Supervising Research Students

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Once you have been in an academic post for a few years and are heading towards mid-career, you will have the opportunity to supervise research students. This is one of the most rewarding aspects of academic life, working one to one with a fellow enthusiast and guiding them towards a significant intellectual achievement. 

PhD students:

Most academics advertise their willingness to supervise PhD students on their websites. As your name becomes known, other academics will recommend you as a supervisor by word of mouth.

There are three main routes for acquiring a PhD student:

  • Advertise a funded PhD research studentship. This will be on a project that is very close to your own work. You will have usually mapped out the research focus in advance of receiving applicants.
  • An applicant comes up with his/her own project and approaches you to be their supervisor.
  • If you have a taught MA programme at your university, some students will be keen to progress and develop a project begun at MA level. If you are the best person to supervise a PhD and you think that this the right choice for the student then this is an obvious way to acquire PhD students.

Masters research students:

Some universities offer MA by research and MPhil degrees as a stepping stone between undergraduate, taught masters and PhD level. These degrees are for one or two years and will result in a shorter piece of work than a PhD, but will nevertheless involve a similar role for the supervisor.

Being a supervisor: important issues

  • Paperwork: one of the most onerous tasks is the amount of paperwork that you have to complete. Each institution’s procedures will be different but many require regular reports of the student’s progress and status.
  • Establish a positive relationship from the start. Each research student will come to the degree with different expectations. In terms of frequency of meeting some will want to meet with you very regularly, while others want to be left alone. Some students like to keep in contact via email, or telephone, whereas others rely on face to face meetings. As for the amount of guidance you provide, some students will want you to lead their project, telling them what to do at every stage, whereas others will require a sounding board for them to explore ideas.
  • Also important is type of supervisor you are. This will depend on your personality type and level of experience. Do you see yourself as an advisor, a collaborator, a leader? Do you see your role as to impart wisdom, or will you help the student to find the answers for themselves? The role of research supervisor can be an awkward one; you are no longer teacher and pupil, but this is a different relationship from that with colleagues or friends. Think about your own research supervisor and how you related to him or her. Did that relationship work and if not, how can you do things better?

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