Dr Janet Carton, Head of Graduate Studies and Research Strategy, University College Dublin
23 Ways to Build and Maintain Professional and Fruitful Relationships with your Research Student and Supervisor
Building professional relationships in research supervision applies the same principles as building relationships in any area of professional and even personal life. A key consideration is that if the relationship has good foundations, a research student and supervisor relationship starts out as a commitment for the duration of the study, but can ultimately continue for a professional lifetime when the student graduates with their doctorate or similar higher degree.
Today, we are proposing 23 tenets or principles around building a professional relationship with your research supervisor or your research student, which will hopefully stand the test of time.
No. 1 Relationships are a two-way street
It is the responsibility of both the student and the supervisor to work at and contribute to a professional relationship. This relationship requires some clarification, negotiation, respect and trust on both sides to flourish. Many universities now have supervisory teams that can support and encourage the relationship between the student and primary supervisor, thus reducing dependency on the apprenticeship model. Supervisors and students should leverage this support.
No. 2 Clarification - research norms & expectations
Most students will only undertake a PhD once! So when they start one, they have no learned experience of what is involved. That is why they have supervisors, to guide on disciplinary norms, methodologies, institutional requirements and fundamentally, the road map to become an independent researcher. As a student, you can request a meeting with your supervisor to clarify your expectations of the doctoral degree and also, your supervisor or supervisors’ expectations of you as a research student. Clarifying expectations leads to a clearer understanding of the parameters of the research project and of working expectations and norms, thus ensuring both parties are ‘on the same page’.
No.3 Discuss working habits
Supervisors and students have to be able to work together as well as with peers, co-supervisors and the broader team. Supervisors can raise the topic of working norms with their research students, so that each party knows what to expect from the other. If a supervisor likes to meet face to face for an hour every fortnight, with email communication as needed in the intervening period, but no contact if possible at weekends, then a student should know that this is their preferred method of working. This should be a two-way conversation, working out what works well for all involved.
No. 4 Consider and improve upon communication skills
Each supervisor and student relationship is unique, with differing personalities, motivations, interests, stressors and responsibilities. As with any relationship, communication is key and learning the ‘language’ of your student and supervisor is hugely beneficial. Communication should be clear, relevant and timely for both parties. This article on the seven Cs of communication might give you some good ideas.
No. 5 Get connected
Research can be isolating at times for both students and supervisors. Students should be proactive in reaching out to peers in the research group, school, college, postgraduate committee or society, even if students are not in the same disciplinary area. These connections will help students to gain perspective on their experience of their research degree and act as a sounding board when needed, also helping students to feel that their interests are being represented and their voice heard. Supervisors should do the same with experienced colleagues who can mentor them, offering advice in challenging situations.
No. 6 Respect
Supervisors and students often come from different academic cultures and the cultural norms for maintaining a professional relationship may need to be explored by both student and supervisor. Irrespective of nationality, gender, age, creed etc. the fundamental touchstone for all relationships is respect. Students should respect the experience of the supervisor that they have chosen to do their research with and supervisors should respect the individuality and needs of the research student over the course of their research programme.
No.7 Research Integrity
The principles of research ethics and integrity are at the core of any research activity. HEA Ireland and All European Academies, among other institutions, have detailed policies on these aspects. Those engaged with research, including all researchers, students, technical, administrative and research support staff should
- maintain the highest standards of rigour and integrity in all aspects of research; and
- ensure that research is conducted according to appropriate ethical, legal and professional obligations and standards.
No.8 Seek opinion
Research is not a static endeavour, there is no point where everything is known and completely understood and both supervisor and student should view the journey as a learning experience. Students will become more knowledgeable as they become autonomous and supervisors will always have more experienced colleagues to learn from. This is what academia is all about. There is always room for seeking opinion and clarification from others.
No. 9 Check-in regularly
It is important to keep in regular contact with your supervisor or student. Regular check-ins keep all parties ‘in the loop’ and can help avoid misunderstandings which can escalate if unresolved. Check ins can simply be an email or brief conversation, but should not replace the supervisory meetings; they should complement them.
No.10 Be friendly, but not necessarily friends
The relationship between a research student and their supervisor is a professional relationship. Absolutely, be friendly and supportive, but becoming friends can compromise the ability of the supervisor to advise on progression matters and to remain impartial. This can have an impact on the student if they believe that the friendship boundaries have been crossed. While the supervisor/doctoral student relationship is different from other teacher-student relationships, in that it is less hierarchical than a lecturer and an undergraduate student, The balance of power in the relationship remains an unequal one by its nature and measures should be observed to keep the processes involved in supervising fair and transparent. This can become challenging if professional friendship lines are crossed. When the doctorate is finished, there is more scope for a friendship to develop, often lasting a lifetime.
No.11 Know what supports are available to you
Research has its ups and downs, peaks and troughs, good and hard times. As a supervisor, you should make yourself aware of the support available within the university that can help your student navigate challenging times. As a supervisor, you are not expected to act as mental healthcare professionals for example, but you should be able to recognize signs and signpost your students accordingly. Many universities have counselling services, student advisers, career guidance professionals, student unions etc., which can be called upon for support as needed. Many universities also offer supports for supervisory staff, with respect to mental health and wellbeing and training opportunities for professional development.
