Supervising a PhD student is a rewarding role which can benefit both the supervisor and the candidate. It can kickstart a candidate’s research career, whilst providing professional development for the supervisor. To celebrate our newly updated course Supervising Doctoral Studies, we asked our programme’s Lead Advisors Professor Stan Taylor and Professor Douglas Halliday a few questions surrounding the implementation of effective supervisions.
Professor Stan Taylor is Honorary Professor of the School of Education at Durham University.
Professor Douglas Halliday is the current Director of the Multidisciplinary Centre for Doctoral Training in Energy at Durham University.
Q1: Why do you think it is important to support the development of doctoral supervisors?
Professor Stan Taylor: “The doctorate is the highest degree awarded by universities, but in order to undertake their studies, doctoral candidates need to be supervised by experienced researchers. The quality of such supervision is a major factor in determining the nature of the candidate’s experience and likelihood of successful and timely completion. For these reasons, it is vital that institutions, graduate schools, departments, and research groups support supervisors effectively through developing their professionalism in performing their supervisory roles.”
Professor Douglas Halliday: “Doctoral supervisors play a critical role in helping new candidates develop research skills, formulate a coherent research project, and begin a journey as a researcher. All this must be supported in an increasingly complex research landscape with extra requirements (e.g. from funding agencies). Doctoral supervisors act as role models for doctoral candidates; professional development of supervisors ensures they are effectively supported and equipped to undertake this complex and demanding role.”
Q2: How can supervisors best equip students to handle unexpected and emerging challenges in the field?
Professor Stan Taylor: “New doctoral candidates often think that the way in which research is undertaken is the same as the way that it is written up – a linear process. But research is rarely so straightforward! Candidates need to be prepared for the slings and arrows of life as researchers by inducting them into how research is really done, behind the publication. One good way of doing this is to keep all of the evidence relating to one example of your own research, from the initial back of an envelope note through drafts of papers through submissions to journals through peer feedback and so to the published paper. Let candidates browse through and see that ‘real’ research is, or can be, ‘messy’.”
Professor Douglas Halliday: “Unexpected challenges are a feature of all research projects. PhD candidates need support, encouragement, and an opportunity to discuss and test ideas and options with their supervisors. This is best achieved through regular open dialogue and discussion to empower candidates to draw on supervisors’ experiences to adapt their projects as necessary.”
Q3: Why is formal training for staff so important for effective PhD supervisions?
Professor Stan Taylor: “Historically, it was believed that being an experienced researcher was all that was needed to be able to supervise doctoral students. But, if that was ever true, it is certainly not today in the face of recent major changes in doctoral education, which have transformed the roles of supervisors. Because their roles are now so complex and multi-faceted, formal professional development is needed in order to be able to perform them effectively and so to offer their candidates a high-quality learning experience and maximise their chances of success.”
Professor Douglas Halliday: “The doctoral education landscape has changed with greater diversity of candidates, additional requirements from external stakeholders, and new models of training such as Doctoral Training Centres. Effective supervisors need to be aware of this changing context, the increased emphasis on candidate wellbeing, and the importance of a positive research culture to enable a positive environment in which to support candidate progress. Formal training and professional development for doctoral supervisors is a positive indicator of a high-quality doctoral environment, and institutional reputation.”
Q4: How has the effect of COVID-19 changed the way we operate research projects in institutions?
Professor Stan Taylor: “For many years, the technology has been available to enable supervisors to communicate remotely with their candidates and to undertake oral examinations. However, progress in the use of this technology was very slow, reflecting the resistance of institutions. But the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic swept away that resistance as institutions and supervisors had no alternative but to try and come to grips with the technology quickly in order to enable candidates to continue with their studies and, at the end, to graduate. While the pandemic itself is under control in most countries, evidence suggests that institutions and supervisors have retained online communication and examination to a greater or lesser degree, and these are likely to become permanent features of the doctoral education landscape.”
Professor Douglas Halliday: “New tools have enabled greater use of online and remote support for doctoral candidates, enabling continued contact in a wider variety of circumstances. Doctoral projects had to adapt during the recent COVID-19 pandemic demonstrating that flexibility and changing of project aims part way through can still result in successful outcomes. Doctoral outcomes are rooted in original high-quality research which has still been possible with the restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. An ability to adapt and be flexible should be seen as evidence of a positive contribution to doctoral outcomes.”
Q5: Finally, what would be your top tip for first time doctoral supervisors?
Professor Stan Taylor: “Don’t rely on your own experiences as a doctoral candidate to determine how you go about supervising others; your experiences, good or bad, will be unique, and may have little relevance to the doctoral candidates that you yourself are supervising. Instead, consider supervision as a set of complex roles which you need to learn, often quickly, and get as much help as you can from taking advantage of formal opportunities to develop and enhance your practice and of informal ones such as conversations with experienced supervisors. Remember that, once you do grasp the essentials of the role, effectively supporting a candidate to become an independent researcher in their own right is one of the most rewarding parts of academic practice.”
Professor Douglas Halliday: “Take time to get to know the candidate as a person and develop a positive relationship with them from the beginning. This will help build confidence in the candidate who will feel more able to seek assistance at an early stage when challenges come!”
Our updated online interactive course Supervising Doctoral Studies offers training on how to effectively supervise and support doctoral candidates. This programme can be implemented alongside university initiatives, allowing busy supervisors and candidates to navigate and excel in their research careers.