Supervising Research Degrees

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Seeking a single thread

  • This chapter focuses on how research works as a process of interpretive inquiry, arguing that it's necessarily an heuristic endeavor - we can't know the outcomes in advance.
  • interpretive inquiry - requires patience, waiting mind - chapter opens with a quote from Confucius - sets the tone.
  • discussion of framing the experience of Chinese students in particular - working at a UK institution - so focus is on the learning experiences of Chinese students - connects to student experience.

This chapter is focused on the learning experience of Chinese students at a UK institution. New emphasis on student experience - changing funding for institutions.

*Eley, A. & Murray, P. (2009). How to be an effective supervisor: Best practice in research student supervision. Maidenhead:Open University Press. (especially Chapters 1,2 and 4.)

Origins of the doctorate

  • origins = 19th century Germany - aim - to increase supply of scientists and other researchers by providing students with an opportunity to carry out a research project under experienced researcher
  • first US award - 1861 - bigger degree than the in UK - 1917 - more specialised

Criticisms of doctoral education and the drivers for change

  • Spending on PhDs - tough to rationalise - questions around 'fitness of purpose' - discussion around the function of education.
  • UK - greater emphasis on skills training
  • various other factors - Bologna Process

The response of the QAA to the changing nature of the doctorate

  • Code = consists of a comprehensive series of system-wide principles called precepts

How the precepts have been interpreted in this book

  • The book shows the benefits and advantages of the precepts, so as to encouarge best practice - while also acknowledging that institutions have some discernment in hwo they're applied.

Students' views and precepts into practice

  • each chapter includes two types of examples - one = students views; also there's Precept into Practice (PIP)

Why use the precepts in supervisor training and development?

  • prompts us to access a range of literature, include student and supervisor perspectives and open up key debates. Most importantly, the precepts provide a framework for supervisors to pull together current literature and policy, with personal values, beliefs and experiences and to put it all under scrutiny. Both knowledge and beliefs influence supervision practice (7)
  • discussion aims to provide an introduction to the field so that academics can access other kinds of literature after the course has ended.

Talking points and key texts

  • issues that have been contentious - among supervisors and others...
  • final element - key texts

List of precepts

  • Chapter examines how the institutional environment, in its broadest sense, can have a signficant impact on the quality of research degree programs.

Academic standards and quality

  • Precept 1: Institutions will put in place effective arrangements to maintain appropriate academic standards and enhance the quality of post-graduate research programs.
  • Programme Approval; Annual student evaluation of research degrees; Independent reviews of research supervision and support - lots of auditing!; student representation and feedback; Thematic reviews of sills training provision such as the research training program (RTP); quality enhancement (through checklist - for keeping track of a students various activities and the supervisors' responsibilities.)


  • Precept 2: Institutional regulations for postgraduate research degree programmes will be clear and readily available to students and staff. Where appropriate, regulations will be supplemented with similarly accessible, subject-specific guidance at the level of the faculty, school or department.
  • Precept 3: Institutions will develop, implement and keep under review a code of practice applicable across the institution, which include(s) the areas covered by this document. The code(s) should be readily available to all students and staff involved in postgraduate research programmes.

Personal and Professional Development plan.

  • Many PRPs require that students have opportunities to keep records of personal progress that relates to the development of core skills. (?) Three aspects are identified - (1) Developmental - focus on student reflection and review, skills development, supporting continuing professional development. (2) Institutional: the need to comply with policy requirements, a framework for checking progress and storing records; (3) Aspirational - the desire to provide distinctive provision, to develop a community of practice within and beyond the PhD - promote cultural change.
  • Cataloging key learning experiences and reflecting on them = basis for any PPDP.
  • Precept 4: Institutions will monitor the success of their postgraduate research programs against appropriate internal and external indicators and targets.

General comments:

  • Emphasis on PTP
  • Reference to Roberts (2002) report, SET for Success
  • Training - at the heart of the university's research culture
  • Question raised in the talking point - can we over-review our research degree programs?

