Becoming A Research Degree Supervisor

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Once you have become established in your academic career, probably having been in a permanent job for a few years, you may have the opportunity to develop your career further by supervising research degree students (either research masters or PhDs). This article offers some advice on this new challenge.

1. Why supervise research students?

Taking on the supervision of research students of your own is a natural career progression in academia. It is incredibly rewarding and can be the most enjoyable part of an academic’s working life as he or she establishes a close working relationship with a new scholar. At many institutions supervising research students is also an important way of securing promotion. Without this experience on your CV it is unlikely that you will progress to the grade of Reader or Professor.

2. Useful resources for a supervisor:

You will have been chosen by a student as a supervisor because you are a subject expert in a particular field. However, you also have to be aware of the way in which research degrees are managed and regulated.

Have a look at the QAA website (Qualifications Assurance Agency) to investigate what a research degree in the UK should offer a student. They have a Quality Code which lists 18 indicators of good practice.

The HEFCE website explains the ways that universities are monitored to ensure students complete their degrees. Students used to be able to take as long as they liked to finish their studies. Now, universities are under pressure to ensure that full time masters students complete in one year and PhDs in three years.

Research council websites are also a useful port of call to investigate how a prospective research student might fund their work.

The Office of the Independent Adjudicator will be important if anything goes wrong with the supervisory process as they handle the complaints and appeals procedure.

3. Things to consider when taking on a research student:

Funding: how will they pay for their degree? Can they get a research council award? Will the university support them?

Relationship: how do I build a strong professional relationship with my student?

Leadership: am I acting as a mentor or am I the leader with them as second in command? The answer to this question will be depend on your personality type but might also be subject specific, with science PhDs being more collaborative and humanities usually more student-led.

Goal: other than getting the degree, what is the student’s goal? Publications? Securing an academic job? How can I help them to achieve this?

Administration: what does the university require of me and when? Sometimes delaying the form-filling process can adversely affect your student.

Where do I start?

As a permanent member of staff, you will hopefully have annual personal development reviews where your performance and career development requirements are appraised. Let your mentor know in one of these meetings that you want to supervise research degrees. He or she will then help you to move towards that goal.

The first task will usually be to undertake some in-house training that prepares you for this role. Once this is complete, use your university website and other forums to advertise that you are willing to accept research students. Being involved in your department’s taught masters programme can help you to attract research students too.

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