Starting out as a postgraduate researcher

Oxford defines four stages of the doctorate:

  • induction and the first term - see below
  • transfer of status (usually within 4 terms)
  • confirmation of status (usually within 6 or 7 terms, maximum 9 terms)
  • examination (within 9 terms, maximum 12 terms)

The University's Policy on Research Degrees underwent major revision in 2013. The Education Committee takes into account reports from examiners, feedback from students, the annual reports of Proctors, and comments from divisions, faculties and departments in reviewing policy from time to time. This Overview of University Policy summarises the points of the Policy which are most relevant at the getting started stage. See also, as set out in the Policy on Research Degrees, the different responsibilities of supervisors and students.

In addition to University guidelines and regulations, each Division provides:

  • A Brief Guide for research students
  • Codes of Practice for Supervisors
  • Statements of Provision for Research Students

The above Guides, Codes and Statements (as well as specific departmental guidance) should also be available from Divisional and departmental/faculty web sites and Directors of Graduate Studies.

The Graduate Supervision System sends termly emails reminding supervisors of the requirement to submit supervision reports which are then reviewed by the Director of Graduate Studies. Students are also strongly encouraged to take the opportunity to complete a parallel report assessing their own progress.

Related policies and legal obligations include:

Supervisors

Prior to student arrival

If you haven't thought about your own expectations of supervising then you might want to read this list of possible Supervisor expectations of DPhil supervision.

You may wish to review this First Meeting Checklist when you are deciding what to discuss with new students in first meetings.

In Experimental Psychology a form is used to record the Initial Primary Supervisor & Student Meeting. This ensures that supervisor and student reach agreement on matters which the department knows are important. Moreover, the form includes a copy of the Department's Statement of Provision and the Divisional Code of Practice, thus making certain that the student receives a copy of these documents at this early stage.

Strategies such as the following may be useful to prepare students before arrival:

  • Give students some directed reading before the students arrive, so that they are in a good position to begin discussing their research topic straight away.
  • Suggest to students that they review the divisional Brief Guide and departmental Statement of Provision in order to prepare to discuss them with you.

Regularly during the degree, starting with induction

Strategies such as the following may be useful to support induction and develop good working relationships. These strategies enable you to create a contrast between the necessary, formal focus on student progress, and ongoing informal interactions which occur frequently in the lab, at team meetings, or during seminars.

  • Discuss and identify the student's learning and skills training needs and sources, including development of broader personal and professional skills which will help the student to develop as a researcher.
  • Talk about the student's hoped-for career and consider how this might influence training needs.
  • Ask students to send you an email after each formal supervisory meeting. This email should briefly summarise what they perceive as the main outcomes of the meeting (see "Meeting minutes" below). Written records such as these are valuable not only to correct any miscommunication but also as a record of earlier review and discussion of student progress and development. This is particularly important if there is any disagreement down the line.
  • Tell students you intend to use completion of the termly supervision reports in GSS as an opportunity to revisit with them your mutual expectations of supervision, the effectiveness of current lines of communication and any impediments to the working relationships, and also to identify any anticipated learning needs.
  • Students might be invited to submit a termly self-assessment report at that time. This report could be included in the student section of the termly report if the student wishes.
  • Michaelmas term each year provides a good point at which to check with your Director of Graduate Studies as to whether there have been any significant changes to University and divisional requirements.

Students

As a student, in addition to any induction events, you may find the following useful as you start.

  • Consider your learning and skills training needs and possible sources. Consider also the development of broader personal and professional skills which will help you to develop as a researcher. Clarify, regularly discuss and revise the list of skills and training needs with your supervisor.
  • Discuss with your supervisor your thoughts about a career and consider how this might influence your training needs.
  • "Meeting minutes": As soon as possible after any formal supervision meeting with your supervisor, write a brief descriptive text that summarizes the direction of the discussion including what was clarified, ending with next tasks and timelines. Send this to your supervisor to verify that you have understood exactly what has been agreed. Writing these regularly provides you with a log of your progress.
  • There is advice for new graduate students from final year ones in I wish Id been told earlier. Useful hints and tips from those who can be expected to know what it's really like!
  • Read A guide to getting the most out of your time as a Research Student. This was written by Dr Martin Christlieb (now of the University's Department of Oncology) when he was a DPhil supervisor in the Chemistry Department. It is based on Dr Christlieb's investigative work amongst his own students in Chemistry.
  • The Apprise website offers resources to support students who are just starting out on a doctoral research programme.

Frequently mentioned in the literature is the problematic transition from being an undergraduate or postgraduate student on a taught programme to a doctoral candidate. Often the individual has been a 'star performer' and now takes on the new role of doctoral candidate as a novice researcher where most others are equally star performers. Another transition is moving to a learning context without the structure provided by courses/modules and frequent assessments.

Of course, many DPhil students may come with years of professional experience so are not dealing with a direct transition from undergraduate or taught master's. For them, the issue is often that of being treated like a student rather than a professional.

Still, whether students come directly from other education or from professional backgrounds, there is the expectation of growing independence over time in becoming an academic peer. This involves learning that constructive critique, even when 'negative', is a key feature of academic work which can be taken up positively given its potential to improve performance. Critical to all these transitions is developing a good working relationship with the supervisor, while dealing with the many personal changes occurring simultaneously, e.g., often a new institution, new culture and sometimes language, the absence of personal networks, etc.

The above text is based on:

Gardner, S. (2008) "What's too much and what's too little?" The process of becoming an independent researcher in doctoral education. Journal of Higher Education, 79(3), 326-350.

Hall, L., & Burns, L (2009) Identity development and mentoring in doctoral education. Harvard Educational Review, 79,1, 49-70.

Sambrook, S., Stewart, J., & Roberts, C. (2008) Doctoral supervision... a view from above, below and the middle!. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 32(1), 71-84.