The work ahead

There are two key considerations that apply to any student, whatever their mode of study, and it is imperative that the supervisory team make these clear from the outset. Firstly, it needs to be understood and emphasised, by both student and staff, that the research project belongs to the student; only s/he can make a success of this. The supervisors should provide initial direction, and will offer constant advice and reinforcement throughout the period of study, but the important decisions – for better or worse – need to be made by the student. It is the student who will need to advocate and defend the thesis, and who will reap the rewards.

Secondly, the supervisors need to provide for an appropriate induction for the new student as soon as they start working. No matter how smart and self-confident a new student might be, it is wrong to assume that s/he will just “pick things up” as they go along. Whether it is the simple matter of making introductions to co-workers, or the more complex business of learning specific research methods and IT technical skills, a common-sense approach dictates that the supervisors should assume a zero baseline of experience until proven otherwise. Research has clearly shown the benefits of a good induction for students starting on undergraduate courses, and it makes no sense to assume that it would be otherwise for postgraduate research students. In fact, it is very likely that the research students will soon begin to overtake the supervisors, both in the details of their specific research methodology and also, going on current trends, in their adoption and use of new digital applications such as social media services.

For these reasons, it makes sense to have an online, or at least a digital, version of the skill-set and supporting resources that will be issued to research students at their induction. No matter how good your memory is, or how copious your note-taking, there are a lot of new things to remember and the new research student is unlikely to remember them all accurately. Nor do the need to. An online repository of relevant information, either on the institutional intranet, or on the open internet, immediately allows users different levels of access. Slow learners can re-read and re-visit the information at a later date; all learners can visit the information for revision, or when the need-to-know becomes necessary; and fast learners can delve into layers of additional information – the extras that are nice-to-know in greater depth than can normally be covered in tutorial sessions.

Another important point in favour of compiling a suite of resources online is that the very act of being required to think through all the possible situations and resources that might be needed by the research students tends to mean that a comprehensive resource can be built up. The need to prepare in advance for an asynchronous reader at a geographically distant location, rather than photocopying last minute, ad hoc guidance to be handed out in a classroom, generally results in a better designed set of resources. Of course, an additional beauty is that these resources can be updated easily and that they are available 24-7, unlike any supervisor that I know!

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