New supervisors

Until recently, doing a doctorate oneself was probably the only preparation which academics had before going on to be doctoral supervisors themselves. But things are beginning to change as this new Oxford supervisor points out.

At my previous university, I had absolutely no preparation... [so] I guess the informal preparation I've had for doctoral supervision was just observation of how I was supervised. Having been in research labs, as a post-doc and as a research fellow, for a number of years, just observation of how that relationship works in other cases, so just learning by observing (New supervisor, MPLS).

New research supervisors at Oxford generally report that they draw on their own experience of being supervised, and modify that in terms of how well they thought it worked. They also report learning from colleagues, e.g. by watching carefully what others do, participating in meetings in which student progress is discussed, or being involved in a viva. They conceive two goals in supervision:

  • Coaching the research project - an institutional responsibility
  • Mentoring/progressing the candidate, including sponsoring student participation in academic/professional practice

A concern commonly expressed by new supervisors is the feeling of responsibility for someone else's career as well as their own. This can be daunting as this new supervisor points out.

It's one thing to worry about our own work ..and to deal with those anxieties and try to produce the best possible, but it's a whole other thing when you're talking about someone else ..it's their career potentially ..on the line ..so a little frightening (New supervisor, Humanities).

But with growing experience, individuals develop a better understanding of their responsibilities and what they can do, or need to do, as these new supervisors note:

I think having at least two, or even three, different students to compare in order to see the extent to which issues that you might be having with the first one are actually specific to that person and issues that they brought, you know, from their previous background. So, my experience now is that ..some students are a lot easier than others [laughing], and that they're not all as tough as the first one has turned out to be, and there are, in hindsight, reasons why that first experience was tough, em, that I think I would be able to pick out a bit more easily now (New supervisor, Social Sciences).

With this particular student.. her progress was of concern to me... I now know to expect this, in a way. But, at that time [first starting supervising], I didn't. So you start up a project, very excited. You've got a student who's clearly very bright, has got a strong performance... And then, of course, to start with, nothing really happens, because you realise the level that they are when they start, with undergraduate skills, you know... and there's a huge, huge learning curve to go up... What I did was start to realise that probably.. in those early stages, you need to come up with very small, little manageable chunks. Actually, what I tend to do now is, in the first year ... I give them... what I call the sort of "get your feet wet" project so they've got some data, they've got to use the [technology] and have something that comes out of it that literally gives them something ..to talk about (New supervisor, MPLS).

As well, new supervisors are often not knowledgeable about institutional policies and practices, nor about the resources that are available. Below are some common questions related to policy, often asked by new supervisors. Click on the question to find the answer.

Frequently asked questions about supervision

According to the Divisional Codes, typical prerequisites for supervision include:

  • being a member of academic staff;
  • having sufficient security of tenure to make it likely that the supervisor will see the student's research through to successful conclusion;
  • having appropriate standing and expertise to be able to operate with credibility; and
  • having sufficient experience to be able to provide appropriate guidance to students about necessary procedures and, in particular, the academic expectations associated with an Oxford doctorate in the subject area.

It is the role of Divisional/ Departmental Graduate Studies Committees and/ or Directors of Graduate Studies to ensure that supervisors are appropriately qualified.

Co-supervision is one of the patterns used for the initiation of new supervisors at Oxford and some Codes of Practice (Medical Sciences, for example) recognise that mentoring and co-supervision provide mechanisms to assist inexperienced supervisors to become more expert; they spell out that those who have not supervised before should have either a co-supervisor or a supportive mentor. Mentoring gives the novice someone to whom they can go for advice or guidance (see Mentoring a new DPhil supervisor), whilst co-supervision can be structured to provide support for both the student and the new supervisor.

The codes also encourage new supervisors to take part in an appropriate induction programme about supervision. Divisional/ Departmental Graduate Studies Committees and/ or Directors of Graduate Studies can provide advice on training opportunities for supervisors.

The Learning Institute offers a seminar on Supervision as part of its programme for newly appointed academics at Oxford (Introduction to academic practice at Oxford). Also, some departments/ faculties request support from the Learning Institute to run their own, discipline specific, workshops. Further information on requesting Bespoke workshops is available.

In the first instance, when planning research leave or fieldwork, discuss the supervisory implications with the DGS. Arrangements may include one of the following:

  • You may continue to do supervision work whilst on leave
  • Another supervisor may be appointed during your absence
  • The co-supervisor may take the lead during your absence

Some students have reported not knowing in advance that their supervisor would be away for an extended period. It is essential for you to discuss this, and the arrangements you have made, with your students well in advance of your absence. If it is the case that students have reached an advanced stage, you may in fact want to consult with them prior to discussion with the DGS, as to their preference whilst you are away. If students themselves are away on fieldwork, ensure that you make them aware of your own proposed absence and of whom to contact for day-to-day or emergency needs.

There are policies pertinent to fieldwork that offer important guidance regarding safety, supervisors' responsibilities; there is also health and safety training.

In the first instance, talking with the DGS and colleagues is a good step. There are as well many institutional resources to draw on.

The Divisional Codes of Practice which supplement the Policy and Guidance on Research Degrees (developed by the Education Committee) will answer these questions. The answers may vary by division. For instance, in the Humanities, "the division has agreed that no individual carrying a normal administrative load and a normal burden of undergraduate and/ or postgraduate teaching for their faculty, should supervise more than six research students". Links to the divisional codes can be found in the next paragraph.