No.12 Nurture independence
Supervisors often struggle with supporting their research students to become more independent. In many situations this process will happen organically as students gain confidence and increase their expertise in the area. To encourage this process, supervisors can ask students to present at conferences, school seminars, teach on modules, join committees, mentor junior students etc. Over time, these activities will support the student’s independence and confidence in being and thinking of themselves as an independent researcher.
No.13 Responding to feedback
Feedback, has been highlighted by research students, as having a serious impact on student experience and success. Why? Because students need timely, clear, relevant and constructive feedback on work submitted and supervisors have a duty to meet these expectations. When doctoral students engage in the process of sharing their work with supervisors and receiving feedback about this work, it can be a shock for some students that this process is ongoing: that is, one chapter of a thesis may go through the submission-feedback-resubmission process a number of times before both the supervisor and student are happy with the final version of the chapter. This is a natural process in the postgraduate research student’s experience. A conversation about how and when feedback will be given goes a long way to dispel concerns students may have.
No.14 Be empathetic
Students as well as supervisors should be empathetic towards each other. A research student has never undertaken a PhD before and faces the inherent challenges with fresh eyes. Their supervisor should keep this in mind and students must remember that research supervision is only one part of the role their supervisor has within the university, often making up a small proportion of their daily tasks and duties. Supervisors and students are also humans, with personal and private lives that can impact at times on the time available for their professional roles.
No.15 Be clear on availability
Back to clarifying expectations… a supervisor should be clear on when they will be available to the student. Some supervisors operate an open-door policy, some have times like a clinic, where students are invited to make appointments, while others are driven by schedules for regular meetings. Whatever the preferred method of meeting up, dedicated time for official supervisory meetings should be made available for the student and the student should be aware of how this schedule or approach to meetings and availability will operate.
No. 16 Keep a folder – key policies and procedures
Every university has academic rules and regulations and often these are less daunting then people perceive them to be. It is helpful for students and supervisors to take a look at the university policies (often housed in repositories on the website) and extract those that are relevant to the governance of their programme of research. What becomes apparent in difficult situations is that these regulations, if applied, safeguard both students and supervisors and it is the duty of both to have an understanding of those that refer to them.
No. 17 Be proactive
Being proactive does not come naturally to all people, perhaps because of cultural norms or personality, but it is an important trait for those who desire a career in research. An important ingredient in success is the considered use of time and research students, if struggling, should not delay on engaging with their supervisor and flagging issues. Supervisors should also adopt a proactive approach if they see a student’s work or wellbeing is becoming derailed. They are not expected to solve all of these matters, but supervisors should be aware of available support that that their student can engage with. Proactivity around difficult conversations relating to progress or suitability of fit with a research programme is also a supervisor’s responsibility and not to be shied away from.
No.18 Have awareness of changing needs
As students progress through their research degree, their academic needs and therefore support required will change. It is important that research supervisors are aware that supervisory styles need to be adapted over time and be in keeping with the student’s stage, therefore responding to their student’s changing needs appropriately. Students should also feel empowered to highlight changing needs as they progress into their research journey.
No.19 Supporting students’ skills development
A student who successful completes a doctorate is rich in a plethora of skills relevant to many career options. In Europe, at present, over 90% of doctoral students do not stay in academia. A supervisor is not expected to be a career consultant, but they do have a role in outlining the pros and cons of a career in academia and also assisting the student (with support form the university careers unit) to identify discipline specific and transferable skills gaps that may need to be addressed. It is also the student’s responsibility to get help in identifying and acquired skills that arise out of undertaking a PhD.
No. 20 Don’t shy away from hard conversations
A PhD is not for everyone and that is more than OK. The hard conversations often relate to students not being suitable for a PhD programme and supervisors shying away from this discussion. A supervisor is there to supervise a student’s progress and if they identify challenges, they have a responsibility to raise these with their student in a timely and considered manner. Many research students are now supervised by teams and have distinct progression stages as part of the doctoral programme. The supervisor can access the expertise of their co-supervisor(s) in this regard if needed as well as utilising the universities ‘check points’ around monitoring progress.
No. 21 If things go wrong
If things go wrong within the professional relationship between supervisor and student, the first step is to act quickly and identify the specific issue and discuss this with the relevant party (supervisor or student). If a resolution is not met at this stage, a third party can be brought in to mediate. If a satisfactory resolution cannot be found at this point, the Head of School or Director may need to be informed. The goal when things go wrong is to act quickly and locally. There is a limited timeframe for a satisfactory resolution for both parties or a win-win outcome, and it is in everyone’s interest to find an agreeable solution. An understanding of the university’s policies and procedures is crucial in this context.
No. 22 Discuss roles with co-supervisors
As research students move through their research programme, their needs will change and the supports they require will follow suit. An alignment between supervisory styles and candidate needs is therefore a must at key stages in the doctoral programme. As the main supervisor, it is your responsibility to ensure that all co-supervisors discuss the ‘operational aspects’ of the supervision, who is going to do what. This will make your job of supervision easier and also make sure the student has clarity about roles.
No. 23 Interrogating and reflecting upon your own practice
To improve and evolve your own practice in supervision, you need to interrogate it, reflect on it and improve on it where needed. Professional development is key in evolving as an excellent research supervisor and many universities offer supports in the professional development space. The simple questions of what worked, what didn’t work, why this happened and what can I do in the future to address this are key.
Everyone's supervision experience is different. Why not discuss your own arrangements with your pod, whether as a supervisor or a supervisee. Any success stories? How do institutions differ?