CHAPTER 4: NOTES - Supervision Arrangements

  • focus on good practice and resolving issues
  • thinking about supervision as a role that's played
  • striking a balance between freedom and neglect = difficult task for a supervisor.
  • chapter looks at the skills and knowledge that supervisors require, describes the potential roles that they pay and considers institutional structures that supprt them. Throughout this change, student's views, drawn from interviews and focus groups in a number of higher education cultures, emphasize the importance of expectation setting and adjustment.

Supervisors' Skills and Knowledge: Precept 11: Institutions will appoint supervisors who have appropriate skills and subject knowledge to support, encourage and monitor research students effectively.

  • mentoring - works both ways - new supervisors benefit from knowledge of experienced ones; experience supervisors benefit from the energy and cutting-edge subject knowledge of more recent ones.
  • at least one supervisor needs to be 'research active' - whatever that is taken to mean in the local context.

Supervisor Training

  • See text box. It includes potential components for a supervisor development programme - not the combaination of knowledge type - procedural information and 'human factors' involved in individual cases. Also, identifies what a new supervisor will need to put together - kit
  • Supervisor's conceptions of supervision are sure to impact their practice. Central = to develop core mechanisms for surfacing bias is key...thinking about different learning behaviours...
  • Characteristics of effective research: expectation setting, being flexible,
  • Learning on the job - reflective practice - however, this can be an unreliable model for learning a complex task. So moving between theory and practice.
  • Strategies for assessing supervision: (1) observe students reactions - to discussion, etc.; feedback from students via forms/annonymised; missing milestones; peer observation; completion rates, publications, outputs, can be seen as indicators of supervision effectiveness.

Precept 12: Each research student will have a minimum of one main supervisor. He or she may be part of a team. There must be a clear point of contact for the student.

  • Simply communicating information is insufficient.
  • Lead supervisor - ultimately responsible but provision needs to be made for changing life circumstances.
  • Supervision tasks: student recruitment, applying academic standards, assessing students, taking account of resources (including time, space and financial support) for students, directing, tutoring, providing pastoral care, setting boundaries, developing research (including helping students with networking), developing and maintaining a research networking and publishing. Spread admin and teaching. Not everyone agrees with all the roles that supervisors should play = makes it all the more important to discuss them.

Institutional structures - need to familiarize self with codes - good practices - quote the UAL's guidelines - guide for managing the research project. Meanings change over the course of supervision - example: regular contact means something different in the first years than it does at the end.

  • Thinking about the combination of quantity and quality of contact with students. Combination of informal and formal - range - also anticipates what happens in culture more generally.
  • Supervisors need to define their own practice but also discuss it with students - forging an identity.
  • Making things conscious - alignment.

Precept 14: Institutions will ensure that the quality of supervision is not put at risk as a result of an excessive volume and range of responsibilities assigned to individual supervisors.

  • My issue with this precept is that it doesn't actually work well in practice. Often institutions trade of the relationships, assuming that supervisors will pick up the slack for their students.
  • The key form of support is providing time - supervisors and students should agree on the level of interaction - quality and quantity

*Book places strong emphasis on discussion.

  • Observe how students respond.

Talking Points

  • Misunderstandings can lead to hostility and suspicion - alignment = important - balance between freedom and neglect.
  • Good personal relationship - matter of choice but depends what's most productive.
  • Five aspects are key to an effective relationship - move behind the functional one identified in much of the literature - so a productive conceptual framework includes: enculturation; critical thinking; emancipation; good relationship (with the research) - excited, enthused, etc. Learning to 'read' students is a skill.
  • The chapter outlines the essential issues to be taken into account in developing supervisory arrangements.

Fry, H., Ketteridge, S., & Marshall, S. (2009) A handbook for teaching and learning in higher education: enhancing academic practice. London: Routledge.

