and a competent all-rounder! The reality is that most students who make it as far as being registered for a research degree will have all of these attributes in some measure. Their levels of competence and performance will vary throughout their period of study, and part of the job of a supervisor is to moderate, encourage, and develop these competencies, and perhaps to add a few more skills as the need occurs. The journey of the PhD research student is essentially and fundamentally a voyage of transformation of the student. The person who successfully completes a PhD is really a different person from the one who began; more confident, more skilled, more competent, with a fundamentally changed outlook on their own professional abilities.

In the old days, it was felt that the only way the student could acquire this change of state was for the student to inhabit the same environment as the professor. Not in the same room, of course, but certainly living within shouting distance. What really intrigues me in contemporary academia, is the ability to utilise a wide range of digital technology to narrow the conceptual distance between a supervisor on campus, and a research student at a distance. We frequently take for granted the diversity and sophistication of the digital technology within our easy reach. From ‘simple’ e-mail and Skype, to more complex social media and file-sharing protocols, there is a range of digital tools that, while they have not been specifically designed for academics, are amply suited, with perhaps minor adaptations, to the intimate world of research student supervision.

Traditionally, one, or perhaps two, academics would get together to think about a burning research question that interested them. They would seek funding to cover the costs of employing a student, meet the need of associated costs such as tuition fees, library and IT resources, possibly field work, and so on. Then they would advertise, interview, and appoint a research student, who would come to work full-time under their instruction, usually for around three years, until the student completed writing up and defending a research thesis that (usually) supported and was an extension of the life-work of the main supervisor.

This is still a common model, but fortunately the flexibility and innovation that has evolved at all levels of progressive education, has resulted in a wide range of new study options. It is increasingly frequent for research students to be self-funded, and studying part-time. These students will normally be working – fees and other bills have to be paid – and they may also have family responsibilities – the care of young children or elderly parents – that would make full-time study impossible. On the other hand, what they lose from the energy and momentum of working full-time on an absorbing research project can be made up for by increased time-span for reading, cogitation, and gathering data.

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