 

Each Division at Oxford has a Code of Practice for Supervisors, which supplements the Education Committee's institutional level Policy on Research Degrees and will answer the frequently asked questions listed above. Although there is some variation between divisional codes, each code emphasises the importance of appropriate support and training for new supervisors, including mentoring and co-supervision. These documents typically contain information on the responsibilities of supervisors and how to deal with problems that may arise. Supervisors will find them to be a useful ongoing resource to support their supervisory practice.

Continuing Education Code of Practice for Supervisors

Humanities Code of Practice for Supervisors

Medical Sciences Code of Practice for Supervisors

Mathematical, Physical & Life Sciences  A link to the Brief Guide and Code of Practice document, can be found on the MPLS Supervision webpage.

Social Sciences Social Sciences Code of Practice on Supervision

A brief outline of Oxford supervisory expectations is provided in the following extracts:

In beginning to think about the style or stance you want to take to supervision, it can be helpful to clarify your own views about the scope and boundaries of the supervisory role with this worksheet on  Supervisor expectations of DPhil supervision As well, the following two documents provide a way of thinking about supervisory behaviour and setting standards at the beginning of a supervisory relationship:

  1. A framework for looking at how you relate with your students
  2. A self-assessment tool

Other resources which could be useful for both students and supervisors include:

  • See The DPhil Process - An example from Oxford's Department of Plant Sciences of how the nature of a research student's work, the personal processes involved and supervision issues which arise can be expected to change over the lifetime of the doctoral career.
  • Hearing accounts of how other early career academics experience and approach taking on doctoral supervision can be helpful, especially in aiding understanding and development. Go to the website of Routledge (publisher) for "Becoming a successful early career researcher" and click on the Free Audio Files tab. Select Becoming a supervisor, parts (1) and (2).

One of the challenges of being a new supervisor is understanding departmental and faculty practices and expectations. Here, Carl raises a commonly-expressed issue.


Case Study: Carl

Expertise: what kind is needed?

Carl: This is another question I have ..I certainly hear of colleagues, not just here but elsewhere, who are supervising projects that they would be the first to admit they have little direct expertise in. I mean, obviously it's archaeology, but archaeology, like any field, is massive once you get into it. And, you know, to what extent is it responsible or not for me to do that? I mean, on one hand, you could say, to be collegial you need to take on a certain load just like everyone else, but on the other hand, to whom are you doing a favour if you claim to be able to supervise something where, you can [only] give them generic advice? ..I mean that's a hard one.

Questions to consider about the case study

Where do you stand on this issue? Where do your departmental colleagues stand? What do you understand about departmental expectations? How can you find out?


How much should you be spoon feeding? Should they be doing it themselves? Should I be in the library sussing out things? How much re-writing? Do you go through it with a toothcomb?...There are no guidelines at all. So I find it very problematic. How much to help the weaker ones, how much to try to keep up with the brighter ones? They are so different, they're not off the peg. (Social Science supervisor) (Delamont, Atkinson & Parry, 2000, p140)

Internationally, research on the experiences of new supervisors reports that:

  • New supervisors depend very much on their own experience of being supervised and their observation of other supervisory relationships;
  • The supervisory relationship is incredibly variable dependent on the past experiences and present expectations of those involved in each relationship;
  • Providing structure for the student is a critical form of support; 
  • Finding support and advice on supervision is not straightforward; and
  • Facing unexpected supervisory challenges and/ or a broader than anticipated range of student needs and expectations can facilitate the development of supervisory expertise.

What are common prerequisites for being a supervisor? In some countries, such as Australia, it is becoming increasingly common to have approval processes for supervisors and registers of academic staff who have been approved to supervise research students. However, it is more common to have no explicit or easily measurable prerequisites for becoming a supervisor.

Some universities require the supervisor her/himself to have a PhD; however, in some professional disciplines even this is not always a requirement. Some universities expect staff to have completed at least one successful supervision as a panel member before they undertake the role of a) sole supervisor or b) primary supervisor in a supervisory panel.

It is also becoming the norm for universities to offer preliminary 'training' opportunities for new supervisors. However, where such developmental opportunities exist, attendance and involvement are variable. Less commonly, training for new supervisors is mandatory, but this can create resentment and not the open attitude to learning about supervision that is desirable.

The above text was based on:

Amundsen, C and McAlpine, L. (2009) 'Learning supervision': trial by fire. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 46(3), 331-342.

Delamont, S., Atkinson, P. and Parry, O. (2000) The Doctoral Experience: success and failure in graduate school, London and New York: Falmer Press.

Delamont, S., Atkinson, P. and Parry, O. (2001) Supervising the PhD: A Guide to Success. Buckingham: SRHE and Open University Press.

Eley, A., Wellington, J., Pitts, S. and Biggs, C. (2012) Becoming a successful early career researcher. Abingdon: Routledge.

Lovitts, B.E. (2007) Making the Implicit Explicit: creating performance expectations for the dissertation. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

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

Turner, G. (2015) Learning to supervise: Four journeys. Innovations in Learning and Teaching International, 52(1), 86-98.