The Research Supervisor

ScaffoldIn the course of a normal year, I frequently help to organise an introductory training sessions for new research students and for lecturers who are just starting out to supervise research students for a PhD. Naturally, one of the issues that we address is to consider what makes a good supervisor. This is both very simple and quite intangible. The simple version is that the good supervisor guides, advises, and supports the research student through the entire process – from the first tentative steps, to the final success at the viva and subsequent graduation. This seems rather obvious, and it is fair to ask for a more detailed breakdown of the roles of a research supervisor, and this is where it gets a bit more complex. Firstly, there are two main roles for a supervisor – the Director of Studies, and the Second (or Third) supervisor. Let’s deal with the main supervisor first.

The Director of Studies (or lead supervisor) is normally the most senior of the supervisors, though this is not always the case. As the main supervisor, s/he will be responsible for the week-by-week guidance of the research student, although the frequency and extent of contact-time will vary widely for different students and subject areas. This supervisor will be the main link between the student and university administration, possibly a Graduate School or similar management section. There will be regular progress monitoring reports to complete (perhaps six-monthly), and these will normally be based upon regular formal meetings with the student to discuss the progress of the research. In addition, there will probably be lots of intervening meetings, of both short and long duration, as the supervisor responds to questions from the student, suggest tasks to perform, or recommends reading to enhance some area of knowledge that the student might benefit from. Some of these meetings might be quick, ad hoc conversations in the corridor or the café, while others will be formal reviews between the student and the whole supervisory team.

Normally the only professional requirements are that a) the supervisor has a PhD already; b) that they have some area of expertise in the subject area that they are proposing to supervise; and c) that they are attached to an academic institution. Frequently, the main supervisor is required by the university to have successfully supervised at least two PhD students to completion, usually undertaken in the more junior position of Second or Third supervisor, but this is not always the case. In certain circumstances, a non-academic expert may also be appointed as an Advisor, rather than a Supervisor, if this person has some relevant specialist skills or knowledge, for instance an important industrial contact.

Like all walks of life, some Directors of Study are more diligent than others, and have greater or lesser social skills and leadership qualities, but basically they all have a vested interest in assisting the student to complete their PhD. Usually the supervisors share a common enthusiasm for the research topic with the student, and helps to co-create the voyage of discovery. Even with the best supervisor, it would be foolish to expect them to know the answer to everything, but hopefully their level of experience should be able to suggest a logical way to discover these answers. I like to give detailed (line by line) feedback on the first pieces of academic writing from the student, so that some guidance on the style of academic writing, the level of detail, and the quality of the text can be established, but some supervisors may take a less hands-on approach. My role is to help the student to understand and deal with the academic challenge that they face during the research project, but it is to guide and offer advice on how they might tackle these challenges, to provide some scaffolding, not to do the work for them.


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