Experienced supervisors

Expectations of supervisors at Oxford are changing in response to changing expectations of research degrees in the UK and Europe. For instance, each Division now has a Code of Practice for Supervisors and Template of Provision for Research Students, to supplement the University's Policy on Research Degrees.

The Codes and Templates address:

  • personal and professional skills training, including preparation for teaching and personal development planning for research students, and the role of supervisors in supporting this;
  • explicit requirements for frequency of supervisor-student meetings;
  • allowance for the possibility of joint supervision; and
  • mentoring requirements for new supervisors, with associated implications for more experienced supervisors.

The individual Statements of Provision should be available on faculty or departmental websites.

Continuing Education Code of Practice 

Humanities Code of Practice

Medical Sciences Code of Practice

Mathematical, Physical & Life Sciences  The MPLS Supervision webpage has a link to the Brief Guide and Code of Practice document

Social Sciences Social Sciences Code of Practice on Supervision

In addition, the expectation of termly reports on student progress is now reinforced through the online Graduate Supervision System. One outcome of this, perhaps by means of the automatic forwarding of flagged reports to Directors of Graduate Studies, should be more prompt attention to any difficulties that arise.

As an experienced supervisor you have developed your own style or stance, as this supervisor notes:

One of the first things I learned is that you need to get close but not too close. In the final analysis, there is an asymmetric relationship of power between the supervisor and the student… If you get too close … you can never discipline them … The second thing I learned … is…a sense of when not to intervene … The development process for the student has to be …struggle … There’s a temptation, or a tendency, for that PhD supervisor to pick the student up and carry him over the goal, and it’s a mistake. Students have to own their theses … sometimes the really best ideas come out of turmoil … So part of it is a judgement about knowing when to stand back and when to intervene. (Experienced supervisor, MPLS)

Questions to ask yourself as supervisor:

  • How has your role as a supervisor changed as you have become more experienced? See the Different support roles tool.
  • If you are PI of a research team and post-docs do much of the day-to-day supervision:
    • How frequently have you built in formal meetings between you and the students you supervise?
    • What structures have you put in place for you to mentor the post-doc in this new role?

If, as a more experienced supervisor, you find yourself acting more frequently as an examiner; see Writing the thesis for information on examining criteria, and Being an examiner for more specific information and advice.

The next comment relates to the fact that new supervisors can benefit from having an experienced co-supervisor:

So, [co-supervision] has just involved … having certain supervisions where we both sit in, me and the other academic, and in fact, in this case, it’s a more senior academic. So she tends to kind of chair those sessions, and it’s just a chance for me to kind of see exactly how she handles things and what she does and what she expects and how frequently she sees students, depending on different circumstances. But it’s also been nice because – in fact, the reason we have a co-supervisory arrangement is that part of the material is far outside my area and part of the material is far outside hers. So, there are certain supervisions we both have independently as well... But for me, as a junior, still fairly junior [academic], it’s just been seeing someone else operating who’s done this many times before... so that’s been really good (New supervisor, Social Sciences).

Oxford has a policy to support new supervisors by linking them with more experienced ones through either mentoring or co-supervision:

Questions to ask yourself as a co-supervisor:

  • To what extent are you aware are you aware of your responsibility concerning Co-supervision with a less experienced supervisor? e.g. up-to-date with current policies and procedures?
  • Are you aware of resources to which you can direct less experienced supervisors? For instance, institutional: Researcher Training (Oxford single sign-on login required) provides information and online self-study resources on specific skills (e.g. literature searching, questionnaire design, etc) as well as career development skills. It is worthwhile checking that you are aware of the range of options available here for students, supervisors and research staff alike.

Studies of experienced supervisors suggest that, regardless of discipline, they can and often do modulate their supervisor stance with different students in relation to the degree to which the student's work is common with theirs in terms of method and object of study.  As well, many experienced supervisors, particularly (although not only) those in the sciences, feel that as they progress in their career they grow away from the day-to-day research skills and abilities that they had at the bench as they take on a stronger research management role. Hence, they often take on a different role with their students. Rather than offering the coaching and 'hands-on' support they provided earlier in their career, they become more of a mentor and sponsor. However this may require them to find others who are able to assist in supporting new students and often this role is given to post docs.

In addition to mentoring their students, many experienced supervisors find themselves mentoring less experienced supervisors. Some universities, including Oxford, have policies that require staff new to supervision to be on a panel where they are mentored by a more experienced supervisor before they can be a sole or primary supervisor.

Experience as a supervisor tends to go hand-in-hand with experience as an examiner. In fact, many supervisors comment that they learn and develop each time they examine a thesis. Furthermore, each time they supervise a student through to completion they consider that they are in a better position to examine.

Changing expectations of research degrees have led to an increasing rate of change in institutional policies with regard to research degrees. Some universities (such as Cambridge) have introduced mandatory seminars for experienced supervisors every 3-5 years to update them on changing policies and procedures.

The above text was based on:

Franke, A. & Arvidsson, B. (2011) Research supervisors' different ways of experiencing supervision of doctoral students. Studies in Higher Education, 36(1), 7-19.

Mullins, G., & Kiley, M. (2002). 'It's a PhD, not a Nobel Prize': How experienced examiners assess research theses. Studies in Higher Education, 27(4), 369-386.

Pearson, M. & Kayrooz, C. (2004) Enabling Critical Reflection on Research Supervisory Practice. International Journal for Academic Development, 9(1), 99-116.