Improving Your Effectiveness As A PhD Supervisor

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UK PhD supervision has traditionally been a rather hands-off affair, but in a tight academic job market students are now expecting, and demanding, much more than the occasional tutorial. What are the most important things lecturers can do to help their students grow as academic researchers and to assist them in being attractive to employers?

Check out the competition.

In the EU and the US, supervising PhDs is about more than approving topics, suggesting sources and research methods, and commenting on drafts. Supervisors are expected to prepare students for employability, whether that is academic employment or industry.

For that reason, students from outside the UK often complain that their supervisors are not doing enough—it’s a conflict between their expectations and the low amount of time allotted to UK lecturers for PhD supervisions (typically, just one hour per month). 

Talk to colleagues at your institution who have a good success record as well. They may be able to make suggestions on how to make your tutorials more effective. Many universities also offer short courses for supervisors, although all too often these are more about university procedures than face-to-face practice. 

Individual vs group support.

It is worth trying to increase the time officially allotted to individual students. You may be able to make a good case for doing so by pointing to issues with PhD completion. Even Oxbridge and Russell Group universities have a problem with uncompleted PhDs, but there are some UK institutions where the PhD drop-out rate exceeds 40 percent.

Another solution is to bring students together for those parts of supervision that are not absolutely individual, such as discussions about career preparation and research methods. Moving towards a seminar style for some supervision tasks can free up time for more directed individual tutorials.

Creating information and support resources.

Another helpful technique is creating shared information resources and communities of practice (CoPs) for PhD students. These need not be online-only, though some are. The University of British Columbia in Canada is one place where CoPs have been rolled out and supported at a high level for students and academics (see for details on some of its innovative initiatives.)

Communities of practice are particularly helpful for PhD students working on interdisciplinary topics, who may otherwise feel “lost” within their department. The University of Edinburgh’s Global Health PhD network  is a CoP for PhD students across three colleges that attempts to meet this challenge. 

Know your students.

Perhaps the most important way to improve your effectiveness is the simplest and oldest, however—get to know your students as individuals, and respond to their specific needs. Doing this can mean being more proactive than you’re used to, asking incisive questions and being open to answers that may challenge your expectations as a supervisor. But the more engaged PhD students feel they are with their supervisor, the more likely they are to put in increased effort. Increased effort leads to improved achievement. It’s a virtuous circle that is well worth nurturing.

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