how can supervisors help doctoral students to complete on time?

Shane Dowle is a PhD researcher at Royal Holloway and Head of Studentships and Programmes within the University of Surrey’s Doctoral College. 

Taking on a new doctoral student is an exciting prospect for any academic. Three to four years of interesting research and a new intellectual partnership stretch out before you. Yet those years fly by. Before you know it, you are reviewing thesis chapters as the spectre of the final submission deadline looms over you and your student. You might find yourself wondering where all that time went and marvelling at how your student managed to squeeze in so many things – research, writing, teaching, training, a placement, conferences, outreach, the list goes on…

This raises an important question for supervisors: How can you help your doctoral students to make the most of their doctoral experience and still submit their thesis on time?This is a big question. I was so intrigued by it that I decided to embark on my own PhD adventure to find out more.  

Here is a glimpse at what the supervisors who participated in my study thought: 

Planning balance: Supervisors were increasingly aware of the range of opportunities available to doctoral students, which, for the most part, they regarded as value-adding and essential for their students’ future careers.  A common concern amongst supervisors was that their students might take on too many extra opportunities or take them on at the wrong time. This could jeopardise progress with the thesis and risk leaving students feeling frazzled. To help students find a good balance between the competing demands on their time, supervisors found it beneficial to take an active role in supporting their students to plan out their activities, helping them to make judicious choices. This involved active questioning: ‘Why do you think that you need to do that 10thtraining course on presentation skills? How would you feel about sharing your work at a conference this semester instead?’ This approach also helped supervisors ensure that their students were building in time to relax. Regular breaks were felt to be critical for enabling students to maintain a healthy work life balance. 

Regular contact: So much of the doctorate is contingent on the supervisor-student relationship. Supervisors reported how regular contact with their students was key for preventing research-related problems from festering and for keeping on top of what students are working on. Regular contact also helps to build the foundations for a productive working relationship. Investing the time to get to know your students, whilst respecting professional boundaries, creates an environment in which students feel empowered to talk about what’s on their mind. This can help you to diagnose research-related problems quickly and help your students to get the right support if they are experiencing personal difficulties. 

Reset the relationship with feedback: A common stumbling block for doctoral students is how to respond to your feedback on their work. Their previous degrees have taught them to gauge progress based on summative numbers and by comparing their grades to peers who are all working on the same assignment. This is no longer the case at doctoral level: the numbers have disappeared, and their peers are all working on different projects. So how can you help your students to develop a constructive relationship with feedback? One approach is to have open conversations about feedback. Through these conversations you can be explicit about your expectations, share how you have dealt with critical comments about your own work, and emphasise the reason for feedback: to help improve the work. These conversations can provide the foundations for a new relationship with feedback. 

Constructive questioning: A core skill that doctoral students need to develop is how to defend the decisions and approaches they have taken in their research – this is why the viva voce examination is sometimes known as the thesis defence. If your students are over-relying on you to provide the solutions, then alarm bells should be ringing. Instead, you can use questioning during supervisory meetings to get your students accustomed to justifying what they have done: ‘why do you think that method is suitable? How can you be confident about those knowledge claims?’ Of course, questioning should always be supportive and commensurate with the stage of your students’ research. Start gently in the early stages and build up to more rigorous questioning as your students grow in confidence and the viva approaches.

Write, write, write: Continuous writing throughout the doctorate is generally viewed as good practice but it is a difficult habit to ingrain, especially in disciplines where writing has traditionally been left until the end of the process. Across disciplines, the supervisors in my study advocated for a continuous writing approach because of its benefits: it provides a window onto how your students are thinking; it can facilitate early diagnosis of problems; it helps your student to think about the bigger picture in their research; it creates tangible evidence of progress; and it generates material that can be drawn on for publications along the way. 

You are not alone: Nowadays, universities tend to have much better organised support systems in place for supervisors. These include mentoring schemes, directors of graduate studies, doctoral colleges, and ample training opportunities. If you are experiencing an intractable problem with a research student, there are people around you who can help. Sometimes just having a conversation with somebody else can trigger an idea that unblocks things. If the problem is more serious, then these networks can link you up with people who can provide appropriate support. 

Of course, there is no magic bullet for a successful doctorate – every student and every project is different. Nevertheless, I hope that these insights from my research have given you a few ideas that you might consider using in your own supervisory practices. 

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