More descriptive and procedural than discursive, this chapter in the anthology provides an overview of the supervision process, stretching from intake to completion. It proceeds from two premises. First, that supervision is a specialist form of teaching that is underpinned by good teaching more generally but also goes beyond it. This 'extra' aspect connects to the idea of supervisors disseminate specialist knowledge while at the same time modeling/enabling professional practice. For example, reference is made to supervisors being responsible for assisting students in finding employment. Less, however, is said about the importance of how they model supervisory practices that their supervisees might adopt and use in turn.
The second premise organising this overview concerns the supervisor-supervisee relationship. Discussion tends to emphasise establishing clear expectations in advance to establish productive expectations and normalise ways of working together as a team. An obvious limitation of this text is that it does not consider the importance of how the first and second supervisors interrelate and how this might impact the supervisee. Similarly, although it does tap into the importance of research institutions cultivating a 'culture of completion,' more discussion on impact of research cultures more generally on the supervisor-supervisee relationship would be useful. How, for instance, supervisors might position themselves in relation to certain trending in research culture, such dissatisfaction amongst a cohort about changes in something... Differently put, there's too much emphasis on the student-supervisor relationship in isolation - it needs to be more situated within a context... Something about it begin useful because it identifies various resources.

NB: use the prompt as a basis for the reflective aspect of your assignment. CHAPTER NOTES:
Supervising research students

  • Chapter is based on two premises: First - research supervision is a is a specialist form of teaching. In some disciplines this has always been thought to be the case, but for others, research has been considered very much as part of the research side of the business. The thrust - supervision is underpinned by good teaching but also goes beyond it. It's an intensive form of teaching - much broader than just info transfer. Professional commitment.
  • The Chapter also emphasizes the relationship between the student and supervisors. Emphasis on student experience - many problems result from failing to set up reasonable expectations on both sides.

Codes of Practice:

  • increased regulation
  • see the QAA's Code - 27 precepts covering all aspects of the students' experience
  • Question: How does what's in this chapter compare and contrast with the UAL's code of practice?
  • So it's really about integrating personal perspectives, institutional requirements, industry requirements

Research Degrees in the UK:

  • emphasis on time - completing on time.

Growing numbers of doctoral students

  • many from China

Graduate schools and Research Development Programme:

  • responsible for managing resources for research students; assuring quality of the student learning experience; delivering elements of skills training which form part of the research degree.
  • enhance social cohesion and encourage students to be feel valued and vital as part of the research community
  • emphasis on skill development and integrating this into pro development

Postgraduate Research Experience Survey:

  • students regularly identify the level and quality of their supervision as the most important factor in the successful completion of their research degrees.

Forming the student-supervisor relationship

  • Especially challenging aspect - determining whether or not student/supervisor is a good fit...

Interrogating Practice: Reflect on your own experience of a being supervised for a research degree. How would you rate the experience? What aspects of that supervision would you like to important into your own practice and what aspects would you like to reject?

  • There's good list on p. 174 that outlines the responsibilities of the primary supervisor.
  • Agreeing supervisory guidelines, frequency of meetings
  • Logs - students should be encouraged to recorder their meetings and then supervisors sign off on these records. Interestingly, this aims to promote the student taking a greater interest in their work. There's something improtant here about collaboratively authoring an account of practice (?) Is there a different way to think about this that's more genernative?
  • No discussion about how supervisors should interrelate
  • Emphasis on empathy - effective listening
  • See Sir Roberts' SET for Success - extended length of degree/more money for stipends - more skills-based stuff
  • The importance of early warnings...
  • A culture of completion

Return to Post-doc * Main Page

Reading List:

  • Eley, A. & Murray, P. (2009). How to be an effective supervisor: Best practice in research student supervision. Maidenhead:Open University Press. (especially Chapters 1,2 and 4.)

Chapter 1: Introduction: 1-8
Chapter 2: Institutional Environment: 11-26

Chapter 4: Supervision Arrangements: 48-67